Gallagher Premiership 2018/19 season preview
All 12 Premiership clubs assessed and key players identified ahead of the new campaign
By Emma Thurston
Last Updated: 31/08/18 2:29pm
The most competitive season yet... that's the consensus of opinion when it comes to the 2018/19 Gallagher Premiership.
With Bristol Bears arriving from the Greene King IPA Championship in some style, the high-profile new entrants (both players and coaches), and the quality of those already established in the competition, the pieces of the jigsaw are in place for a scintillating season.
It all starts on Friday night with a West Country derby between Bristol and Bath at Ashton Gate.
Here, we take a look at all 12 Premiership clubs...
Director of Rugby: Todd Blackadder
Last season's position: Sixth place
Bath Rugby are going into the 2018/19 season with their sights set firmly upwards. Last term, according to Blackadder, they showed "promise, but also the dark side of how we can play at times" and went through some "horrible patches".
This time around, they need to show that they have taken the lessons required from those 'patches' and that they can convert their considerable on-paper potential into consistent high-quality performances.
Recruitment wise, keep an eye out for the introduction of Ruaridh McConnochie from England Sevens, the highly experienced Jamie Roberts, and the dynamic Joe Cokanasiga.
Key Player: Dave Attwood. The forward's return following his loan spell at RC Toulon will lift all with blue, black and white in their hearts. His physicality, expertise and experience will add considerably to the West Country side.
Head Coach: Pat Lam
Last season's position: N/A - Greene King IPA Championship Winners
We have three goals as a club. We want to be a Champions Cup team, we want players playing for England and we want Bristolians coming through to play for us. It's all well and good wanting to change things but you have to be working with people prepared to make change and we've got that at Bristol.
Pat Lam, Bristol Bears
Bristol Bears are arriving ready to ruffle some feathers and show that they're here to stay.
Historically, there's always a touch of trepidation surrounding the newly-promoted side but this term, there's some excitement given the squad and messages coming out of Ashton Gate.
With the likes of John Afoa, Charles Piutau and George Smith arriving and adding to those already there - Steven Luatua, Ian Madigan and Jordan Crane, to name but a few - it's a strong squad.
The question is though, can the Bristol Bears handle Premiership intensity week in, week out?
Key Player: George Smith. The 38-year-old's influence is likely to be vast, both on and off the field. His output during games will be coupled with mentoring off it, as Wasps' players found out during his time there. What a man to have in your corner.
Director of Rugby: Rob Baxter
Last season's position: First in the league, and runners-up overall
Exeter Chiefs are entering the new season with a settled squad and one that was hurt by the fact that they fell at the last hurdle in May.
As you'd expect from the Chiefs, recruitment has been limited. However, how Alex Cuthbert delivers in their environment will be fascinating to see, as will the development of Tongan back-row forward Onehunga Kaufusi under Baxter's influence.
Key Player: Don Armand. Tearing up trees was often the description used when it came to this man's performances last season. Once again, he'll break through the gain-line at will and set the Chiefs' tone physically from the first moment that he steps onto the pitch.
Director of Rugby: David Humphreys
Last season's position: Seventh place
Together, Humphreys and his head coach Johan Ackermann have been busy adding players to their squad and the new entrants will need to gel quickly with those already there.
A roaring Kingsholm is a challenging place for sides to travel to and if this squad are all on the same page together, and develop a sharp mental edge to see out games from Round 1 to Round 22, things could look rosy at Gloucester.
Key Player: Danny Cipriani. With his vision, flair and talent, the fly-half may thrive with those around him and duly take Gloucester's attacking game to new heights.
Head of Rugby: Paul Gustard
Last season's position: 10th place
Harlequins are one of a couple of sides that will be keen to banish the memories of last term as quickly as possible.
Gustard's introduction and philosophies must be bedded in quickly and their defence tightened up considerably if they're to start moving back up the table.
Recruitment hasn't been prolific; however, a few eyes will be fixed on Nathan Earle's development and how Nick Auterac, Matt Symons and Ben Tapuai settle in.
Key Player: Semi Kunatani. The Olympic gold medallist is Harlequins' most-recent signing and the back-row forward, described by Gustard as a 'precocious talent', should bring something unique to Quins, and to the competition as a whole.
Head Coach: Matt O'Connor
Last season: Fifth place
For the Tigers, this season will be about building on from the last, and springing off from the platforms that they put in place.
O'Connor's signings include the impressive back-row forward of Guy Thompson alongside David Denton and Will Spencer. The trio should add some real dynamism and purpose to their output.
The talents that they already have out the back are well-known - Manu Tuilagi, Ben Youngs, George Ford, Jonny May, Telusa Veainu and co - and if they find their groove as a collective, the play-offs will be calling their name.
Key Player: Kyle Eastmond. The dual code international arrives at Welford Road and will re-form the excellent understanding that he has with fly-half Ford.
Director of Rugby: Dean Richards
Last season's position: Fourth in the league, losing semi-finalist
The Falcons were the success story of last season and delivered their highest league finish in two decades. They thoroughly deserved their place in the play-offs and a place at Europe's top table.
This term, no-one will dare underestimate Newcastle - they'll be a marked side and must raise their levels accordingly, while managing European rugby too.
Logovi'i Mulipola and George McGuigan both arrive up front, while Johnny Williams' signing from London Irish could prove to be an excellent one.
Key Player: Sonatane Takulua. The scrum-half joined the Falcons in 2014 and has showed time and time again how dynamic and sparky he can be.
Director of Rugby: Chris Boyd
Last season's position: Ninth place
The Saints are another side that will be driven by the hurt that last season's finish inflicted on them.
Boyd will be well aware of the expectation and pressure that surrounds the club but has said that he's buoyed by the "new influences" in both the coaching and playing groups.
James Haskell's introduction is one of those influences. His drive on the field, and his energy off it, may turn out to be exactly what the squad need.
Another new signing, Taqele Naiyaravoro - who arrives shortly - has the physical attributes and finishing capabilities to take the Gallagher Premiership by storm.
Early confidence and wins may well be the key to a positive season for the Saints.
Key Player: Dan Biggar. A desire to 'test' himself outside of Wales is driving the international. The fly-half's considerable experience and metronomic boot are exactly what's required.
Director of Rugby: Steve Diamond
Last season's position: Eighth place
Sale Sharks gave their fans an insight into their pre-season with an all-access video and in it, their fierce ambitions and desire to shock their opponents was abundantly clear.
Diamond has some substantial talents at his disposal, including Josh Beaumont, Denny Solomona, the Curry twins, and Faf de Klerk when he returns from the Rugby Championship.
Over the first six rounds, Sale may well be a team that others underestimate (at their peril) but over the 22 rounds, the Sharks must show their own ability to consistently deliver.
Key Player: Chris Ashton. Despite the winger's recent disciplinary hearing, meaning that he'll miss the start of term, the prolific finisher should still be highly influential over the course of the season.
Director of Rugby: Mark McCall
Last season's position: Second in the league, Premiership champions
Saracens arrive at the start of the 2018/19 season in a familiar position - they are the ones to beat.
The undulating nature of last season, including that well-documented dip in form, will have boosted their resolve and togetherness.
The return of David Strettle provides even more firepower out wide, while No. 8 Sione Vailanu adds considerably to their back-row resources and will mean that Billy Vunipola's workload can be shared.
In pre-season, McCall's side looked ultra fit and very sharp. They seem ready to raise their intensity to a new level and all of the signs point to them duelling for the title once again.
Key Player: Brad Barritt. His uncompromising defensive capabilities and his leadership are at the very heart of the reigning champions' success.
Director of Rugby: Dai Young
Last season's position: Third in the league, losing semi-finalists
The most recent injury news out of Wasps has certainly taken the gloss off the start of the season for Young's side.
Jimmy Gopperth's significant knee injury leaves them lighter than they'd like to be at 10 and 12, and Jake Cooper-Woolley's early absence is another blow.
Consistent set-piece dominance over their opponents and further raises in defensive intensity will always be welcome signs for Wasps' fans, because we all know that they can score points for fun!
Key Player: Lima Sopoaga. With Gopperth out of the mix, the pressure on the shoulders of their new signing has just gone up a notch. But there's no question about the fact that the Premiership side are gaining an exceptional talent.
Director of Rugby: Alan Solomons
Last season's position: 11th place
The Warriors enter this season with a new coaching set-up that's been put in place by Solomons.
Rory Duncan takes charge as head coach, while Neil Doak's territory is their attack and the backs. Omar Mouneimne will look after defence and kicking strategy with Mefin Davies, assistant forwards coach, adding the scrum to his remit.
Player movement, both in and out of the club, has been plentiful, with 11 new recruits in total and 15 players leaving.
Of those entering, Francois Venter, Ashley Beck and Duncan Weir lead the charge in the back-line and the side will know that they need to shock a few people early on to avoid finding themselves under pressure.
Key Player: Ben Te'o. The significant influence that the 31-year-old can have on a game was shown in New Zealand, when he donned the red of the British & Irish Lions. He won't be fit for their Premiership opener but fans will be hoping that he is able to put in some considerable game time for them this season.