England play their World Cup quarter-final on Saturday morning. However back home the Premiership will already have started what promises to be an exceptionally exciting and open season. Friday night (1945hrs BST) sees the beginning of many months of twists and turns with local derby at a sold-out Ashton Gate for Bristol Bears versus Bath Rugby.
Twelve teams, including the welcome return of Reading-based (for one last season) London Irish, will compete for the title which is due to be awarded far into the future on 20 June, the latest ever finish of a Premiership season. Saracens are the reigning back to back winners having swept past Exeter Chiefs in both the 2018 and 2019 finals. Who can stop them triumphing again to make it a rare ‘threepeat’ of titles?
Many teams still have players out in Japan on Rugby World Cup playing duties, though none more so than champions Saracens who are still missing eight players on England duty, two with Wales (Liam Williams and Rhys Carré) and the Springboks prop Vincent Koch and fleet-footed back Damien Willemse, who was called up during the pool stages from a loan period in north London which he will return to for at least a month after events in Japan are over.
Other players will be nursing the battle scars from fierce group stage games before returning to club action and getting to know new teammates and coaching staff who have arrived while they have been away. The uncertain state that means for squad line-ups for this early part of the season makes this season even harder to predict than in previous seasons. Some teams, already at full-strength with few or no RWC participants, may steal a morale-boosting march on their rivals and with that initial momentum could push on towards securing play-off places next summer.
Can Saracens win again?
By far the most successful English club team in recent years, having secured four of the past five Premiership titles and three of the past four European Champions Cups, this season could be extremely taxing. They have had seventeen of their squad away on RWC duties, including hardy perennial scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth who had a coaching role with Canada, and will lose significant numbers again when the Six Nations period starts early in 2020. They are also facing the uncertainty of the surprisingly still-looming inquiry into alleged breaches of the league’s salary cap regulations. Were that to go very badly for them, as some have speculated (and some rival fans may have willed), it could even result in a significant points deduction, leaving their play-off hopes potentially in tatters. Whilst a likely outcome is still that the ‘co-investment schemes’ were not excluded by the regulations as drafted and therefore do not amount to breaches, it might create pressures on the squad and distract from the playing requirements ahead.
Having seemingly signed wisely to build and supplement the talent in the squad, including England RWC squad members Elliot Daly from rivals Wasps and Jack Singleton, and with a successful A team squad and Academy set-up, they will push hard again for the title. They are building off the pitch too, with their Allianz Park base temporarily at a reduced 8,500 capacity while a grand new West Stand is constructed during the season. Can the squad make more memories for their fans this season and defend the four titles won last season? Their Sevens side has already put the Premiership 7s trophy back into the cabinet after winning at Franklin’s Gardens last month. Will the Premiership league, Premiership Shield and Champions Cup follow again?
Goode feeling about new signings
Last season’s European Player of the Year Alex Goode returned last weekend in the Premiership Cup after a lengthy injury spell over the summer which, much to the mocking of teammates made him miss almost all of preseason. However, he has still been keeping a close eye on new arrivals. He’s impressed with the player who have arrived. One, prop Josh Ibuanokpe, will now sadly miss the first five weeks of the Premiership season after being suspended by an RFU disciplinary hearing this week following an on-pitch contretemps with former England captain (and former Quins teammate) Chris Robshaw during the Premiership Cup game last weekend. Another prop, young Welshman Sam Wainwright has been “really competitive” and scrum-half Alex Day, signed from Cornish Pirates this summer, has “looked really good.”
Goode was phlegmatic about the loss of so many Saracens players to Rugby World Cup duty saying, “there’s nothing we can really do about it. That’s the price of success: your players get called up.” However, he saw their absence as “a great opportunity for lots of players: young players to really make a mark and senior players to step-up.”
In this most competitive of seasons predicting the final placings next summer is even harder than ever but with all things considered and weighed-up before a Premiership ball has been kicked this season, RugbySaracens are predicting the league table will end up looking like this:
2. Exeter Chiefs
4. Sale Sharks
5. Northampton Saints
8. Bristol Bears
9. Leicester Tigers
11. Worcester Warriors
12. London Irish
Tickets for the Premiership Final on Saturday 20 June go on sale at 1000hrs on Friday 18 October. Eight months of action stretch out invitingly before that but it’s well worth getting your tickets without delay. The final is a fantastic occasion regardless of which two teams will be competing to lift the trophy.
By James from @RugbySaracens