Gallagher Premiership restart: Things to look out for
Harlequins host Sale on Friday night; league leaders Exeter entertain Leicester on Saturday
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 14/08/20 2:50pm
After five months without Premiership rugby, we take a look at some of the talking points ahead of the competition's restart on Friday....
Gallagher Premiership's restart fixtures:
- Harlequins vs Sale (Friday, 7.45pm)
- Worcester vs Gloucester (Saturday, 12.30pm)
- Exeter vs Leicester Tigers (Saturday, 2pm)
- Bath vs London Irish (Saturday, 3pm)
- Bristol vs Saracens (Saturday, 4.30pm)
- Northampton vs Wasps (Sunday, 3pm)
The Tuilagi factor
Has there been a more high-profile Premiership transfer in history? Certainly Manu Tuilagi's switch from Leicester to Sale has been the talk of rugby on these shores throughout lockdown and beyond.
Contractual issues at the Tigers saw six players depart, but none more significant than England centre Tuilagi - the 29-year-old having only ever lined out for one club since his professional career began in 2009.
Steve Diamond and Sale, one of the most ambitious clubs in Europe at present, snapped him up and have thrown him straight into the starting team for Friday's clash against Harlequins at the Stoop.
TEAM NEWS 🦈 |Take a look at #YourSharks to face @harlequins tomorrow night as we kick off the #RugbyRestart for @PremRugby! 🙌— Sale Sharks🦈 (@SaleSharksRugby) August 13, 2020
🇿🇦 Lood makes his full debut
💪 Manu & Hilly in the middle
🙋♂️ Fafster is back in the mix!
Don't forget we are LIVE on @BTSport from 7:45pm pic.twitter.com/2sJb61hvXX
Sale currently sit second in the Premiership table, five points adrift of Exeter, and will harbour real hopes of clinching the 2020 title.
With Tuilagi alongside the likes of Tom Curry, Faf de Klerk, Jono Ross, Denny Solomona, Lood de Jager and the Du Preez brothers, who would bet against the Sharks going all the way and clinching just a second ever league championship? The last time Sale were crowned the premier side in England was 2006.
There likely wouldn't have been a single club in the world who would have turned down the chance to sign Tuilagi, such are his qualities.
"Apart from Jason Robinson, I have never seen a player at Sale as complete as he is in training," Diamond told Sky Sports' Will Greenwood Podcast this week. "Error count zero after three weeks. Fitness levels up here; attitude fantastic. He is just a great, great lad."
Chiefs gunning for silverware
They reached the holy grail in 2016/17, but for too many seasons in recent years, Exeter have been the bridesmaids and not the bride.
In fact, the current league leaders have made the last four Premiership finals in a row at Twickenham, but have come up short in three - losing to Saracens on each occasion.
Two of those final losses have come in the last two campaigns in 2018/19 and 2019/20, and no side would have felt more frustration than Exeter when Saracens' salary cap misdemeanours came to public light.
With Saracens out of the equation this season due to a 105-point deduction, the Chiefs are the heaviest of favourites - but could such an overwhelming amount of pressure see them fall short again?
"We're just so happy the season is continuing," wing Jack Nowell told Sky Sports this week. "There was talk at the start of this about not being able to see the game get back up and going this year.
"We've worked really hard in both competitions, the Premiership and Heineken Cup, to get ourselves in the position we are now. We want to go on and win both competitions."
Bristol's new faces
If Sale pulled off the most eye-catching individual transfer before this restart, then perhaps Bristol have enjoyed the most impressive recruitment period of any club.
Sensational Fiji back Semi Radradra has joined from Bordeaux - many denoting him as the best player in the world in recent years - while England's outstanding tighthead Kyle Sinckler has also put pen to paper.
Added to that, arguably Saracens' standout player of the season, Ben Earl, has joined on loan, as has another Saracen in Max Malins. Fijian wing Ratu Naulago has also code-hopped from rugby league, and looks a superb talent.
Incomings of such quality, and alongside the existing talent within Pat Lam's ranks - Chris Vui, Steven Luatua, Nathan Hughes, Luke Morahan and Charles Piutau to name a few - mark Bristol as a squad of considerable threat.
Third in the table, the Bears will have the title firmly in their sights now too.
The Playoff mix
With nine rounds of fixtures left, one of the most compelling aspects to the close of this season will be the make-up of the top four, and the ensuing playoffs.
The current occupants in Exeter, Sale, Bristol and Northampton will fancy their chances of remaining in situ, but with Wasps and Bath just two and five points behind the Saints respectively, it's far from a closed party.
In fact, with Quins and London Irish both seven points off fourth as things stand, those two clubs too will hold ambitions of aiming for the top four.
With next season's European Cup a one-off expanded format to include 24 teams, the rush to finish in the top six is not as pressing as it would usually be.
As such, eight or nine clubs will be pushing harder than ever before to finish within the top four playoff places. It's sure to make for some tremendously exciting games.