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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.