Print Sport Editor Nick Powell previews the Gallagher Premiership Rugby season, which gets underway on Friday with Exeter Chiefs visiting Harlequins.
After the 2019/20 season was dragged kicking and screaming towards its conclusion, it was hard not to be impressed with the way the Premiership’s authorities had managed the final 9 rounds of action.
Sure, they were relatively meaningless, with the top 8 teams qualifying for the Champions Cup identical to what they were before, and Chiefs’ going on to win a title that few would have begrudged them being handed without the season restarting, but it saw youngsters get their opportunities in midweek fixtures, the continued rise of Wasps under Lee Blackett and some brilliant, high-scoring matches.
Fans will be relieved to see rugby back on their screens and hopefully soon, they too will be back in stadiums. If one thing is for sure, it is that this season will be difficult to predict.
The Physical Challenges of Returning so Soon
It would be legitimate to fear, as I did when explaining my opposition to the restart, that the physical burden on the players will eventually take its toll. Whether it is a few months into the season, at the end of it, or during next autumn for those individuals picked for the British and Irish Lions Tour it seems almost inevitable. Perhaps this will bring player management and squad rotation to the fore in a way only seen during last season’s restart, and will be even more of a test over a full campaign.
It almost seems like a blessing for Saracens to have this season in the Championship – with the assumption they will return with ease – and newly promoted Newcastle Falcons’ eight months off (after the Championship was cancelled with them at the top in March) is surely likely to give them a major boost in their goal of staying in the Premiership.
Local boys Exeter Chiefs would have been delighted to claim a memorable League and Champions Cup double, just ten years after entering top tier rugby but their busy October schedule, as well as several players being selected for recent internationals, will surely take its physical toll in a way not seen at other clubs.
Wasps, who finished the season in dazzling form and almost claimed the title despite being hit by a Covid outbreak which ruled several players out of the Final, may also have the same issues.
The Covid Element
With this season to go on deep into June, it would be overly pessimistic to believe that the Covid issues which cost Sale Sharks a place in the play-offs (as they were forced to concede their final round fixture) will still be problematic when we head into the business end of this current regular season.
Early on in this season however, it would be far too optimistic to believe that there is no chance that a number of fixtures will face the axe due to the pandemic. France and Fiji’s opening fixture in the Autumn Nations’ Cup last weekend was cancelled due to Covid cases in the latter, who soon found themselves ruled out of this weekend’s clash against Italy after 29 positive cases in the last round of testing
Premiership Rugby have not confirmed whether Covid cases will automatically result in a defeat for a team, but with the season already being packed into a short space of time it is hard to see how they will not follow the precedent of the verdicts made at the end of last season – where Gloucester and Worcester were given bonus point victories after Covid cases in their opponents Northampton and Sale – and that which was made for France vs Fiji.
This ambiguity seems fair enough for flexibility, but will it come under scrutiny if a team is relegated by games they had to miss due to outbreaks in their squad?
Can anyone stop Exeter?
It’s hard to put anyone ahead of Exeter as favourites for this year’s trophy, but though Wasps will have the same aforementioned difficulties in keeping their players fresh, the way they finished last season suggest they will push the Chiefs all the way.
Bristol, who won the second tier European Challenge Cup, have the players to compete in the classier section of the table too. Similarly though, their season went deep into October, and with a squad lacking the depth of Chiefs and Wasps, that may pose some difficulties, but they will definitely put in their fair share of great performances.
Sale and Bath, who battled for fourth place before the former’s outbreak handed it to the latter, have strong, settled squads and should put in another sustained challenge. An extra year of gelling for Sale’s big money signings of last season, and an extra year of experience for coaching prodigy Stuart Hooper at Bath are likely to make them even tougher prospects than they were last time out.
It is Sale who are best placed to make a fast start to the season having been the best rested and losing few players to international duty, but they will know as much as anyone that this will be a long, hard campaign
The Best of the Rest
Harlequins finished in sixth last year, but in spite of Sale’s cancellation still finished a huge 13 points behind them in the table. They were hard pushed with Gloucester and Northampton for sixth place, and though all three clubs would have been relieved to qualify in the top 8 for the expanded Champions Cup, last season would have represented a huge disappointment for the teams that finished between third and fifth in 2018/19.
All three have the potential to contest at the top, but are chronically inconsistent and will need to show winning form both at home and on the road if they are to make pundits sit up and take notice in the early part of the season.
There are new beginnings for London Irish, who will begin a season in the city included in their name for the first time this century, and Leicester Tigers who parted company with Geordan Murphy, leaving ex-England captain and forwards coach Steve Borthwick in charge.
New boys Newcastle are heavy favourites to go down, but Dean Richards will be keen to avoid a repeat of what happened two seasons ago and has the freshest – albeit least prepared – squad in the league to do it. Worcester Warriors fans will be unsurprised to know they feature in this conversation again, but an increasing and improving group of exciting young players will keep their fans optimistic.
The Final Table Prediction
- Exeter Chiefs (Finalists)
- Wasps (Champions)
- Sale Sharks (Semi-Finals)
- Bristol Bears (Semi-Finals)
- Bath Rugby
- Northampton Saints
- Gloucester Rugby
- London Irish
- Worcester Warriors
- Leicester Tigers
- Newcastle Falcons
A very similar table to last season with slight improvements for Sale and Harlequins seeing Bath out of the top four, but hold on to their place in the Top Six. Newcastle will take time to get going, and I see that leaving a margin too insurmountable to claw back, but as their players gain experience and freshness pays dividends don’t rule them out coming back from a fair way behind. With so much at stake for all of them, and so little to separate the teams in the bottom half, the relegation battle is likely to be the tensest in a decade at least.
In the race for the title I am backing Chiefs to hold off a stern challenge from Wasps and Sale to clinch 1st place in the table once again. This time however, I am backing Wasps to go all the way and win the final, much to the surprise of many of our readers no doubt. If Blackett can continue his momentum with the Coventry-based side it is hard to look past them for the title, as they are as good as anyone in the League on their day.