Aviva Premiership team-by-team season preview: Part one
By Louise Warr
Last Updated: 02/09/17 2:28pm
Just over three months after they lifted the Aviva Premiership trophy at Twickenham, Exeter begin the defence of their title in a West Country derby against Gloucester at Kingsholm on Friday, September 1.
However, regaining their crown won't be easy and with every team looking to get their hands on the coveted silverware at the end of May we cast our eyes over the 12 teams going to battle in the Premiership this season.
In part one we assess what's hot, what's not and what has changed for the teams that finished in the top six of the table after the 22 regular season rounds last campaign, including title holders Exeter Chiefs and European champions Saracens.
Aviva Premiership preview: Part two
With the new Aviva Premiership on the horizon, we take a look at the 12 clubs battling for the 2017/2018 title.
Last season: 1st and losing finalists
Best finish: 2nd and Champions (2002/2003, 2003/2004, 2004/2005, 2007/2008)
What's hot: Joe Launchbury continuing as captain. Launchbury passed the milestone of a century of appearances for Wasps last season and was an integral part of helping the club reach the Aviva Premiership final and a European Champions Cup quarter-final during his first year in the role.
What's not: Wasps will start their season without Elliot Daly as the club fear that he will burn out. The 24-year-old made 36 appearances in total last season, domestically and internationally for both England and the Lions, so Wasps and Dai Young have made the decision to rest their star back for the opening two matches to keep him fresh. Meanwhile, they will also be without flanker James Haskell, who will remain sidelined until October as he continues to recover from finger surgery.
What's changed: After a somewhat successful season for the club, there has been minimal movement over the summer, the most eye-catching signing coming in the form of Springboks centre Juan de Jongh, who joins from the Stormers. The off-season all saw some notable departures including Kurtley Beale, Carlo Festuccia and Frank Halai.
Ins: Marcus Watson, Ben Harris (both Newcastle), Antonio Harris (Nottingham), Gabiriele Lovobalavu (Bayonne), Juan de Jongh (Stomers), Paul Doran-Jones (Gloucester), David Langley (Cambridge)
Outs: Nick de Luca, Carlo Festuccia (both retired), Alapati Leiua (Bristol), Phil Swainston (Harlequins), Tom Howe (Worcester), Kurtley Beale (Waratahs), Frank Halai (Pau), George Edgson (Bedford), Ehize Ehizode (Bristol), Piers O'Connor (Ealing), Tom Bristow (Narbonne)
Last season: 2nd and champions
Best finish: 2nd and champions (2016/2017)
What's hot: Coaching continuity. Nobody knows Exeter Chiefs better than Rob Baxter and the club have awarded him and his coaching staff, Ali Hepher, Rob Hunter and Ricky Pellow, with new contracts.
Baxter has been in charge of the Chiefs for the past eight seasons, steering them to Championship promotion in 2010, installing them as a domestic force and then most recently guiding them to a maiden league title.
What's not: The new demands on the club. With success comes further recognition and Exeter will now face the prospect of losing increasing numbers of their players to international duty.
Baxter's side have also voiced their desires to now become the best team in Europe to go alongside their maiden domestic title and after a somewhat disappointing campaign in the Champions Cup last time out, the Chiefs squad could feel the demands of trying to launch a sizeable attack on two hard-fought competitions.
What's changed: They are now the target for other teams. Gareth Steenson's penalty at Twickenham back in May saw the Chiefs beat Wasps to secure their first Premiership title, just seven years after their promotion to the top flight, turning them from up-and-coming threat to the team at the top of the tree. While the Chiefs will be keen to show the world they are here to see, how will they cope with being the team everybody wants to beat?
Ins: Matt Kvesic (Gloucester), Tom O'Flaherty (Ospreys), Toby Salmon (Rotherham), Nic White (Montpellier), James Freeman (Jersey), Wilhelm van der Sluys (Kings)
Outs: Dave Lewis (Harlequins), Damian Welch (Cardiff), Will Hooley (Bedford), Geoff Parling (Rebels), Haydn Thomas, Tom Johnson (both retired)
Last season: 3rd and beaten semi-finalists
Best finish: 1st and champions (2015/16)
What's hot: The signing of Liam Williams. Saracens ensured they didn't feel the blow of losing Chris Ashton for too long, capturing the signature of British and Irish Lion Liam Williams to fill the hole left by European Rugby's all-time top try scorer.
Williams will add to an embarrassment of riches in the north London club's back three - which also boasts international trio Alex Goode, Sean Maitland, Chris Wyles and up-and-coming winger Nathan Earle - and could pose a potent attacking threat on the fast-paced artificial turf of Allianz Park.
What's not: Saracens have already voiced their concerns about being 'punished' for producing home-grown talent and this is only set to continue as the season gets underway. With 12 current internationals in their squad, including the English Lions' quartet of Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola and George Kruis, Mark McCall's men will once again face chunks of their season without their big names.
What's changed: Not going into the season as reigning champions. They may have secured back-to-back European titles but losing their domestic crown to Wasps has left Saracens with a point to prove, something that has not been the case in the previous two campaigns.
Suffering the dramatic defeat in last season's Premiership semi-final against Exeter would have hurt a squad that pride themselves on their consistency and they will be keen to show their rivals that loss was nothing more than a lesson to be learnt from when the season gets back underway.
Ins: Calum Clark (Northampton), Dominic Day (Rebels), Kieran Longbottom (Sale) Will Skelton (Waratahs), Christopher Tolofua (Toulouse), Liam Williams (Scarlets)
Outs: Chris Ashton (Toulon), Petrus Du Plessis (London Irish), Jared Saunders (Jersey), George Perkins (Bristol), Samu Vunisa (Glasgow), Kelly Brown, Neil de Kock, Jim Hamilton, Tim Streather (all retiring)
Last season: 4th and beaten semi-finalists
Best finish: 1st and champions (2008/09, 2009/10)
What's hot: The return of Matt O'Connor. After being part of a Leicester coaching set-up that helped the club to domestic titles in 2009, 2010 and 2013, O'Connor will be keen to bring silverware back to Welford Road once again.
After a 'settling in' period at the end of last campaign, O'Connor and his Leicester team will be keen to hit the ground running without the problems of bedding into a new structure as the season kicks off. He knows what makes the Tigers tick, which paired with his ability to win, could spark the Tigers back into the force of old.
What's not: The off-field tribulations of Manu Tuilagi. Whilst his latest misdemeanor occurred on international duty, Leicester will want their man to keep his head down and let his rugby do the talking when he pulls on club colours this season as he makes his return from knee and groin injuries.
Speaking of the incident, his head coach Matt O'Connor said: "The reality is that Manu made the wrong call, and he has learnt from that, hopefully, and he will be better for it.
"He is working really hard. We made a conscious decision when he came back out of the England camp to expose him to as much rugby as we could because he was incredibly frustrated with not being allowed to do weights, not being allowed to participate with the lads."
What's changed: Last season was one of upheaval for Leicester and the trials and tribulations at Welford Road saw the departures of defence coach Scott Hansen, head coach Aaron Mauger and director of rugby Richard Cockerill.
This campaign has started in a more settled manner with Matt O'Connor continuing at the helm after starting at the back end of last season, while the number of new faces is limited but of quality including the return of fly-half George Ford and the high-profile acquisition of England wing Jonny May.
Ins: George Ford (Bath Rugby), Sione Kalamafoni (Gloucester), Joe Ford, Jonah Holmes (both Yorkshire), Dominic Ryan (Leinster), Gareth Owen (Scarlets), Nick Malouf (Australia 7s), Valentino Mapapalangi (Manawatu), Chris Baumann (Wellington), Jonny May (Gloucester)
Outs: Fraser Balmain, Owen Williams (both Gloucester), Freddie Burns (Bath), Jack Roberts (Cardiff Blues), Marcos Ayerza (retired), Oliver Bryant (Jersey), Peter Betham (Clermont), Riccardo Brugnara (Rovigo), JP Pietersen (Toulon), Ed Slater (Gloucester), Lachlan McCaffrey (Brumbies)
Last season: 5th
Best finish: 1st and losing finalists (2003/2004)
What's hot: The signing of Sam Underhill. Already an England international after making his full debut in the second Test against Argentina this summer, Underhill is one of the most eagerly anticipated signings of the new Premiership season.
Eddie Jones sees the 20-year-old as the answer to his country's openside problems ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup but before then he will be keen to establish himself in a well-stocked Bath back-row and help his club into the Premiership's top four after a couple of recent disappointing finishes.
What's not: Going into the season with injuries. While it is inevitable knocks will be picked up as the campaign gets underway, Todd Blackadder's men go into the start of this campaign without the services of props Henry Thomas and Max Lahiff, who both face long injury layoffs, while new signing Shaun Knight has also suffered a minor neck injury in pre-season.
What's changed: All change at fly-half for the West Country club as George Ford and Freddie Burns switch clubs. Samoan tighthead prop Anthony Perenise also returns to the club he made 85 appearances for between 2011 and 2014. Promising young flanker Sam Underhill also joins the ranks.
Ins: Sam Underhill (Ospreys), Freddie Burns (Leicester), Darren Allinson (London Irish), Shaun Knight (Dragon), Josh Lewis (Ebbw Vale), James Phillips (Bristrol), Anthony Perenise (Bristol).
Outs: George Ford (Leicester), Adam Hastings (Glasgow), David Denton (Worcester), Robbie Fruean (Edinburgh), Darryl Marfo (Edinburgh), Dave Sisi (Zebre), Liam Forsyth (Wigan), Dan Bowden (released)
Last season: 6th
Best finish: 1st and champions (2011/12)
What's hot: Chris Robshaw committing his future to the club. Harlequins recently announced that the 31-year-old flanker's deal will keep him at the Twickenham Stoop until 2020.
Robshaw, twice a former Premiership player of the year who captained Quins to a league title and European Challenge Cup success, has made more than 200 appearances for the London club and will provide an influential figure for his side as they look to break into the Premiership top four and make an impact in Europe.
What's not: The loss of Luke Wallace to injury. Harlequins and Wallace suffered a huge injury blow during their pre-season fixture with London Irish as the flanker suffered a dislocated hip. Quins don't know how long they will be without their openside for but it is unlikely he will feature again before the end of 2017.
What's changed: A new face at fly-half. Nick Evans joined Quins in 2008, making more than 200 senior appearances and scoring a club record of over 2,200 points. An ever present in their lineup since he made the switch, Harlequins season could rest on how quickly they adapt to life post-Evans.
Ins: Demetri Catrakillis (Montpellier), Rendaldo Bothma (Bulls), Dave Lewis (Exeter), Phil Swainston (Wasps), Lewis Boyce (Yorkshire), Josh McNutty (Gloucester), Francis Saili (Munster), Ben Glynn (Bristol)
Outs: Tyler Gendall (Bristol), Matt Hopper (Oyonnax), Matt Shields (Rotherham), Dan Murphy, Jonas Mikakcius (both Hartpury), Owen Evans (Doncaster), Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow), Nick Evans, Karl Dickson, Netani Talei, Mark Reddish (all retired)