Premiership preview: Hopes - and fears - for all 12 clubs ahead of the restart

Charlie Morgan
·15-min read
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Getty Images - Getty Images

After a hiatus of almost exactly five months, the Premiership is set to return on Friday at the Twickenham Stoop.

With that in mind, what are each of the 12 sides aiming to achieve over the remainder of a disjointed season... and what might their supporters be fearing?

1. Exeter Chiefs

Best-case scenario

This is a straightforward one to start with. A domestic and European double must be in Exeter’s sights. Sound finances, quick contract renewals and typically canny signings keeps Rob Baxter’s squad very strong. In Aaron Hinkley, Corey Baldwin and Josh Hodge, they have acquired three of the United Kingdom’s most promising youngsters. Scotland lock Jonny Gray arrives as well.

A five-point cushion at the top of the Premiership table, with three further points back to third place, means they should host a semi-final. Sandy Park will also stage the Champions Cup quarter-final against Northampton Saints – a team they have made a habit of thrashing in Devon.

Jonny Gray - Getty Images Europe 
Jonny Gray - Getty Images Europe

Worst-case scenario

Gareth Steenson and Phil Dollman extended terms, but Nic White’s departure for Australia represents a set-back. For all the quality of Stuart Townsend and Jack Maunder, the experienced scrum-half will be missed at the business end of the campaign. Matt Kvesic and Sam Hill, two excellent players, have also left. A few untimely injuries in the back row and midfield might stretch them. Failure to capture a trophy would really sting.

2. Sale Sharks

Best-case scenario

In a recent interview with The Mail on Sunday, Sale co-owner Simon Orange spelled out his three-point checklist: “Sign Manu, win the league, fill the stadium”. Tuilagi in tow, the third will happen if Sharks gather momentum towards the second. And, with Saracens out of the Premiership picture, Steve Diamond will feel confident.

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Getty Images Europe - Getty Images Europe

Sam Hill is a fine addition to a midfield that features Rohan Janse van Rensburg. The pack is full of big, brutish bruisers as well. Diamond says there is nothing complicated about Sale, but there are bells and whistles as well – Sam James is a creative playmaker, Faf de Klerk an unconventional game-breaker. Sharks are in the Premiership Rugby Cup final against Harlequins, too. Patch up the lineout and they could land that as well as their first Premiership title since 2006.

Worst-case scenario

It would probably take a dramatic resurgence from one of Wasps, Bath or Harlequins – plus a significant slump – for Sale to miss the play-offs. It is possible, though. The nagging concerns are squad numbers, always light under Diamond, and back-three cover.  

3. Bristol Bears

Best-case scenario

Any team welcoming in Semi Radradra and Kyle Sinckler, two genuine World XV candidates, should be thinking about winning. Saracens loanees Ben Earl and Max Malins are good enough to enhance every Premiership squad, while Ratu Naulago is an intriguing, cross-code wildcard. On firm surfaces, the pace and width that Pat Lam enjoys will be difficult to stifle.

They are serious Premiership title contenders, having already overturned Exeter at Sandy Park this season, and host Dragons in a Challenge Cup quarter-final. Like Chiefs, Bristol are capable of succeeding on two fronts. A domestic semi at Ashton Gate? Why not? After that, anything could happen.

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Getty Images Europe - Getty Images Europe

Worst-case scenario

Lam has lost numbers and, at Bristol, that is a problem. Because of the tactical clarity instilled by their director of rugby and coaches, most players are able to slot in and excel with the minimum of fuss. It would be a shock not to see them in the play-offs and a surprise if they do not win Europe’s second-tier competition. Although their early influx of stars gives Bears a chance to reach a Premiership decider one year before they might have expected, falling short would be disappointing.

4. Northampton Saints

Best-case scenario

An unfussy process of Covid-19 contract renewals reflected the manner in which Northampton had been progressing under Chris Boyd. Nick Isiekwe is a fine recruit from Saracens and Nick Auterac and Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi beef up the scrummaging operation, although fixtures in August and September should mitigate the likelihood of stodgy slug-fests – and that is good news for Saints. Indeed, the free-flowing attackers will be hopeful of piling up points.

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Courntey Lawes - Getty Images Europe

They sit just two points inside the play-off bracket after a horrible run of four consecutive league losses over the Six Nations period. Consolidating that position, and pushing for a home semi-final, would constitute success. It will help if promising (yet more) academy graduates – Alex Coles, Connor Tupai, Ollie Sleightholme and Samson Ma’asi – continue to develop. A better opportunity to win the Premiership feels a year or two away, but who knows? As for Europe, a Champions Cup quarter-final away to Exeter Chiefs seems like a free swing. Expect Saints to wind up.

Worst-case scenario

Stumble against Wasps at Franklin’s Gardens on the opening weekend and Northampton would slide to fifth – perhaps even sixth if Bath beat London Irish with a bonus point. That is how tight the mid-table traffic jam has become. Boyd’s phlegmatic demeanour and the fierier on-field leadership of fly-half Dan Biggar are a good blend but supporters will feel disheartened should Saints be run out of a top-four berth in this sprint to the finish.

5Wasps

Best-case scenario

Even before Covid-19 sliced the 2019-20 campaign into two stanzas, Wasps had endured a season of two halves. They lost seven of their first 10 games, leading to the departure of Dai Young. Since a dour loss to Leicester Tigers in Lee Blackett’s first match as head coach, Wasps flicked a switch. Three consecutive wins followed, yielding 18 tries and 135 points.

Jacob Umaga, who emerged from a spell in England’s Six Nations training camp with a new outlook on kicking, holds the tiller at fly-half and has an armoury of clever chips. Lima Sopoaga and Jimmy Gopperth are excellent mentors. Having returned from injury, slippery scrum-half Ben Vellacott will make a long-awaited debut. Elsewhere in Wasps’ back division, Ryan Mills is a shrewd signing from Worcester. While back-rower Nizaam Carr returned to South Africa, Jack Willis has been in wonderful form. Chalk down Blackett’s men as exciting play-off underdogs.

PA - PA
PA - PA

Worst-case scenario

One of the options for next season’s Champions Cup is a 24-team framework that would see the top eight Premiership sides involved. Theoretically, then, dropping out of those places would be the nightmare for Wasps. Russ Petty has highlighted that they conceded the highest average of metres per carry (3.5) over the first 13 rounds. That suggests that they were outmuscled on the gain-line every now and then. Even so, despite their volatile tendencies in a volatile league, ninth feels seriously unlikely.

6. Bath

Best-case scenario

What Todd Blackadder would have given for a mid-season break to replenish his playing squad. Bath seem to have been ravaged by injuries over recent years, so the Covid-19 pandemic could be viewed as a handy pit-stop for Stuart Hooper. They did not enjoy the smoothest window of contract negotiations, and their squad was trimmed significantly, yet Bath’s resources are enviable.

A pair of Spencers, lock Will and scrum-half Ben, are high-class additions and youngster Cameron Redpath has a chance to kick on. Joe Cokanasiga is still healing but the run to the finish of the campaign is free from any international distractions for Bath’s umpteen Test players. A play-off spot is well within the reach of this group, especially if a back-row combination of Zach Mercer, Sam Underhill and Taulupe Faletau strings together appearances behind a powerful tight five.

Worst-case scenario

They won a few close arm-wrestles, notably against Exeter Chiefs, but Bath’s tally of 24 tries before lockdown – only Leicester Tigers (20) and Worcester (18) were lower – was pitiful. Their swamp of a pitch at The Rec cannot be solely to blame. At fly-half, there is a heavy onus on Rhys Priestland to stay fit now that Freddie Burns has left. The 33-year-old will not be able to play every game of the manic fixture list, though. And that could leave Bath rudderless, maybe even dragging them into the bottom half of the table

7. Harlequins

Best-case scenario

Paul Gustard enjoys catchy mottos and ‘win the wait’ has been his theme for Harlequins upon their return to training. They have nine matches to make up seven points if they are to navigate into the play-offs – a goal that eluded them so narrowly last season. It will be their ambition again.

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Getty Images Sport - Getty Images Sport

Chris Robshaw’s contract extension, Jerry Flannery’s arrival as lineout coach and an influx of South Africans, including centre André Esterhuizen and tighthead prop Wilco Louw, all constitutes reasonable business. Mike Brown and Nathan Earle are fit again and Joe Marchant is back from his loan spell in New Zealand. Those are all reasons to be optimistic.

Worst-case scenario

The exits of Kyle Sinckler, Semi Kunatani and Gabriel Ibitoye, although Harlequins are happy with their roster of wings, deprive Harlequins of attacking spark – not that a side featuring Marcus Smith will want for that too much. An opening assignment against Sale Sharks at the Twickenham Stoop becomes very important with two away games, the first at Allianz Park, to follow it. With only five wins from the first 13 rounds, they require a spurt and need new faces to gel quickly. Otherwise, missing out on the top eight could be their plight.

8. London Irish

Best-case scenario

Declan Kidney ’s cosmopolitan squad has shrunk markedly over lockdown, with forwards coach George Skivington also heading down the M4 to Gloucester to become head coach. Exiles old boy Tom Homer, in fine form at full-back for Bath over the past couple of years, and Wallabies lock Rob Simmons headline the recruitment. The latter does not join up with Irish until the end of his Super Rugby Australia commitments with the Waratahs.

Compete with the same tenacity as they did for most of the first part of this season and the Exiles have a chance of staying in the top eight and of earning top-tier European action next season. They start with games against Bath, Northampton, Leicester and Saracens. Sean O’Brien is fit again with a point to prove and, even though Waisake Naholo misses the first few games, young wings Ben Loader and Ollie Hassell-Collins are fun to watch.

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Getty Images Sport - Getty Images Sport

Worst-case scenario

The relocation to the Twickenham Stoop is something of a red herring given games will be behind closed doors and the Irish training base at Sunbury is far closer to Harlequins’ home than to Reading. More pertinently, Kidney’s team have slumped in a few matches. Their aggregate deficit from two losses to Sale Sharks was 80-7 and Bath whacked them 38-10 at the Madejski as well. They have conceded 47 tries and 350 points, more than anyone else. Fewer resources in an unforgiving schedule could make those capitulations messier and more frequent.

9. Gloucester

Best-case scenario

A revamp of the backroom staff, after Johan Ackermann and David Humphreys left, was conducted in consultation with senior players such as Danny Cipriani, Willi Heinz and Ed Slater. There is no excuse for discord, then. At least the exodus of players, with Franco Mostert and Gerbrandt Grobler leaving lock stocks fairly low, has been mitigated by good reinforcements such as Saracens loanee Jack Singleton, Matias Alemanno and Jonny May.

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Getty Images Europe - Getty Images Europe

A points difference of -14 from a record of nine losses from 13 matches, with 37 tries scored and just 26 conceded, reflects a strange spell of near misses. They have created the equal highest number of clean breaks per game (10, alongside Bristol), but have given up the equal most penalties as well (11 per game, alongside Saints and Irish). The players still at Gloucester will feel that small fixes can launch them back towards the top six and maybe higher.

Worst-case scenario

Failing to improve on their current predicament would be irritating, yet eminently possible. Dom Waldouck is an inexperienced defence coach who will take time to settle into his role and there has been a sticking-plaster feel to some of their late recruitment. This time last year, Gloucester were looking back at a season in which they made a Premiership semi-final. That felt like a platform to a brighter future, but another rebuild is in the offing.

10. Worcester Warriors

Best-case scenario

Ted Hill may just be 21, but Alan Solomons has been lavishing praise on the youngster for three years or so. The decision to anoint Hill as Worcester captain, then, was not too much of a shock. It signals an obvious look to the future for Warriors, who will hope that explosive centre Ollie Lawrence will stay and grow into a consistent game-changer. He and Hill signed new contracts during lockdown. Matt Kvesic, returning to Sixways after six and a half seasons, is an intriguing signing. He only turned 28 in April.

Ollie Lawrence - Getty Images Europe 
Ollie Lawrence - Getty Images Europe

Six losing bonus points from nine defeats tells its own story. Worcester have been close. Jonathan Thomas comes in as forwards coach from Bristol, which is another good move. They face Gloucester and Harlequins in their first two home games. A pair of victories would be a fine start on the way to a top-eight finish but any signs of progress will be well received.

Worst-case scenario

Those to spin out of the Sixways door include all-action hooker Joe Taufete’e, crafty fly-half Jono Lance and centre Ryan Mills – a talisman for the team in recent years. A lack of attacking penetration has been their issue. Worcester have scored 18 tries over the 2019-20 Premiership season so far. The Midlands derby of February 29 at Welford Road, won 14-8 by Tigers, was a truly horrible game and they lost 16-10 to Northampton the following week as well. It would be a worry if Warriors kept losing and limped to the end of September with similarly flat performances.

11. Leicester Tigers

Best-case scenario

After a month and a half (officially) under head coach Steve Borthwick and conditioning guru Aled Walters, Leicester should be organised and fit. Eight points adrift of eighth in the Premiership, they can use the rest of this campaign as an extended pre-season in preparation for 2020-21. A surge to the Champions Cup places is feasible but, regardless of results, most supporters will be pleased with tactical clarity and cohesion on both sides of the ball and the emergence of youngsters and fringe players. Freddie Steward, the England Under-20 full-back, and centre Dan Kelly, a former Ireland Under-20 international, are two candidates who should impress with game-time. Lock George Martin has been earmarked for big things. Back-rowers Sam Lewis and Tommy Reffell can go to the next level, too.

Steve Borthwick - Leicester Tigers
Steve Borthwick - Leicester Tigers

Away from the Premiership, Leicester have a home quarter-final against Castres in the Challenge Cup on September 20. What a boost if they could salvage a trophy – or even a place in a European decider – from such a turbulent period. High-profile signings such as Nemani Nadolo, Cyle Brink and Matías Moroni should be settled by then, giving Tigers a dangerous match-day 23.

Worst-case scenario

Borthwick has earned an awesome reputation but is taking a step into the unknown. If he becomes overwhelmed by greater responsibility and Leicester’s new-look squad fails to bond on the field, optimism could evaporate soon after an away game at Sandy Park on August 15. Tigers averaged 114 passes per game in Premiership action before the break – fewer than any other team – and the most missed tackles per match as well (26). Relegation is not a worry this year but, without getting much better in every area apart from scrummaging, fans may start fearing the drop in 2021.

12. Saracens

Best-case scenario

Mark McCall’s domestic selection strategy before lockdown comprised picking full-strength squads at home and rotating for away matches. Given he will still have an imposing first-team at his disposal, with Brad Barritt and Richard Wigglesworth as well as six England regulars signing on until the end of 2019-20, Saracens could nudge rivals towards their respective worst-case scenarios. It is very strange that they can still affect this competition despite being doomed to relegation due to their salary-cap conviction.

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Getty Images Europe - Getty Images Europe

For them, a Champions Cup quarter-final against Leinster looms large. They have loved the role of comic book villain down the years. September 19 is the date they are due to play it in Dublin. One facet of Leinster’s preparation has been regular, knowledge-sharing Zoom calls with the Crusaders in New Zealand. Mako Vunipola has acknowledged that the European campaign feels like the end of an era for Saracens. Whatever comes next, winning at the Aviva Stadium would be a special sign-off.

Worst-case scenario

Amid talk of Super Rugby loans to ready their stars for the British and Irish Lions tour next summer, Saracens’ chief priority next season has to be bouncing back from the second tier. Anything that compromises their Championship campaign – an injury crisis or squad disquiet, to name two possibilities – must be avoided.