Gallagher Premiership 2020-21 season preview - where will each of the 12 teams finish?

·13 min read
Ready for action (clockwise) - Joe Simmonds of Exeter, Tom Curry of Sale, Newcastle's Luther Burrell and Bath's Ben Spencer 
Ready for action (clockwise) - Joe Simmonds of Exeter, Tom Curry of Sale, Newcastle's Luther Burrell and Bath's Ben Spencer

With the new campaign starting this Friday, after the shortest pre-season in history, how will the final table look come May next year? Here's our team-by-team guide to the new Gallagher Premiership season.

Bath

Last season: 4th

Key player: Ben Spencer

What an impact after arriving from Saracens following lockdown. Adds authority and structure to Bath’s attack. Strangely unwanted by England.

Must improve… 

Their start. Bath pre and post-lockdown were transformed thanks to Spencer’s arrival and the influence of Neal Hatley’s coaching seeping into the pack. It took a remarkable winning run to even make the top four. A faster start would make life easier this time around but Bath are very much a side on the up.

Prospects

Good, but if Rhys Priestland goes down suddenly Bath look light at fly-half with either Josh Matavesi or young Tom de Glanville providing cover. The pack are a force, particularly the front row of Beno Obano, Tom Dunn and Will Stuart, currently all in favour with England.

When you then factor in a backline featuring Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson, Joe Cokanasiga and Ruaridh McConnochie to name a few, Bath have enough firepower to trouble anyone. But, the Exeter semi-final defeat at the end of last season underlined how much further Bath have to go. Just sense they might slip narrowly outside the top four.

Prediction: 5th

Bath head coach Neal Hatley - GETTY IMAGES
Bath head coach Neal Hatley - GETTY IMAGES

Bristol Bears

Last season: 3rd

Key player: Semi Radradra

The Fijian box-office centre made an instant impact on his arrival from Bordeaux-Begles and will be key to unlocking defences in the big matches.

Must improve… 

The little things. In only their second season back in the Premiership under Pat Lam, Bristol made the play-offs. Continuing their natural progression in all areas, therefore, should be enough to keep Bristol in the top four. The Wasps semi-final hammering will be a valuable lesson, as will be winning the Challenge Cup.

Prospects

Strong, particularly if Bristol get Charles Piutau back playing regularly, after scoring only two tries in the Premiership last season. Mind you, Piutau still led the Premiership in metres gained and by some distance. Only his colleague Nathan Hughes beat more defenders.

That core of Harry Thacker, Steven Luatua, Hughes, Harry Randall, Callum Sheedy, Piers O’Conor, Radradra and Piutau is remarkably strong considering this is Bristol’s third campaign back in the Premiership. With the club now also in the Champions Cup, their depth though will be tested.

Prediction: 4th

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Exeter Chiefs

Last season: 1st (Champions)

Key player: Luke Cowan-Dickie

Is there another player in that Chiefs’ pack that sums up Exeter’s physicality and dominance around the scrum and maul more than the England hooker?

Must improve… 

Nothing, really. One telling line from prop Tomas Francis this week was that Exeter’s two final victories were in fact two of their worst performances of the season. Winning, he stressed, really is a habit. 

Prospects

Until teams stop Exeter upfront - Wasps gave it a great effort in the final - then Exeter will continue to thrive. Having a target on their back hasn’t seemed to affect the Chiefs over the past four years and given that very few of their players are needed on international duty outside of the four Scots - Stuart Hogg, Jonny Gray, Sam Skinner and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne - plus Cowan-Dickie, Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and perhaps now Jonny Hill with England, that gives the Chiefs a deep squad to attack the Premiership and Europe. Not a bad time to be an Exeter fan.

Prediction: 1st

Exeter Chiefs celebrate their victory during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby final - GETTY IMAGES
Exeter Chiefs celebrate their victory during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby final - GETTY IMAGES

Gloucester

Last season: 7th

Key player: Jake Polledri

A total wrecking ball once he gets the egg in his hand who seems to be going from strength to strength - news of his injury on international duty is the last thing Gloucester need. The sooner he returns the better.

Must improve… 

Upfront, urgently. George Skivington when he took over in the summer set out his stall by saying the pack has to dominate matches. We haven’t seen that yet. The collapse away to Bath towards the end of the season was also a concern. A side still finding their way.

Prospects

Perhaps the best way to assess Gloucester is to view the run of nine matches after lockdown as one extended trial for all players, young and old, and now this is year one. Skivington has been appointed with a long-term vision and (unsurprisingly) that is going to take time to manifest itself.

A quick checklist for the new campaign probably includes: make the top six, compete upfront, show more control closing out matches, and let an exciting backline rip featuring Louis Rees-Zammit, Tom Seabrook, Jonny May and Ollie Thorley. 

Prediction: 8th

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Harlequins

Last season: 6th

Key player: Marcus Smith

If Harlequins are to kick on and become a top four side, fly-half Smith - who has been linked with a move away from the club recently - will have to continue to progress. 

Must improve… 

In both defence and attack, because despite finishing sixth Harlequins conceded more points than they scored. None of the top five conceded more than 60 tries - Harlequins let in 63. 

Prospects

Another side in the middle of the pack last season crying out for more consistency to move up the table. As my colleague Jake Goodwill recently pointed out in an in-depth look at the club under Paul Gustard, progress has gradually been made since the former England defence coach took over, but at a slower rate than previously hoped.

You get the sense Harlequins are still working out what kind of side they want to be, and there’s a risk that while doing that, other sides will steal a march on them. Will Evans seems set for a huge season at the breakdown and Joe Marchant has kicked on since his time in Super Rugby.

Prediction: 7th

Marcus Smith of Harlequins - GETTY IMAGES
Marcus Smith of Harlequins - GETTY IMAGES

Leicester Tigers

Last season: 11th

Key player: Ellis Genge

Leicester’s pack are not the suffocating force of old but Genge on his day is the best loosehead in the Premiership and a ferocious carrier.

Must improve… 

Everything, but one stat is particularly mind-blowing - Leicester scored only *35* tries in the Premiership last season, which suggests their attack was completely rudderless. Five clubs scored twice as many as that figure. Leicester were also rock bottom for metres made, clean breaks and defenders beaten.

Prospects

Oh boy, not good. The fact that over 40 per cent of Leicester fans recently voted that their side were the most likely to go down - on a local Leicestershire website - summed things up for the 10-time champions. The exits of Geordan Murphy (director of rugby) and Rob Taylor (attack coach) on the eve of the season pile a hell of a lot more pressure on Steve Borthwick, who only arrived from England at the start of July.

If Leicester don’t start well - their trip to London Irish next weekend already feels big - then the 10-time champions are in real trouble. Young guns like Tommy Reffell and George Worth can provide some hope.

Prediction: 11th

Luke Wallace of Leicester - GETTY IMAGES
Luke Wallace of Leicester - GETTY IMAGES

London Irish

Last season: 10th

Key player: Adam Coleman

Desperately missed in the middle of the Exiles’ pack after lockdown, Coleman will be back to bolster the forwards and adds quality.

Must improve… 

Defence, which was a bit of a mess after lockdown as teams easily racked up points on Declan Kidney’s team. Irish finished out the season with a points difference of -247, the worst record in the league, and won only one of their last nine games post-lockdown. The squad, admittedly, was very thin at the time due to injuries and departures.

Prospects

You got the sense that with safety secured, Irish were holding something back after lockdown. Having now moved back to London into a highly impressive new home at the Brentford Community Stadium, big results are needed to attract more supporters.

There’s a promising young group of players featuring Ollie Hassell-Collins, Ben Loader, Chunya Munga and Tom Parton but the onus is on the veterans upfront - Coleman, Sekope Kepu, Agustin Creevy, Allan Dell, Rob Simmons, Sean O’Brien and Blair Cowan - to make Irish competitive. Albert Tuisue’s a fine player, while Waisake Naholo rediscovering his All Blacks form wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Prediction: 9th

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Newcastle Falcons

Last season: Championship winners

Key player: Mark Wilson

His loan spell at Sale never really got off the ground and now Wilson is back where he belongs, leading the Falcons.

Must improve… 

Based on their last outing in the Premiership, Newcastle have to find a way to score more tries. They only managed one try bonus point in the 2018-19 season and only 43 tries in total, at an average of 1.96 per game. A big season for attack-minded head coach Dave Walder.

Prospects

Dean Richards was refreshingly candid last week when he admitted that Newcastle were playing catch-up after so long without a competitive match, and the problem is by the time they start clicking they could be four, five defeats into the new season. The squad is not massively different to one that went down last year, although Richards added the forwards are notably fitter.

Wilson is working his way back from injury and will be absolutely essential. The timing of long-term wing Sinoti Sinoti’s exit on Monday is a little concerning, but in Matias Orlando, Luther Burrell, Will Welch and Gary Graham, there’s no lack of experience. Keep tabs on Josh Basham too in the back row.

Prediction: 12th

Michael Young (R) of Newcastle Falcons during a pre-season friendly against Ealing - GETTY IMAGES
Michael Young (R) of Newcastle Falcons during a pre-season friendly against Ealing - GETTY IMAGES

Northampton Saints

Last season: 8th

Key player: Dan Biggar

Northampton looked a little lost without Cobus Reinach but they have a proven matchwinner in this side in the Wales No 10.

Must improve… 

Winning without Reinach, put simply enough. The Springbok scrum-half’s absence after lockdown underlined just how much they relied on him to break games open on his own. Now the next wave of Northampton backs - Alex Mitchell, Rory Hutchinson, Fraser Dingwall - need to carry the team forward if they are to push for a spot in the play-offs.

Prospects

Talk about Jekyll and Hyde - Northampton were flying before lockdown, top of the league in December, and then fell off a cliff. Their work before that under Chris Boyd was good enough to expect a bit of a resurgence this season, but now they’re sucked back into the middle of the pack, it can be hard to break out of there up into the play-off places.

Saints at their best are free-flowing in attack and let their dynamic forwards tear in from ruck to ruck, but stifle either of those elements slightly and they have struggled. Time to reset and go again. David Ribbans and James Grayson seem set for big seasons.

Prediction: 6th

Connor Tupai of Northampton Saints passes the ball during the pre-season friendly against Worcester - GETTY IMAGES
Connor Tupai of Northampton Saints passes the ball during the pre-season friendly against Worcester - GETTY IMAGES

Sale Sharks

Last season: 5th

Key player: Faf de Klerk

No shock here - the World Cup winner is at the heart of Sale’s tactical gameplan with his box-kicking and is still a dangerous sniper around the fringes.

Must improve… 

Effectiveness with ball in hand, which might sound odd for a team who racked up seven try bonus points last season, but only Leicester produced fewer carries than the Sharks, a byproduct of Sale’s heavy-duty kicking game. Strangely for a side featuring the Curry brothers, Sale also won the fewest turnovers in the league.

Prospects

Really good - Sale will be the big mover this season. The squad is incredibly deep both in the pack and backs, making the loss of Manu Tuilagi in midfield not the kind of hammerblow it would be for, say, Leicester. Spurred on by the unique, disastrous way they missed out on the play-offs due to a Covid-19 outbreak, it seems fair to expect big things from Steve Diamond’s hulking, Springbok-laden herd.

Luke James, 21, feels primed for an England cap down the road and Sam Hill should hopefully kick on after arriving from Exeter in the summer.

Prediction: 2nd

Luke James of Sale Sharks breaks through - GETTY IMAGES
Luke James of Sale Sharks breaks through - GETTY IMAGES

Wasps

Last season: 2nd

Key player: Jack Willis

It’s a sign of a top side when you could pick from five or six players for this slot, but the reigning Premiership Player of the Year and turnover machine feels like a good starting point. Willis produced 46 turnovers in the league alone last season.

Must improve… 

Wasps did a far better job of containing Exeter upfront than most teams last season, pressuring their lineout and largely shutting down the maul until the closing minutes. Make further improvements there under the guidance of Richard Blaze, the Wasps forwards coach, and the club will be right up there once again.

Prospects

Excellent - because if Wasps can sustain their post-lockdown form, and there’s little reason to think they won’t, then they should be right back in the mix at the top.

One point might be that if Willis, Dan Robson, Joe Launchbury and potentially more are going to be involved with England both now at the start of the season and during the Six Nations, then Wasps’ depth will take a small hit. Otherwise it’s all aboard the Alfie Barbeary express. Jacob Umaga, Biyi Alo, Ben Vellacott and Ryan Mills all feel primed for big campaigns.

Prediction: 3rd

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Worcester

Last season: 9th

Key player: Ollie Lawrence

Finding his feet at Test level, but the fact that Eddie Jones started Lawrence at 13 over Joe Marchant and Jonathan Joseph against Georgia was a positive sign. Lawrence is so dynamic and capable of splitting defences open for Worcester. Five tries in 13 league games last season was a promising return.

Must improve… 

Converting those narrow losses into wins - Worcester finished last season with a league-high six losing bonus points. Their turnover count was also a little low, winning only four more than bottom-ranked Sale. And tries too - with 42 scored the second-lowest return ahead of Leicester Tigers.

Prospects

One bookmaker had Worcester listed surprisingly short for relegation this season, which seems odd. They go into the new campaign in a far better position than Leicester and Newcastle. Conducted by a fine half-back pairing in Francois Hougaard and Duncan Weir with his ever-growing hair (for charity), Worcester also have two of England’s brightest young talents in Ted Hill and Lawrence.

In a shootout with London Irish for 9th they might just come up short, but there’s a hair’s width in it. The more juice than can get out of Melani Nanai the better. George Merrick is an intriguing signing too, back in the Premiership from Clermont.

Prediction: 10th

Predicted finishes for each Gallagher Premiership club
Predicted finishes for each Gallagher Premiership club