Last season was a mixed bag for these three teams who will all be hoping to challenge in the upper echelons of the Gallagher Premiership table in 2023/24.
Bath, Exeter Chiefs and Harlequins are next up in the Talking Rugby Union’s preview series.
Bath go into their second season under Johann van Graan with real optimism.
The South African will hope his side can step up another level this season after a year of his coaching but with the added pressures of Champions Cup rugby, that might be easier said than done in an ever-evolving Gallagher Premiership.
Last time out
Following a 61-29 win over Saracens, Bath leapfrogged West Country rivals Bristol Bears on the final day of last season, seeing them steal the final Champions Cup place.
Van Graan’s team ended the campaign in fine form with four wins from their final four fixtures to race up the table following a tough start to the term where they failed to win any of their opening six matches.
Areas of strength
Bath go into the season with a clear plan and with coaching staff that seem to be in Van Graan’s vision.
The head coach has also had his second pre-season with the squad and last year will only make Bath a stronger force this time around.
They have also largely kept the squad together from 2023/23, the only notable departures were Jonathan Joseph and Dave Attwood but Joseph, for example, only started eight league matches last term meaning his presence may not be missed as much as it would have been a few years ago.
Although they have been quiet on the incomings front, Bath have made arguably the best signing of the summer with the arrival of Scottish star Finn Russell to their backline.
"We were the only team who got 20 points in the last four games. If you look at our signings, it will give you a clue at the kind of team we want to be."— Talking Rugby Union (@TalkRugbyUnion) September 1, 2023
There might be a fervour around the World Cup but there is also excitement brewing in Bath...https://t.co/rw6jxgcTaa pic.twitter.com/ooCxkgWr8b
The smooth operator has lit up the Top 14 with Racing 92 as well as the world stage when playing for Scotland.
Being an international will mean he will miss the bulk of the season but having his know-how and skill around the place will improve Bath immensely, in particular the youngsters such as Orlando Bailey.
The back row depth at the club is also a huge strength for the Blue, Black and Whites.
England Internationals Ted Hill and Sam Underhill are some of the best over the ball in the division while Alfie Barbeary will be keen to push on again this season after another significant injury setback.
Miles Reed also had his best campaign to date last time out.
Areas of weakness
Bath have made the fewest signings in the whole division ahead of this new season, which could be viewed as a weakness as they only finished eighth with this current crop of players but van Graan most likely feels he has a strong enough group to challenge this time around.
Bath brought in numerous new faces last term, especially from the stricken Worcester Warriors, meaning they didn’t have to go mad this summer.
Russell was needed to link everything together and add further stardust but Bath - with the likes of reigning Gallagher Premiership Player of the Year Ollie Lawrence - are well equipped under the tutelage of van Graan.
They have lost experience in Attwood and Joseph but younger players like the aforementioned Reed should be able to step up to the plate.
Round 1: Newcastle Falcons (H)
Round 2: Saracens (A)
Round 3: Leicester Tigers (H)
Round 4: Northampton Saints (A)
Round 5: Gloucester (A)
Bath will be hopeful of an opening day win against Newcastle Falcons before they face a daunting early season trip to the StoneX Stadium to face Saracens.
Leicester Tigers at home will be another tough test of Bath’s mettle while back-to-back away games against Northampton Saints and Gloucester is a tough way to end the opening group of fixtures for Van Graan and his men.
Predicted finish: 6th
At the end of the 2022/23 season, Bath were showing real glimpses of quality and spurts of growth under van Graan’s stewardship and with the added addition of stardust in Russell, they are sure to kick on once again this season.
Despite a difficult start to the season, Bath should pick up some massive results at The Rec. The five teams I’ve predicted to finish above Bath just have more experience and know-how of how to make the top four.
2019/20 Gallagher Premiership champions Exeter Chiefs go into this season with the sense of unknown surrounding them.
A mass exodus during the summer means the squad that won the title only three years ago has been stripped of many of its key men. Rob Baxter and Ali Hepher have a challenge on their hands to get a new side on the right path.
Last time out
The Chiefs finished in seventh place for the second season running last time out.
Exeter began the season strongly winning their opening three matches, defeating defending champions Leicester Tigers on the opening weekend but three straight defeats around Halloween against Saracens, Gloucester and Northampton Saints halted their progress.
One win in the last four curtailed their top-four hopes as they had to settle for another mid-table finish.
Areas of strength
When looking at the Chiefs squad ahead of the new campaign, their depth in the centres is one standout strength.
Ollie Devoto, Henry Slade, Tom Hendrickson and Rory O’Loughlin make a fearsome foursome in the midfield and it means if Slade gets back into the England squad, his quality can be replaced.
Devoto and Slade formed a great partnership in the Chiefs midfield during their Premiership winning campaign and Baxter will be hoping they can get back to their scintillating best this season.
The Chiefs have quite a promising crop of players coming through too, especially with the addition of Will Haydon-Wood from Newcastle Falcons.
Dafydd Jenkins and Christ Tshiunza had breakthrough years for the Chiefs and Wales last year and will be looking to make further strides this term.
Exeter’s biggest strength over the last decade has been their mastermind Baxter. His level of coaching means Exeter will continue to be a force in the league, but is this squad one he can perform miracles with?
Areas of weakness
It’s been a bruising summer for the Devon-based side losing star player after star player.
How will they cope with the departures of the Simmonds brothers (Sam and Joe) is the big question going into the new campaign.
For a team who have also lost the likes of Stuart Hogg, Jannes Kirsten and Dave Ewers, they have recruited rather poorly, only making six signings, with the majority of them not improving their starting 15.
For so long, Exeter had players they could rely on but now it will be down to the likes of Jacques Vermeulen, Richard Capstick and Jonny Gray to step up.
Fly-half could be an area of worry for the Chiefs this season considering their only two No.10’s are still learning their trade.
Harvey Skinner got a lot of game time ahead of Joe Simmonds last season but can he make the 10 shirt his own
Round 1: Saracens (H)
Round 2: Harlequins (A)
Round 3: Sale Sharks (H)
Round 4: Bristol Bears (H)
Round 5: Northampton Saints (A)
The defending champions Saracens come to town on the opening weekend, which starts a difficult beginning to the season for the Chiefs. Harlequins at The Stoop the following Sunday is another massive game before they face last year’s beaten finalists Sale Sharks.
Northampton Saints away to end their opening five rounds of fixtures is an early tester.
Predicted finish: 9th
Looking on paper, squad against squad, Exeter’s for the first time in quite a few years looks like one of the weakest.
The sheer amount of experience, leadership and quality the Chiefs have lost from last season can only have a major effect on performances in 2023/24. Lack of recruitment - mixed with a side that has been on a downward trend of late - equals a troublesome campaign in my opinion.
Harlequins shocked the league with their title-winning campaign two years ago, but seem to have stagnated of late so Director of Rugby Billy Millard will be hoping his Quins side can repeat some of the magic of the 2021 season.
The trio of Marcus Smith, Alex Dombrandt and Danny Care will again be key to any success Quins have as they look to improve upon last term’s sixth-place finish.
Last time out
Quins began last season in mixed form, winning two of their opening five matches and this inconsistency continued to plague the London-based side as they finished sixth and outside of the top four for the first time in three years.
Two wins from their final five fixtures would have been deflating for Quins as they had real hopes of a top-four finish heading into March.
Areas of strength
Unlike the two previous clubs, Quins have recruited quality in numbers this off/ season to try and push them back into the top four.
Like so many sides in the league, Harlequins have taken advantage of London Irish’s demise by signing some of their young talent in the shape of Lovejoy Chawatama, Chandler Cunningham-South and probably the most exciting of the three, Will Joseph.
Joseph, the younger brother of Jonathan, could well be on for some serious minutes this season, alongside South African powerhouse Ander Esterhuizen.
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How university talent has helped Harlequins challenge for the title once again.
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Another exciting backline addition is Roma Zheng, who has arrived from Cardiff Metropolitan University with a big reputation. He becomes Quins’ third signing from the university after the success stories of Dombrandt and Luke Northmore. The winger lit up BUCS Super Rugby, scoring 21 tries in his two years in the competition. The University is becoming a breeding ground for International level talent and Quins will be hoping they have unearthed another gem in Zheng.
Quins have an outstandingly strong back row with the likes of Jack Kennigham, Will Evans and Archie White but the addition of former England international Joe Launchbury to the lock department will vastly improve their lineouts this season and his years of experience in the league with Wasps is sure to help the younger forwards in the team.
Areas of weakness
Despite the excitement around Joseph joining the midfield at Quins, he has big boots to fill in Joe Marchant. The England international was a reliable operator at 13 for the London-based side over his eight years in the capital but the last three campaigns have really showcased his talent.
The 27-year-old played a huge part in Quins’ Premiership winning campaign in 2021, scoring two tries to help his side turn the semi-final around against Bristol Bears, but after the Rugby World Cup, he will be staying in France to link up with Stade Français.
One question that never seems to go away is who will look after the 10 jersey when Smith is away with England. Tomasso Allan did this job last season and this term, it looks like new signing Jarrod Evans from Cardiff will fulfil this role.
No one will replace Smith fully, as the livewire is a one-in-a-kind player but Quins need an able deputy who can keep the side ticking over when he is absent.
Evans started 16 times for Cardiff last season and has nine caps for Wales to his name but is he able to fill Smith’s boots for long periods of the campaign?
Round 1: Gloucester (A)
Round 2: Exeter Chiefs (H)
Round 3: Bristol Bears (A)
Round 4: Newcastle Falcons (H)
Round 5: Leicester Tigers (A)
Harlequins will be relatively pleased with their opening five fixtures of the new Gallagher Premiership season, as they only face one of last year’s top four.
Home games against Exeter Chiefs and Newcastle Falcons should see Millard’s side pick up all five available points while away trips to Gloucester and Bristol Bears are winnable for a quality-laden Quins outfit.
Leicester Tigers to round off the early part of the season will be a great gauge of Quins’ credentials.
Predicted finish: 4th
Care, Smith and Dombrandt as a combination alone mean Quins will be a joy to watch once again this season and with the signings they have brought in, they are certainly on for a better term this time around.
The signings of Cunningham-South and Joseph are exciting and the experience of Launchbury will help steer this side up the table to fourth and to a semi-final spot over the likes of Northampton Saints and Bath.
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