Head coach: Steve Meehan
Captain: Michael Lipman
They played some stupendous stuff last term, side-stepping into every tackle and off-loading out of every contact. Matt Banahan scared the hell out of opposing wings, Michael Claassens made monkeys of his rival half-backs. But Olly Barkley and Steve Borthwick have disappeared down Sayonara Street, while the management continue to take the club nowhere fast off the field. Those catching them at the wrong moment will really cop it – but something is missing. Without a clear sense of direction the title will continue to elude them.
Warm welcomes: Shontayne Hape (Bradford Bulls RL), Stuart Hooper (Leeds), Justin Harrison (Ulster).
Fond farewells: Olly Barkley (Gloucester), Steve Borthwick (Saracens), Isaac Fea'unati (retired)
The tea-leaves say: A fast, fluent fourth.
Head coach: Richard Hill
Captain: Joe El Abd
It could have been worse. But for a handy crisis in the funding arrangements for redevelopment work at the Memorial Ground, the Premiership's least ritzy club would have found themselves in temporary residence at Newport – oh, the glamour of it – and played 22 away games as a consequence, thereby cementing their status as relegation favourites. Yet as things stand, they have a fighting chance. Richard Hill is at least £1m short of the majority of his rivals on the spending front, so recruitment has been predictably ho-hum.
Warm welcomes: Junior Fatiolofa (Exeter), Adrian Jarvis (Harlequins), Robert Sidoli (Cardiff Blues)
Fond farewells: Rob Higgitt (Llanelli Scarlets), David Hill (Toshiba, Jap), Sean Hohneck (Viadana, It)
The tea-leaves say: They will stay up, just.
Head coach: Dean Ryan
Captain: Mike Tindall
One of these days, Gloucester will play a big game the way big games are meant to be played and Dean Ryan, full of the joys, will throw a party. Should we be holding our breath, though? Every Kingsholmite has seen Ryan Lamb play blinders at outside-half, but they have also seen him lose control by pulling too many stunts at the wrong moments in bad areas of the field. The coach now has a playmaking option in Olly Barkley, and his other brat-packers – Anthony Allen, Jack Adams, Olly Morgan – are a year wiser. The squad is more formidable than ever, so this should be the season.
Warm welcomes: Greg Somerville (Canterbury, NZ), Matthew Watkins (Llanelli Scarlets), David Young (Leicester)
Fond farewells: Christian Califano (retired), Patrice Collazo (Metro Racing, Fr), Chris Paterson (Edinburgh)
The tea-leaves say: Top again? Quite possibly...
Director of rugby: Dean Richards
Captain: Will Skinner
You have to like the look of them. Nick Evans, a pearl of an outside-half who might have spared the All Blacks World Cup anguish if the coaches had picked him for the quarter-final against France, is the marquee signing. Epi Taione, another recruit, is as mad as a hatter, but if he finds his bearings at the Stoop, he will make a horrible mess of opposing defences. Quins have enough terrific young back-rowers to give Danny Care the room he requires. If the tight forwards stack up, who knows?
Warm welcomes: Nick Evans (Auckland, NZ), Neil McMillan (Ulster), Epi Taione (Natal, SA).
Fond farewells: Simon Keogh (Leinster), Nicolas Spanghero (Colomiers, Fr), Paul Volley (retired)
The tea-leaves say: Top five, maybe better.
Head coach: Heyneke Meyer
Captain: Martin Corry
Those rugby followers who felt Marcelo Loffreda was treated like you-know-what by the Tigers last season will not burst into tears if this campaign proves something of a trial for them. The Argentine coach arrived late and barely put himself on first-name terms with his players, yet still guided the side to two finals before being sacked with a ruthlessness rarely seen in rugby (if you leave Brian Ashton aside). Heyneke Meyer is a high-calibre replacement and the squad has depth and breadth. Might some of the big-name players be just a little old, though?
Warm welcomes: Julien Dupuy (Biarritz, Fr), Derick Hougaard (Blue Bulls, SA), Craig Newby (Otago, NZ)
Fond farewells: Andy Goode (Brive, Fr), James Hamilton (Edinburgh), Ollie Smith (Montpellier, Fr)
The tea-leaves say: No higher than fifth.
Head coach: Toby Booth
Captain: Bob Casey
Given the choice, the Exiles would rather England had not poked their noses in and persuaded Brian Smith to trouser the Twickenham shilling. Smith had inherited an over-structured team who could not make themselves a cup of tea without going through 27 phases and revealed to them the joys of playing rugby with freedom. Happily for Irish, they have Toby Booth to fall back on. Not to mention Mike Catt, who has dedicated himself to helping Shane Geraghty make the most of his gifts. The squad is small, but the spirit is willing.
Warm welcomes: James Buckland (Wasps), Chris Hala'ufia (Harlequins), Elvis Seveali'i (Sale)
Fond farewells: Juan Manuel Leguizamon (Stade Français, Fr), Phil Murphy (Viadana, It), Gonzalo Tiesi (Harlequins)
The tea-leaves say: Perhaps sixth, perhaps seventh.
Director of rugby: Steve Bates
Captain: Phil Dowson
It is some mental exercise to imagine a team with so shallow a squad losing so many high-class players – Matthew Burke, Mathew Tait, Toby Flood, the highly regarded young flanker Ben Woods – and not paying a heavy price. True, Tait and Flood spent a lot of time with England last term, as did that Wilkinson chap; true, there is some logic behind the notion that when it comes to employing current internationals, less is more. But with the best will in the world, it is difficult to see how Newcastle can survive this time, despite the wild frontier atmosphere at Kingston Park.
Warm welcomes: Adam Balding (Gloucester), Tane Tu'ipulotu (Wellington, NZ), Danny Williams (Leeds Rhinos RL)
Fond farewells: Matthew Burke (retired), Toby Flood (Leicester), Ben Woods (Leicester)
The tea-leaves say: The lights go out.
Director of rugby: Jim Mallinder
Captain: Bruce Reihana
The talk at the back end of last season was that the Saints, awash with Keith Barwell's money, would buy themselves a team capable of finishing in the top half of the table and qualifying for the Heineken Cup in their first season back at elite level. Hard cash has indeed been splashed: Neil Best will not have come cheap. But this looks like being a work in progress for some time to come, for there are obvious gaps in Jim Mallinder's squad. Dylan Hartley, the England hooker-in-waiting, will not win games on his own in this league.
Warm welcomes: Neil Best (Ulster), Nils Mordt (London Irish), Roger Wilson (Ulster)
Fond farewells: Damien Browne (Brive, Fr), Johnny Howard (Bayonne, Fr), Paul Tupai (Bedford)
The tea-leaves say: A struggle, but safe.
Director of rugby: Philippe Saint-Andre
Captain: Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe
One difference between the two remaining northern clubs is that when Sale lose top-notch players – Magnus Lund and Ben Foden have departed – they replace them with a vengeance. Philippe Saint-Andre has recruited strongly, from Wales, New Zealand and England, and if Mathew Tait and Dwayne Peel hit the heights together, the Stockport-based side will be one heck of an attacking unit. We can expect them to push for a second title in four years, thereby erasing last season's mess-up from the memory.
Warm welcomes: Kristian Ormsby (Counties Manukau, NZ), Dwayne Peel (Llanelli Scarlets), Mathew Tait (Newcastle)
Fond farewells: Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe (Northampton), Ben Foden (Northampton), Magnus Lund (Biarritz)
The tea-leaves say: Second sounds about right.
Director of rugby: Eddie Jones
Captain: Steve Borthwick
In many respects, these are the most interesting contenders of the lot. With successive World Cup finals behind him, Eddie Jones understands strategy. He takes over from Alan Gaffney, who restored some backbone to a club that had been all front for far too long, and he starts ahead of the game. The recruitment has been excellent – the South Africans are spitting tacks about losing Bradley Barritt – and it will be surprising if they fail to win a trophy of some description over the next couple of years.
Warm welcomes: Bradley Barritt (Natal, SA), Michael Owen (Newport Gwent Dragons), Wikus van Heerden (Blue Bulls, SA)
Fond farewells: Alan Dickens (Northampton), Paul Gustard (retired), Richard Hill (retired)
The tea-leaves say: As per London Irish.
Director of rubgy: Ian McGeechan
Captain: Raphael Ibanez
Lawrence Dallaglio's retirement, two distracted coaches – Ian McGeechan has Lions business on his mind, Shaun Edwards is entangled with Wales – and the prospect of losing half a team to international rugby for at least half the season... one way or another, the champions are up the creek. They will find their way back down it, of course. They always do. But while they will probably come with their usual late rush to play themselves into the knock-out phase, they may finish short of the final. This much is certain: any long-term injuries to key players will really hurt them.
Warm welcomes: Serge Betsen (Biarritz, Fr), Lachlan Mitchell (Sydney Univ, Aus), Mark Robinson (Northampton)
Fond farewells: Lawrence Dallaglio (retired), David Doherty (Sale), Fraser Waters (Treviso, It)
The tea-leaves say: Into the play-offs. Again.
Director of rugby: Mike Ruddock
Captain: Pat Sanderson
Worcester are not exactly the greatest counter-attacking side on the planet, although a length-of-the-field effort finished by Kai Horstmann was officially ordained Try of the Season last time out. So what might Chris Latham bring to the party? The esteemed Wallaby is a mighty big signing, and the arrival of Matthew Jones at outside-half, things are looking up. Assuming Miles Benjamin continues to progress on the wing, these could be exciting days.
Warm welcomes: Chris Latham (Queensland, Aus), Matthew Jones (Ospreys), Hal Luscombe (Harlequins)
Fond farewells: Thinus Delport (Kobe Steel, Jap), Shane Drahm (Kubotu Spears, Jap), Tony Windo (retired)
The tea-leaves say: A small leap forward.Reuse content