With the Gallagher Premiership getting underway on Friday night, three teams will be looking for major improvements this time around.
Newcastle Falcons, Gloucester and Bristol Bears finished in the bottom three places of the league last season and are keen to climb the table this term.
Bristol Bears under Pat Lam have always been one of the most exciting teams to watch in the Gallagher Premiership but over the last two seasons, their high-paced, exhilarating style of play hasn’t been matched by the results. After finishing top of the pile in 2019/20 and third in 2020/21, they have fallen off to finish 10th and then 9th last season.
Many people forget that this is a side who have only been back in the Premiership for five seasons, and Lam has brought real leadership and a great style of play to Ashton Gate, attracting many new fans to the sport in the area.
The last two years have been disappointing for Lam who seemed to be building a side who could be regular challengers for the league title. This season might have the feel of a transitional one for the Bears, with many of the stars that lit up the Ashton Gate turf leaving the club such as Charles Piutau, Semi Radradra and Ioan Lloyd.
However, Bristol will be graced by the thunderous Virimi Vakatawa who will return to the game 11 months after he was forced to retire due to a heart condition.
Last time out
Bristol Bears started the season brilliantly winning their first three matches, but that form dipped very quickly with no win in seven. Five victories in a row in February and March gave Lam's side hope of sneaking into the last Champions Cup place, but defeats to Leicester Tigers and Sale Sharks put an end to that as the Bears settled for a ninth-place finish.
However, due to London Irish's demise, the Bears will take their place in Europe's top club competition.
Areas of strength
One of the Bears' major strengths of the last few seasons is the star power they have been able to call upon - especially in their exciting backline - but given some of the departures, Lam will be hoping his current crop will still be able to conjure up those big moments.
Scrum-half is an area the Bears have built up well over the last few years and this year is no different with Kieran Marmion and Sam Wolstenholme arriving in Bear country. They join the electric Harry Randall, who continues to push for a place in the England squad.
Marmion has many years of experience in his home country of Ireland with Connacht, playing regularly in the Champions Cup while Wolstenholme is younger at 24 years old but did learn his trade at Wasps.
Randall is perfect for Lam’s high-paced style as is Wolstenholme, who was highly thought of at his old club. Marmion worked under Lam at Connacht for four years meaning he knows what the coach will want and should fit in seamlessly.
Bears are going into the new season with a massive Semi Radradra hole in their backline but with their recruitment this summer, this hole might not be as apparent.
Bristol have brought in Kalaveti Ravouvou from Fijian Drua, Benhard Janse van Rensburg from the fallen London Irish and of course the explosive Vakatawa.
Ravouvou is another Fijian who will bring flair to the centre of the backline as well as power while Van Rensburg is now a seasoned Premiership pro, picking up 53 appearances for London Irish in two seasons at the club. The South African is a strong ball carrier who will help the Bears get on the front foot while Vakatawa has more than enough talent in his locker to fill the void left by Radradra.
Areas of weakness
The loss of some of their star quality has to be seen as a weak point for Bristol Bears. Piutau and Radradra often pulled a rabbit out the a hat at Ashton Gate, helping Lam’s side get back into games, especially during difficult spells.
They won’t have that same luxury this season although they will be hoping Vakatawa can provide the same razzle and dazzle.
The Bears' backline has been one of the most prolific in the league for the last couple of years so we will wait to see how it shapes up with the likes of Andy Uren, Henry Purdy and Sam Bedlow also no longer at the club.
That sort of cohesion will have to be recreated with new partnerships this season. The centres will know what they need to do while having Premiership winner and England international Max Malins back at Ashton Gate is no bad thing.
Round 1: Leicester Tigers (H)
Round 2: Northampton Saints (A)
Round 3: Harlequins (H)
Round 4: Exeter Chiefs (A)
Round 5: Sale Sharks (H)
Bristol Bears take on Leicester Tigers on opening night, which will be an instant test of their credentials. The Bears face three of last year's top four in the opening five rounds but with two of the three at Ashton Gate [Leicester and Sale], Lam will be hoping they can build early season momentum.
Predicted finish: 8th
Taking some of the changes into account at Ashton Gate, I can only see Lam’s side stagnating this season. Teams above the Bears have recruited well and the last two seasons have shown frailty in a side that looked unstoppable at one point.
Some of their signings will help fill star-studded gaps, but they will take time to gel and I don’t believe the Premiership will give them the time to breathe.
George Skivington’s Gloucester go into the 2023/24 season with optimism once again, a year further into his reign. Last season was one of disappointment for the Kingsholm faithful but with star signings including former Bath player Zach Mercer and Ben Donnell from the downed London Irish, they will be hopeful of a better campaign this time around.
Last time out
Last season, Gloucester slumped to a 10th-place finish. Skivington’s side started with five wins from the opening six matches, including derby day victories over Bath and Bristol Bears, before losing the next three.
Five losses to end the term curtailed their hopes of at least a top-eight finish. After a promising fifth place the season before, last year was a frustrating campaign for Skivington and his injury-hit squad. Better fortunes for the Cherry and Whites to come?
Areas of strength
Like many teams in the Gallagher Premiership, Gloucester were able to recruit some players from London Irish following the demise of the Exiles and as a result, they have five new faces at Kingsholm.
Donnell is the most experienced player signed from Irish and will add depth to the back row area of the Kingsholm outfit, especially after the departure of Jake Polledri. The signing of Afolabi Fasogbon is probably the most exciting of the five as the prop has been making a name for himself in England's age-grade teams.
With experienced tighthead props such as Kirill Gotovstev and Fraser Balmain at the club, Fasogbon is sure to develop massively this season, with Skivington already stating it might not be long before he starts for his new club.
Hooker is another area where Gloucester boast experience and competition with the likes of George McGuigan, Santiago Socino and Jack Singleton. With all three of these players not involved with their international teams at the World Cup, the Cherry and Whites will have great depth in that area all season, meaning the lineout will be another potent source of tries.
The marquee signing of Mercer is huge for Gloucester. During his spell with Montpellier, the number eight was named as the Top 14 Player of the Year for 2021/22 and his dynamic running and work off the ball will be vital to any sort of challenge Skivington's troops might make this season.
A word for Santi Carreras too. He lit up the Premiership last season and we expect him to do the same in 2023/24.
Areas of weakness
Gloucester, despite signing well, haven't recruited as much as other teams in the league and after a 10th-place finish, many people may feel they need to do more.
This is possibly because of the amount of experience they have lost in their squad with the likes of Kyle Moyle, Ben Morgan and Billy Twelvetrees leaving.
Skivington will be hoping others step up to the mark this time around. Lewis Ludlow, Ruan Ackermann and Chris Harris will have a huge amount of responsibility as they lead this new generation of Cherry and Whites.
The loss of Moyle also means they go into the season without an out-and-out full-back but would deploying the likes of Carreras on a regular basis at 15 benefit Gloucester in the most effective manner?
Round 1: Harlequins (H)
Round 2: Newcastle Falcons (A)
Round 3: Saracens (H)
Round 4: Sale Sharks (A)
Round 5: Bath (H)
Gloucester have a testing opening few weeks of the Gallagher Premiership, facing both of last year’s finalists in their first four games. Skivington will be hoping to have nearly 10 points on the board going into the match against Saracens with two 'easier' fixtures on paper to kick off the campaign, but a trip up to Newcastle is never a game you can take lightly.
Predicted finish: 7th
Mercer alone improves Gloucester’s chances tenfold but with the strength of clubs in the Premiership, it’s hard to see the Cherry and Whites finishing any higher than seventh.
The sheer lack of signings apart from Mercer means the squad will be stable but with the loss of key leaders, the team may struggle this season. Getting back into the Champions Cup should be their main.
Often the side people dismiss in the Gallagher Premiership, Newcastle Falcons consistently cause teams problems and they are always partial to the odd upset at Kingston Park, which continues to be one of the toughest away trips in the league.
They also go into the new campaign with a new head coach.
Dave Walder replaced the long-serving Dean Richards at the start of last year but now Alex Codling, who guided Oyonnax to promotion to the Top 14 in France last season, is the new man at the helm and he will be hoping he can start a successful period in charge of the Falcons.
Last time out
With just one win from their opening seven matches, it was a tough start to the campaign for the Falcons but victories against Exeter Chiefs, Sale Sharks and Leicester Tigers at Kingston Park around the festive period are something Newcastle fans will want to see more of this term.
Areas of strength
The Falcons have strengthened well up front during the off-season. Bryan Bryne is a good Premiership operator at hooker while Eduordo Bello has a point to prove after a frustrating time at the StoneX Stadium with Saracens. Former Wasps Tim Cardall and Kiran McDonald will improve their set pieces.
Every summer, the big question at Falcons is whether they can keep their stars. Last season, they lost key figures in George McGuigan and Trevor Davison but this time around, they have kept the likes of Adam Radwan and Mateo Carreras who lit up the league in 2022/23. The duo are arguably Newcastle's most deadly weapons and will be key to their chances of finishing higher up the table.
Kingston Park is always a massive strength for the Falcons. No one in the Premiership enjoys heading to the North-East to potentially get battered by the weather conditions as well as the normally strong Newcastle pack so if Codling and his men can make a solid start at home, they will bring momentum to their away fixtures.
Areas of weakness
Despite strengthening well in the pack, the Falcons have lost key components in the forwards department. Greg Peterson, Will Welch, Sean Robinson and Gary Graham were massive figures of the Richards and Walder eras. Although they have replaced them with experience, the grit and determination these four men - along with others - showed during their time at the club will be hard to replicate.
Not only have they lost quality on the pitch, the likes of Welch brought leadership off the field so Codling will be hoping players such as Philip Van der Walt and Callum Chick will step up in that respect.
Another coaching change at Kingston Park will also mean players learning a new style of play and new systems so the speed of this transition will be key to how well they fare this season.
Round 1: Bath (A)
Round 2: Gloucester (H)
Round 3: Northampton Saints (H)
Round 4: Harlequins (A)
Round 5: Saracens (H)
The Falcons will be relatively pleased with how their season begins, with three of their first five matches being played at Kingston Park. Newcastle will be targeting the back-to-back home fixtures against Gloucester and Northampton Saints as games where they can pick up points.
Predicted finish: 10th
Newcastle Falcons are a magnificent club who have done brilliantly over the years and will continue to shock travelling teams at Kingston Park, but I just don’t see them getting enough points to finish above the likes of Bristol Bears and Gloucester with the squad they have at their disposal.
You could argue they have got weaker in the off-season because they have lost key figures, but I am here to be proven wrong.
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