The toughest domestic league in the world just got tougher!
Super signings, returning Lions, new names and old enemies – everyone starts the season optimistic as the 2017-18 season hoves into view.
After a superb summer of rugby, from England winning in Argentina, to the Lions drawing in New Zealand, and a brilliant Women’s World Cup, it’s time to put away the ice creams – the meat and veg is back.
The highly-anticipated 2017-18 Aviva Premiership season gets underway on Friday night
Premiership rugby returns on Friday night – with champions Exeter starting the defence of their crown away to Gloucester as Newcastle host Worcester in the north east.
But who will be dining at the top table come May? And who will be feeding off scraps?
All this and more will be sorted out in the coming months – for now, get your teeth into Sportsmail’s ultimate guide to the new season.
BATH - Last season: 5th
Captain: Matt Garvey
Director of rugby: Todd Blackadder
Gamebreaker: Anthony Watson – the Lions wing missed large chunks of last season with a broken jaw and hamstring trouble, but is set to be thrown back into the fire from the start. Lightning speed and a eye for the line, he’s a potent weapon out wide.
IN: Darren Allinson (London Irish), Freddie Burns (Leicester Tigers), Shaun Knight (Dragons), Josh Lewis (Ebbw Vale), Anthony Perenise (Bristol Rugby), James Phillips (Bristol Rugby), Sam Underhill (Ospreys)
OUT: David Denton (Worcester Warriors), George Ford (Leicester Tigers), Robbie Fruean (Edinburgh Rugby), Joe Graham (Rotherham Titans), Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), David Sisi (Zebre), Daniel Bowden (released).
Best signing: Freddie Burns – forced into a swap deal with George Ford moving to Leicester, the so-called ‘King of Bath’ will pull the strings for his home-town club. He has the talent to show the Rec faithful they got the best out of this deal. If Burns can release a stellar backline outside him they will be floods of tries by the River Avon.
Club conundrum: Away days. Bath won just four of 17 away games in competitions last season – and three of those came before November. They will never break the top four if they only play well at the Rec.
Sportsmail’s verdict: 4th. A playoff place as Blackadder’s boys go fourth this year. Sam Underhill is a fine coup adding to an already top-class back row with Taulupe Faletau, Zach Mercer and Francois Louw. It’s about time Bath lived up to their considerable promise.
Anthony Watson is a potent weapon out wide with his speed and eye for the line
EXETER CHIEFS - Last season: 2nd (Champions)
Captain: Jack Yeandle
Director of rugby: Rob Baxter
Gamebreaker: Jack Nowell – the fisherman’s son will be trawling for scores of tries again this year. But it is the work of the ball that the Cornishman does that is perhaps more impressive. Fresh from a Lions tour the 24-year-old is one the most influential wings in the world and will only get better.
IN: James Freeman (Jersey Reds), Matt Kvesic (Gloucester Rugby), Tom O’Flaherty (Ospreys), Toby Salmon (Rotherham Titans), Wilhelm van der Sluys (Southern Kings), Nic White (Montpellier).
OUT: Will Hooley (Bedford Blues), Dave Lewis (Harlequins), Niko Matawalu (released), Geoff Parling (Melbourne Rebels), Damian Welch (Cardiff Blues), Ben White (Cardiff Blues), Matt Jess, Tom Johnson, Haydn Thomas (all retired).
Best signing: Nic White – Rob Baxter loves two things. Polishing English rough diamonds, and plucking out under-appreciated Aussies. Scrum-half White has 22 Wallaby caps – and in his penultimate Test scored twice to beat the All Blacks before the 2015 World Cup. He joins four other Australians at Sandy Park as a boisterous nine with a good boot.
Club conundrum: From hunters to hunted. A glorious season last year is just a twinkle in the eye now. Good teams can win it once, great teams back it up. Exeter have been in uncharted territory almost every season since their promotion and have thrived, so you would not bet against them. Trips to Allianz Park, Ricoh Arena, Welford Road and the Rec will define their title defence.
Sportsmail’s verdict: 3rd – it will be tighter than Jack Nowell’s top knot come April, but the Chiefs will be there Tomahawk chopping their way to a playoff place.
GLOUCESTER - Last season: 9th
Captain: Willi Heinz
Director of rugby: David Humphreys
Gamebreaker: Ross Moriarty – the flanker is an exocet missile in defence, capable of marmalising defenders at will. Injury forced his withdrawal from the Lions squad so the Welshman will be eager to make amends in what could be his last season in the Premiership before a move home.
IN: Ruan Ackermann (Lions), Fraser Balmain (Leicester Tigers), Gareth Denman (Northampton Saints), Jake Polledri (Hartpury RFC), Ed Slater (Leicester Tigers), Owen Williams (Leicester Tigers), Jason Woodward (Bristol Rugby), Ben Vellacott (Academy), Freddie Clarke (Academy), Lloyd Evans (Academy).
OUT: Joe Batley (Bristol Rugby), Darren Dawidiuk (London Irish), Paul Doran-Jones (Wasps), James Hook (Ospreys), Sione Kalamafoni (Leicester Tigers), Matt Kvesic (Exeter Chiefs), Greig Laidlaw (ASM Clermont Auvergne), Joe Latta (Bristol Rugby), Tom Lindsay (Bedford Blues), Salesi Ma’afu (RC Narbonne), Jonny May (Leicester Tigers), Mat Protheroe (Bristol Rugby), Dan Thomas (Bristol Rugby), Yann Thomas (Stade Rouennais).
Best signing: Owen Williams – this Welshman should have been capped already, but it will be to Gloucester’s benefit that he is not yet. One of 10 new fly-halves across the league he joins the Cherry & Whites as someone who can dictate a game playing flat to the gainline. He may be employed at 12 as an auxiliary playmaker.
Club conundrum: Stopping the rot. You almost feel as though Gloucester need to bottom out and be relegated, like Northampton and Harlequins were, if they are to realise doing the same thing each year will probably lead to similar results. Mid-table mediocrity frustrates the Shed every season. Key players have left and more will follow unless hard-nosed South African Johan Ackermann can whip them into shape. And fast.
Sportsmail’s verdict: 11th – Battlers like Richard Hibbard, Ed Slater and Jeremy Thrush to keep them up, just. They probably have enough to stay up but a relegation scare could be just the tonic as they rebuild.
Ross Moriarty is an exocet missile in defence, capable of marmalising defenders at will
HARLEQUINS - Last season: 6th
Captain: James Horwill
Director of rugby: John Kingston
Gamebreaker: Kyle Sinckler – the bowling-ball bulldozer of a tight-head prop was one of the big winners on the Lions tour and now is tasked with kicking on. He is only 24 and can improve in the scrum, a scary prospect.
IN: Renaldo Bothma (Bulls), Lewis Boyce (Yorkshire Carnegie), Demetri Catrakilis (Montpellier,) Ben Glynn (Bristol Rugby), Dave Lewis (Exeter Chiefs), Josh McNulty (Gloucester Rugby), Francis Saili (Munster), Phil Swainston (Wasps).
OUT: Owen Evans (Doncaster Knights), Tyler Gendall (Bristol Rugby), Matt Hopper (Oyonnax), Dan Murphy (Hartpury), Matt Shields (Rotherham Titans), Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow Warriors), Luc Jones, Robbie Nairn, Niall Saunders (all unattached), Karl Dickson, Nick Evans, Netani Talei, George Naoupu, Mark Reddish (all retired).
Best signing: Francis Saili – the former Munster All Black centre could form a wonderful partnership with 21-year-old starlet Joe Marchant. Saili has a powerful base, with huge legs, and pace to burn.
Club conundrum: Top heaviness. Whenever England come calling Quins are stripped bare, and in the last five Six Nations and autumn international windows the Londoners have won just eight of 23 matches. So how will they cope when Care, Robshaw, Marler, Brown and Sinckler all go again? In the past their main-stayers have failed to live up to the promise Quins show when the England boys are present. Time to change that. And win an away game for once…
Sportsmail’s verdict: 6th – Another middling season for Quins, but European qualification should be achievable. They’ll take some almighty scalps and lose inconceivably at least twice. Watch out for 18-year-old fly-half Marcus Smith – they are very excited about him at the Stoop.
LEICESTER TIGERS - Last season: 4th
Captain: Tom Youngs
Head coach: Matt O’Connor
Gamebreaker: Matt Toomua – the Australian centre is a stupendous talent who was robbed of his debut season at Welford by a horrid knee injury. His passing is immaculate and has the playmaking vision to provide the outside backs with plenty of ball. And if he can partner with the ever frustrating Manu Tuilagi…
IN: George Ford (Bath Rugby), Joe Ford (Yorkshire Carnegie), Jonah Holmes (Yorkshire Carnegie), Sione Kalamafoni (Gloucester Rugby), Nick Malouf (Australia Sevens), Jonny May (Gloucester Rugby), Gareth Owen (Scarlets), Dominic Ryan (Leinster).
OUT: Fraser Balmain (Gloucester Rugby), Peter Betham (ASM Clermont Auvergne), Riccardo Brugnara (Rovigo), Oli Bryant (Jersey Reds), Freddie Burns (Bath Rugby), Ryan Olowofela (England Sevens), JP Pietersen (Toulon), Jack Roberts (Cardiff Blues), Ed Slater (Gloucester Rugby), Owen Williams (Gloucester Rugby), Sam Yawayawa (Glasgow Warriors), Will Owen (released), Marcos Ayerza (retired).
Best signing: George Ford – he won’t be around all year, as England commitments will keep him away from his new/old club, but Ford is one of the best 10s on the planet. He was not himself at Bath last year but rediscovered his touch in Argentina, now to boss the league again.
Club conundrum: Forward thinking. It cannot be as turbulent as last year, can it? Defence coach Scott Hansen, sacked. Director of rugby Richard Cockerill, sacked. Head coach Aaron Mauger, sacked. The last coach to take them to a Premiership title Matt O’Connor, reinstated. Arguments of brains or brawn still abound and O’Connor has decided to draft in a superb backline – Youngs, Ford, Toomua, Tuilagi, May, Veainu, Tait. Nice. But will the forward give them enough platform? It’s odd to think that the Tigers’ pack could let them down.
Sportsmail’s verdict: 5th – the Tigers have got to miss out on the top four one year, and with half of their stellar backline off on international duty for large parts of the season, this could be another year of transition. Cue a knowing shrug from the Edinburgh director of rugby if they do not make the playoffs…
George Ford is one of the best 10s on the planet and will be a great signing for Leicester Tigers
LONDON IRISH - Last season: 1st in Championship
Captain: David Paice
Director of rugby: Nick Kennedy
Gamebreaker: Napolioni Nalaga – the monster 16st 7lbs winger has 25 tries in the Champions Cup putting him in the top 10 European scorers list. His finishing ability will be vital if Irish are to stay in the league.
IN: Darren Dawidiuk (Gloucester Rugby), Petrus Du Plessis (Saracens), Saia Fainga’a (Brumbies), Lasha Lomidze (Krasny Yar), Luke McLean (Beneton Treviso), Ben Meehan (Melbourne Rebels), Napolioni Nalaga (Lyon), Teofilo Paulo (Beneton Treviso), Gordon Reid (Glasgow Warriors), Manasa Saulo (Toulon), Jake Schatz (Melbourne Rebels) Franco van der Merwe (Ulster).
OUT: Darren Allinson (Bath Rugby), Gerard Ellis (Dragons Rugby), Luke Narraway (Coventry) Jerry Sexton (Jersey Reds) Jebb Sinclair, Joe Trayfoot, Tevita Koloamatangi, George Robson (all released), Tom Court (retired).
Best signing: Petrus du Plessis – the double European Cup-winning prop has an alter ego. Donning red Y-fronts and not much else he becomes 'Borislav', uploading ridiculous videos of his antics. That messing around will keep team spirit sky-high at Hazelwood – on the field du Plessis is a scrummaging rock too. His prowess there could keep Irish afloat.
Club conundrum: Winning. It sounds