Aviva Premiership team-by-team season preview: Part two
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 this part, we examine what's hot, what's not and what has changed for the teams that finished in seventh to 11th last season as well as Premiership returnees London Irish.
Aviva Premiership preview: Part one
With the new Aviva Premiership on the horizon, we take a look at the 12 clubs battling for the 2017/2018 title.
Last season: 7th
Best finish: 2nd and champions (2012/13)
What's hot: The singing of Piers Francis. The fly-half or centre will give Northampton another option and competition in a position where they have relied heavily on Stephen Myler over the past few seasons. Comfortable with the ball in hand, Francis showed his talents when he made his England debut in the summer tour of Argentina.
What's not: It was a disappointing season by Northampton's high standards last time out finishing in their worst league position since 2008/2009, their first year back in the top-flight following relegation.
They also found themselves finishing bottom of the Champions Cup pool and while they have qualified for European Rugby's top competition through the play-off system they face a tough task ahead drawing back-to-back champions Saracens, last season's losing finalists and French title holders Clermont and Welsh side the Ospreys.
They have lost a number of players to other clubs and while others around them have recruited astutely the number of quality ins is limited. It could be another tough campaign ahead for the Franklin's Gardens faithful.
What's changed: Their poor 2016/2017 season has possibly reflected in the amount of players exiting the club. The loss of Louis Picamoles will be the biggest blow for Jim Mallinder's men, he was easily their standout performer last campaign, while a number of key squad men including Calum Clark, Ethan Waller and JJ Hanrahan will also be playing their rugby elsewhere.
Ins: David Ribbans (Stormers), Mitch Eadie, Jamal Ford-Robinson (both Bristol), Rob Horne (Waratahs), Cobus Reinach (Sharks), Piers Francis (Blues), Francois van Wyk (Western Force)
Outs: Calum Clark (Saracens), Ethan Waller (Worcester), JJ Hanrahan (Munster), Lee Dickson, Howard Packman (Bedford), Sam Olver (Worcester), Louis Picamoles (Montpellier), Sam Dickinson, Adam Parkins, George Pisi, Jake Ilnicki, James Wilson (all released)
Last season: 8th
Best finish: 1st (1997/98)
What's hot: The Falcons go into this season with high expectations and renewed confidence having achieved an eighth-placed finish last time out, their highest finishing position in 11 seasons.
The 2016/2017 campaign also saw them achieve wins over Northampton both at home and away, whilst also securing impressive wins over Bath and Harlequins showing they are more than a match for the teams ahead of them in the table.
What's not: The retirement of lock Mouritz Botha on medical advice after he failed to recover from concussion suffered during the 2016/2017 season.
Capped 10 times by England and a Premiership title winner with Saracens, Botha never got to showcase his abilities in Falcons colours but the winning experience and competitive attitude he brought to Kingston Park is sure to be missed as they look to continue their climb up the table.
What's changed: There are a number of new faces around Kingston Park next seson including Fijian International Josh Matavesi, former Yorkshire Carnegie captain Ryan Burrows, Canada's record try-scorer DTH van der Merwe and three-time French title winner Maxime Mermoz. Toby Flood also returns to the club where his career started.
Ins: Maxime Mermoz (Toulon), Josh Matavesi (Ospreys), DTH van der Merwe (Scarlets), Ryan Burrows (Yorkshire), Sami Mavinga (Lyon), Gary Graham (Jersey), Sam Stuart (Richmond), Tevita Cavubati (Worcester), Toby Flood (Toulouse), Cameron Cowell (England 7s)
Outs: Marcus Watson, Ben Harris (both Wasps), Sam Egerton, Adam Powell, Tom Catterick, Mouritz Botha (all retired), David Nelson (Doncaster), Andrew Foster (Rotherham), Daniel Temm (Ealing), Mike Delany (Bay of Plenty)
Last season: 9th
Best finish: 1st and beaten finalists (2002/03, 2006/07)
What's hot: The signing of Ruan Ackermann. The back-rower was heavily involved in the Lions' outstanding Super Rugby campaign which saw them miss out to the Crusaders in the final. A fierce competitor, Ackermann looks set to bring some well-needed fight into a Gloucester team that has under-achieved in recent times.
"Anyone who has watched the Lions, Ruan has been one of their standout players," Gloucester Director of Rugby David Humphreys said of the 21-year-old. "We are trying to build a pack that is really competitive and really physical. The attributes he brings to his game will be a huge addition and acquisition for the squad.
What's not: The loss of Jonny May to Leicester. The wing had been with the club since 2009 and the club have reported that he requested a move elsewhere, a blow to a side who are looking to rebuild under a new coaching structure and fulfil their vast potential this campaign.
May registered 62 tries in 138 games for the club, posting 41 scores in 91 Premiership appearances and five in the European Cup from 13 games and will be sorely missed from the Gloucester back-line when the season begins.
What's changed: The head coach. Gloucester have called upon former South African international Johan Ackermann to assist director of rugby David Humphreys this season. As a coach, Ackermann led the Lions to promotion back into Super Rugby in 2013, and took them to the Super Final in 2015, where they lost 20-3 to Hurricanes.
Ins: Fraser Balmain (Leicester), Val Rapava-Ruskin (Worcester), Owen Williams (Leicester), Gareth Denman (Northampton), Jake Polledri (Hartpury), Jason Woodward (Bristol), Ed Slater (Leicester), Ruan Ackermann (Lions)
Outs: Greig Laidlaw (Clermont), James Hook (Ospreys), Matt Kvesic (Exeter), Joe Batley (Bristol), Joe Latta (Bristol) Josh McNutty (Harlequins), Salesi Ma'afu (Narbonne), Matt Protheroe (Bristol), Dan Thomas (Bristol), Tom Lindsay (Bedford), Sione Kalamafoni (Leicester), Yann Thomas (Rouen), Paul Doran-Jones (Wasps) Darren Dawidiuk (London Irish), Jonny May (Leicester)
Last season: 10th
Best finish: 1st and champions (2005/06)
What's hot: Big-name signings. Steve Diamond has made no secret of the fact he prepares to return Sale to their former glories of a Premiership title won back in 2005/2006 and signings like Faf de Klerk and James O'Connor show the club are willing to spend big to achieve this.
Both players have the experience and flair needed to propel Sale from a mid-table outfit to top four contenders building upon the foundation of home-grown talent already established by Diamond at the AJ Bell.
What's not: Off the field behaviour. It has not been a good summer for Sale Sharks off the field - Denny Solomona found himself sent home from England's training camp for an alcohol-related team culture issue, while Rob Webber was convicted of drink driving.
With James O'Connor also having off-the-field issues it could be a troubling season ahead if Sale's stars continue to make the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
What's changed: A lot has changed around the AJ Bell in the off-season as Steve Diamond looks to build a team to be reckoned with in the North. While a number of impressive big signings have been made there is an extensive number of leavers including influential and experienced scrum-half duo Mike Phillips and Peter Stringer and powerful centre Sam Tuitupou.
Ins: Josh Strauss (Glasgow), Will Cliff, Marc Jones (Bristol), Alexandru Tarus (Beziers), Jono Ross (Stade Francais), WillGroff John (Doncaster), Faf de Klerk (Lions), James O'Connor (Toulon)
Outs: Mike Phillips, Neil Briggs (both retired), Sam Tuitupou (Coventry), Sam Bedlow (Bristol), Matt Rogerson (Jersey), Brian Mujati (Ospreys), James Mitchell (Connacht), Kieran Longbottom (Saracens), Dan Mugford (Plymouth), Peter Stringer (Worcester), Jonathan Mills (London Scottish), Lou Reed (Merthyr), Andrew Hughes, Charlie Ingall, Tim Jeffers, Magnus Lund, Tom Morton (all released)
Last season: 11th
Best finish: 8th (2005/06)
What's hot: The influence of Peter Stringer. Francois Hougaard was a shining light in a difficult season for Worcester last time out that saw them finish down in 11th and with the scrum-half away on international duty with South Africa who better to bring in to fill his shoes than the ex-Ireland international. He has been a constant at the top level of the game for many years and will steer a youthful Warriors ship until January.
What's not: Injury concerns quickly mounted over pre-season for the Warriors with David Denton, Simon Kerrod, Luke Baldwin and Dewald Potgieter leaving head coach Carl Hogg fearing his side may have picked up some "serious" injuries with Denton seen wearing a protective boot and strapping after the match while scrum-half Baldwin has since undergone surgery.
What's changed: Worcester have made some impressive signings ahead of this year's Premiership battle with Ethan Waller, David Denton, Peter Stringer and Joe Taufete'e amongst others adding to Gary Gold's resources. Meanwhile a number of familiar faces have left the club including fly-half Ryan Lamb, Cooper Vuna and James Johnston all heading elsewhere.
Ins: Ethan Waller, Sam Olver (both Northampton), Simon Kerrod, Pierce Phillips (Jersey), Tom Howe (Wasps), Joe Taufete'e (unattached), Michael Dowsett (Southland), David Denton (Bath), Peter Stringer (Sale)
Outs: Val Rapava-Ruskin (Gloucester), Tiff Eden (Nottingham), Chris Vui (Bristol), Tevita Cavubati (Newcastle), Derrick Appiah (London Scottish), Charles Hewitt (Houston), Auguy Slowik (Northern Suburbs), Na'auma Lelemalefaga, James Johnston (both Brive), Ryan Lamb (La Rochelle), Mike Daniels (Hartpury), Kallus Hutchinson (Coventry, Tom Biggs, Connor Braid, Jaba Bregvadze, George de Cothi, Ryan Grant, Ben Fowles, Sam Ripper-Smith, Cooper Vuna (all released)
Last season: Promoted from the Championship
Best finish: 3rd and losing finalists (2008/2009)
What's hot: The coaching set-up. The London Irish backroom staff is brimming with players that have pulled on the green shirt - headed up by director of rugby Nick Kennedy, Declan Danaher, Paul Hodgson, George Skivington and even part-time technical director Brendan Venter have all represented the Exiles during their playing careers. They know what it means to play for the club and they are all passionate about making it the best side they can be.
Premiership all-time leading points scorer Charlie Hodgson has also linked up with the club ahead of the new season as kicking coach. While he may be on the periphery, Venter, one of the key men in turning Saracens from mid-table big spenders into double champions of Europe will have a huge say in the turnaround of the club, building on the core DNA instilled in the club and making a culture that will take them into a highly-competitive Premiership campaign.
What's not: Gelling a squad in such a short time period. With the Championship play-off still existing Kennedy and his team had to spend most of their summer 'break' preparing for the new season.
The club has also had visa issues with a number of their foreign players meaning that the time the squad has had as a whole, including their 11 newcomers, has been limited. Not a great start for a team many already feel will be up against it this campaign.
What's changed: London Irish have prepared themselves for the challenges that lie ahead by bringing in a number of players with big game experience including Scotland prop Gordon Reid, Australian international Saia Fainga'a, Italy's Luke McLean as well as Darren Dawidiuk from Gloucester and former Saracen Petrus Du Plessis.
Ins: Gordon Reid (Glasgow), Lasha Lomidze (Kransy Yar), Ben Meehan (Rebels), Napolioni Nalaga (Lyon), Saia Fainga'a (Brumbies), Luke McLean (Treviso), Petrus du Plessis (Saracens), Manasa Saulo (Toulon), Filo Paulo (Treviso), Jake Schatz (Rebels), Darren Dawidiuk (Gloucester)
Outs: Darren Allinson (Bath), Jason Harris-Wright (Bristol), Luke Narraway (Coventry), Ross Neal (London Scottish), Jerry Sexton (Jersey), Gerard Ellis (Dragons)