Club-by-club guide to the new Aviva Premiership season

Will it be Sarries or Saints, the Tigers or Bath who win the title...and can Exeter stay up? Chris Hewett looks at the tea leaves
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Bath

Head coach: Steve Meehan.

Captain: Luke Watson.

In the weeks and months since they last lost a match at the Recreation Ground – way back in late January, to Ulster in the Heineken Cup – the party boys of the Premiership have had themselves a proper knees-up on the recruitment front, attracting a new owner wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice (Bruce Craig), a performance director revered in every far-flung corner of the union landscape (Ian McGeechan) and the England captain (Lewis Moody). Short of sticking the title itself in their shopping basket, they could hardly have done much more.

Yet despite this breathless activity and the positive vibes circulating around the gloriously ramshackled Rec, where Bath will continue to play until the fate of the single most fought-over piece of sporting land in Britain is finally decided some time over the next decade or five, questions remain. Two of their three or four most effective players, the wing Joe Maddock and the flanker Julian Salvi, have disappeared overseas – how they will miss them – while several of their tight forwards left their brilliant futures behind them long ago. They will score freely on a good day, but the realist must factor some bad days into the equation.

Warm welcomes Mark McMillan (Glasgow), Lewis Moody (Leicester), Simon Taylor (Stade Français), Sam Vesty (Leicester).

Fond farewells Ryan Davis (Exeter), Nicky Little (Bristol), Joe Maddock (Treviso), Julian Salvi (ACT Brumbies).

The tea leaves say Time stands still. Fourth again.

Key player Sam Vesty (utility back): A vital signing, especially with Butch James in Springbok mode.

Title odds 9-2. Last season Fourth.

Exeter

Head coach Rob Baxter.

Captain Richard Baxter.

This could go one of two ways, the better of them ending in 11th place. The first Premiership campaign to be conducted by a side from the far South-west of the country – an untapped area, rich in the natural resources of the union code – will be a difficult one from start to finish. Indeed, their trials and tribulations will emphasise the rank stupidity of a second-tier Championship programme that makes a club wait until the last weekend in May before having promotion confirmed, making recruitment well nigh impossible.

Exeter have found ways of strengthening their squad – a Super 14 import here, a Premiership castaway there, a rugby drifter of questionable integrity (Andrew Higgins, who "retired" after the 2009 drug-test scandal at Bath) somewhere else – but the grand total of three international players tells a tale. Everyone else is in double figures, with the single exception of Newcastle, and it is Newcastle whom they must emulate by making their home ground as inhospitable as humanly possible. Some sides will not relish visiting Sandy Park on a wet day, with an antediluvian pack and the hot-shot kicker Gareth Steenson laying in wait. But will there be enough of them?

Warm welcomes Luke Arscott (Bristol), Andrew Higgins (unattached), Junior Poluleuligaga (Waikato Chiefs), Jason Shoemark (Otago Highlanders).

Fond farewells Matt Cornwell (Northampton), Shane Kingsland (Manawatu), Saul Nelson (London Welsh), Clive Stuart-Smith (Esher).

The tea leaves say Hello and goodbye, sadly.

Key player James Scaysbrook (flanker): A hardened Premiership forward who must set the right tone.

Odds 500-1. Last season Promoted.

Gloucester

Head coach Bryan Redpath.

Captain Mike Tindall.

For one thing, failure to make the cut for this season's Heineken Cup means the Cherry and Whites will not wear themselves out fighting a multifront campaign. For another, they are far better equipped actually to do some fighting than they were this time last year. Why? Because the rapid progress made by two forwards in particular – the prop Paul Doran-Jones and the lock Dave Attwood – means they finally have a tight unit worthy of the name: a unit that Phil Blakeway, John Fidler and the hard heads of old might consider at least half-decent.

Pretty much everything else, from a well-balanced loose combination to a back division bristling with attacking intent, has been in place for a while: last season, Gloucester scored more tries than anyone but Bath. But they found themselves under heaps of pressure defensively, a sure sign of things going wrong at the sharp end, and looked unnervingly fragile whenever the chips were down. Fragility should not be an issue this time, especially if forwards as dynamic as Luke Narraway and Akapusi Qera rediscover the best of themselves. Outside the scrum, expect the 21-year-old Freddie Burns to trip the light fantastic.

Warm welcomes Matt Cox (Worcester), Brett Deacon (Leicester), Jim Hamilton (Edinburgh), Shaun Knight (academy).

Fond farewells: Marco Bortolami (Aironi), Gareth Delve (Melbourne Rebels), Adam Eustace (Northampton), Greg Somerville (Melbourne Rebels).

The tea leaves say: More threatening. Fifth.

Key player Paul Doran-Jones (prop): Improved tight head who can stamp some authority up front.

Odds 14-1. Last season Seventh.

Harlequins

Director of rugby Conor O'Shea.

Captain Chris Robshaw.

Anonymity was the Londoners' friend last season: having finished the previous campaign soaked in fake blood like a ragtag troupe of amateur Macbeths – "Is this a capsule I see before me?" – they needed a spell in the shadows to rid themselves of the stain. The concern is that they will be equally nondescript this time round, having lost two of their more exciting backs – David Strettle, Gonzalo Tiesi – and failed to land themselves the big hitter they need up front. Joe Marler is quite a prospect at prop, but when all is said and done, 21-year-old front-rowers are the equivalent of 16-year-old drinkers. That is to say, under-age.

Like Gloucester, they do not have to balance the demands of the Premiership against those of the Heineken Cup; unlike Gloucester, they show few obvious signs of improvement. Ollie Smith, considered good enough for a Lions tour five years ago, is back in the English game after a lengthy sojourn in France and should go some way towards filling the hole left by Tiesi, who has moved in the opposite direction, and it may be that Jordan Turner-Hall and George Lowe will prosper either side of him. The question is: will anyone notice?

Warm welcomes Maurie Fa'asavalu (St Helens RL), Joe Gray (Northampton), Ollie Smith (Montpellier), Benjamin Urdapilleta (Pampas).

Fond farewells Jim Evans (retired), Tani Fuga (retired), Steve So'oialo (retired), Gonzalo Tiesi (Stade Français).

The tea leaves say Maybe ninth, maybe 10th.

Key player Will Skinner (flanker): No longer captain, but still the heartbeat of the team.

Odds 33-1. Last season Eighth.

Leeds

Director of rugby Andy Key.

Captain Marco Wentzel.

Half a million quid still goes a long way in rugby, and now that the Yorkshiremen have played their way on to a level field in terms of Premiership funding – the divvying up of finances makes hedge-fund leveraging instrumentation seem childishly transparent, so don't ask – they are finally in a position to build. The extra cash has enabled them to sign Steve Thompson, the World Cup-winning hooker, and explains the continued presence at Headingley of sought-after forwards like Hendre Fourie and Kearnan Myall. Yes, they lost Calum Clark to Northampton, and it hurt. There again, Jacob Rowan is said to be the dog's unmentionables when it comes to brilliant young back-row talent.

The thing is, Leeds have a sense of mission and an intensity of spirit about them. They scored fewer tries than any of their rivals last season, and conceded more than anyone bar Sale, yet they found a way of staying up. It spoke volumes both for Andy Key's intelligent stewardship of a club always fighting an unequal local battle with football and rugby league and for the standards set by Neil Back on the training pitch. They remain a bottom-half team, but top of the bottom looks about right.

Warm welcomes Sean Hohneck (Viadana), Lachlan MacKay (Brive), Michael Stephenson (Bath), Steve Thompson (Brive).

Fond farewells Andy Gomarsall (retired), Erik Lund (Biarritz), Henry Paul (Rotherham), Seru Rabeni (La Rochelle).

The tea leaves say Onwards and upwards. Eighth.

Key player Steve Thompson (hooker): The World Cup winner has been recruited to drive up standards.

Odds 125-1. Last season 10th.

Leicester

Director of rugby Richard Cockerill.

Captain Geordan Murphy.

A funny lot: so funny that they can be seen laughing all the way to Twickenham at the end of every season. Not since 2004 has the Premiership final been Leicester-free, and there is no reason to think they will not be present when the medals are distributed this time. Things go wrong at Welford Road, just as they do everywhere else: good players suffer long-term injuries, popular players move on, outstanding players retire too early, the board throws its weight around, the paying public grow restless at the drop of a hat. Yet it always comes right in the end, and with the new England fixtures Dan Cole and Ben Youngs performing with increasing authority, why should it change now?

Unlike the Baths and the Gloucesters, who also have the advantage of mass support from long-established rugby communities, the Midlanders are devilishly difficult to beat on the big occasion. Indeed, the bigger the occasion, the more bloody-minded they become. They win the vast majority of their forward battles at Premiership level, and as a consequence, they tend to prevail on the scoreboard when it matters. They play simple rugby, passionately: something their New Zealand contingent – Thomas Waldrom being the latest – instinctively understand.

Warm welcomes Horacio Agulla (Brive), Lee Robinson (Bristol), George Skivington (Wasps), Thomas Waldrom (Canterbury Crusaders).

Fond farewells Harry Ellis (retired), Ben Kay (retired), Aaron Mauger (retired), Johne Murphy (Munster).

The tea leaves say Third, with play-off power to add.

Key player Ben Youngs (scrum-half): Opponents will be after him. Can he stay a step ahead?

Odds 15-8. Last season First.

London Irish

Head coach Toby Booth.

Captain Clarke Dermody.

The Exiles find themselves in an odd place after seeing their 2009-10 campaign deflate like a whoopee cushion, accompanied by the noise generally associated with that particular item. When they beat the reigning European champions Leinster in the opening round of the Heineken Cup, they seemed perfectly set up for a serious title challenge. Yet their Premiership form either side of Christmas was dodgier than Mike Catt's hamstring and the moment the European challenge petered out, everything else went with it. The word "failure", not previously a word associated with Toby Booth's coaching regime, could soon be heard on everyone's lips at the Madejski Stadium.

They have not flexed much muscle in the transfer market – Daniel Bowden, a midfielder from New Zealand who learnt the tricks of his trade at the knee of Dan Carter, is the nearest thing to a marquee signing – and are likely to be more reliant than ever on their Pacific islanders. Honest professionals they may be, but the likes of Seilala Mapusua and Sailosi Tagicakibau have little left in the way of mystery. Booth and Catt, working together behind the scenes, need to come up with something new. Otherwise, too many opponents will work them out.

Warm welcomes Darren Allinson (Cardiff Blues), Guy Armitage (academy), Brian Blaney (Leinster), Daniel Bowden (Canterbury).

Fond farewells Danie Coetzee (retired), Peter Hewat (Suntory), Peter Richards (retired), John Rudd (retired).

The tea leaves say A ho-hum seventh.

Key player Steffon Armitage (flanker): Ditched by England, can vent frustration on the Premiership.

Odds 12-1. Last season Sixth.

Newcastle

Head coach Alan Tait.

Captain James Hudson.

The Geordies won the inaugural Premiership in 1998, but have finished in the top half of the table only twice in the dozen years since. Partly, this dismal record can be laid at the door of weak investment; partly, it is down to weak management. Whatever Alan Tait, the new head coach, brings to the mix, it is unlikely to be weak. His was one of the strong minds at the heart of the Lions' triumph over South Africa in 1997, and there has been no softening of approach in the intervening period. By all accounts, levels of fitness at Kingston Park have taken a sharp turn in a northerly direction, and there has been a similar improvement on the analytical front.

On the face of it, Tait's innate professionalism is one of the few things Newcastle have going for them. Seriously short of proven match- winners, they are no longer as dependable at home, up there on the wild frontier of English club rugby, as they once were. Yet they suffered very few thumpings last term, and if they can raise their game by 5 per cent or so, they may well escape the more canine aspects of the relegation dogfight.

Warm welcomes Luke Eves (Bristol), Andrew Henderson (Montauban), Ally Hogg (Edinburgh), Redford Pennycook (Bristol).

Fond farewells Adam Balding (Worcester), Tom Biggs (Bath), Carl Hayman (Toulon), Mark Sorenson (Northampton).

The tea leaves say As per Harlequins, ninth or .10th.

Key player Jimmy Gopperth (outside-half): The league's leading scorer last term and a mighty influence.

Odds 125-1. Last season Ninth.

Northampton

Director of rugby Jim Mallinder.

Captain Dylan Hartley.

Franklin's Gardens has become a magnet for ambitious Premiership players – a clear sign of good times to come. Northampton lost two fine locks at the end of last season in Juandre Kruger and Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe. What did they do? They lured Mark Sorenson south from Newcastle – a hard-working sort, who might have been designed to help the new England forward Courtney Lawes maximise his performance level in the engine room. Two international back-rowers also left, but the Midlanders had the pulling power to take Tom Wood out of Worcester and Calum Clark away from Leeds.

Throw in a fledgling outside-half as highly regarded as Joe Ford, who rejected the prospect of regular Premiership rugby in Yorkshire to mix it with Stephen Myler and Shane Geraghty, and a much talked-about young prop in Tom Mercey, and the message is clear: Northampton are playing at the big table, for the very highest stakes. They will not have it all their own way, but if more than one visiting side leaves the best rugby venue in England with a victory – last season, that team was Saracens – it will be something of a surprise. Northampton have earned the right to confidence.

Warm welcomes Calum Clark (Leeds), Joe Ford (Leeds), Tom Mercey (Saracens), Tom Wood (Worcester).

Fond farewells Neil Best (Worcester), Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe (retired), Scott Gray (retired), Juandre Kruger (Blue Bulls).

The tea leaves say Second, at least. Maybe better.

Key player Shane Geraghty (utility back): Too good to ignore, but can he find a place?

Odds: 9-2. Last season Second.

Sale

Head coach Mike Brewer.

Captain James Gaskell.

If the Stockport-based side begin the season as a total mystery, it is at least a step up from being a total shambles. Mike Brewer, who played in a World Cup final for the All Blacks and has never been shy of telling it straight, has taken it upon himself to build a whole new team, drawn from all points of the union compass. We now have a New Zealand prop from France and a Fijian lock from Italy, as well as a speed-of-lighting Samoan from Auckland and an American scrum-half from... well, New York, as it happens.

Any coach who can pull that little lot together, and have them singing from the same dirty songsheet in the language of Andrew Sheridan inside nine months, is a genius. The likelihood must be that for all the international quality that has been put in place at Edgeley Park – the Cuetos, the Hodgsons, the Peels – together with the new generation as represented by James Gaskell and Carl Fearns, this will be another long year in the inferno for Sale, picking a way through the bodies. It is not impossible to hit the ground running with a fresh side: Saracens proved that in the Premiership last season. There again, it is not easy either.

Warm welcomes Wame Lewaravu (Parma), Rob Miller (Newcastle), Mikaele Pesamino (Auckland), Karena Wihongi (Bourgoin).

Fond farewells: Oriol Ripol (Worcester), Dean Schofield (Toulon), Lee Thomas (Lyon), Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens).

The tea leaves say: As you were. 11th.

Key player Andrew Sheridan (prop): Last season's scrum was pathetic, but Big Ted is back.

Odds 50-1. Last season 11th.

Saracens

Director of rugby Brendan Venter.

Captain Steve Borthwick.

Saracens kicked up a heck of a racket last season: on the field, in the stands, most notably in the regular disciplinary hearings they were required to attend. Now, the sound of Brendan Venter balling out referees and munching on chocolate biscuits has faded on the breeze, and we are left with what the South African wanted us to have in the first place: a tight-knit, high-class, hugely effective team eminently capable of winning a major trophy. If they have made a noise recently, it has been in the marketplace: Saracens, awash with money, have signed bigger and better than anyone.

One newcomer, the impressive Scotland loose forward Kelly Brown, will not have things all his own way if the wild-eyed Namibian flanker Jacques Burger has a say in matters, but assuming Brown makes a mark, his back-row partnership with Andy Saull and Ernst Joubert will be for the connoisseur. And if Matt Stevens turns out to be anything like the player he was before he took the white-powder approach to his Saturday nights on the razzle, they will have a Premiership-winning tight unit at their disposal, especially as England are doing everything they can to ensure Steve Borthwick's regular availability.

Warm welcomes Kelly Brown (Glasgow), Deon Carstens (Kwazulu-Natal Sharks), David Strettle (Harlequins), Matt Stevens (unattached).

Fond farewells: Matias Aguero (Aironi), Glen Jackson (retired), Fabio Ongaro (Arioni), Kevin Sorrell (retired).

The tea leaves say Top two. Probably first.

Key player Andy Saull (flanker): An ambitious youngster with his eyes set on the glittering prizes.

Odds 5-1. Last season Third.

Wasps

Director of rugby Tony Hanks.

Captain Tom Rees.

They talk a blindingly good game at Wasps, even when the game involves losing players as valuable, in their very different ways, as Danny Cipriani, Paul Sackey, George Skivington and Hugo Ellis. Tony Hanks, the director of rugby, seems entirely sanguine in the face of last season's personnel fallout, and it may be that events will justify his equanimity: after all, the Londoners will still be among the fittest, fastest, best-conditioned teams in the top flight.

But there is at least the possibility of Premiership rugby passing them by. They are not the most financially secure of clubs, their difficulties in building an audience on the weak foundations of High Wycombe are well documented and, despite the loyalty shown by players as vibrant as Tom Rees and Dominic Waldouck, they are more exposed now than at any time in a decade. Even their major summer signings, the midfielder Riki Flutey and the back-row forward Andrew Powell, come with baggage: a poor injury record in the first instance, an unfortunate disciplinary one in the second. The best side in England not so long ago, they suddenly find themselves playing catch-up to rivals setting a hot pace of their own.

Warm welcomes Nic Berry (Racing Metro), Riki Flutey (Brive), Richard Haughton (Saracens), Andy Powell (Cardiff Blues).

Fond farewells Danny Cipriani (Melbourne Rebels), Hugo Ellis (Newport Gwent Dragons), Daniel Leo (Bordeaux), Paul Sackey (Toulon).

The tea leaves say Locked with London Irish. Sixth.

Key player Riki Flutey (utility back): Big things are expected, but is his best behind him?

Odds: 12-1. Last season Fifth.

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