Will Saracens lift the Gallagher Premiership title once again or will Sale Sharks bounce back from Twickenham heartbreak?
These questions and much more will be answered when the top-flight returns this weekend, but how are last year’s top four shaping up ahead of the new campaign?
Beaten semi-finalists Northampton Saints are going into their second season of the Phil Dowson era.
The 42-year-old took over from Chris Boyd and enjoyed a successful first campaign as a Director of Rugby, ultimately losing to champions Saracens in the play-offs.
The Englishman will be hoping to go a few steps further this season after a year under his belt. The signings of Tom Pearson, Burger Odenadaal and Curtis Langdon have brought even more optimism to the Saints fans as they gear up for another try-filled term at cinch Stadium at Franklin Gardens.
Last time out
The Saints pipped London Irish to fourth spot last term, finishing three points above the Exiles. Dowson’s reign started in tricky fashion with his side only picking up one win in their opening four matches.
But four wins from their next five put them right back in the play-off picture. The Saints only lost once all season at cinch Stadium at Franklin Gardens but only two away victories to their name would have frustrated Dowson, who will be looking for more from his side on the road.
Areas of strength
Imagine going up against a back row of Lewis Ludlam, Tom Pearson and Juarno Augustus? Well, this is the prospect many Premiership teams will have to face this season.
The acquisition of Pearson from London Irish is arguably up there with the major signings of Zach Mercer (Gloucester) and Finn Russell (Bath) in terms of how much they will improve the sides they have joined.
The flanker tore it up for Irish last term winning the Gallagher Premiership’s Breakthrough Player of the Year award. His ball-carrying and work off the ball at the breakdown will be a real weapon for the Saints this season.
One signing that may be overlooked is the arrival of former Sale Shark hooker Curtis Langdon from Montpellier.
The 26-year-old has two caps for England and will be keen to impress on his return to his native country after a year in France.
Langdon was liked by former Sale and Worcester Warriors coach Steve Diamond who knew a strong forward when he saw one. His aggression, pace and work off the ball will be a real asset to the Saints.
Areas of weakness
Defence was a huge problem last season for Dowson and his squad as they conceded the second most tries in the division, only bottom-placed Newcastle Falcons shipped more.
An emotional rollercoaster for Fin Smith ??— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) October 12, 2023
Find out what it takes to reach the top in Mud, Sweat and Tears: Premiership Rugby available now on @primevideosport ??#GallagherPrem | @SaintsRugby pic.twitter.com/x6Oy3l20VD
If the Saints are to kick on and reach the next level they need to sure up their defence without losing the attacking flair they possess.
Their away record of just two wins all season last year will also worry their fans.
The travelling supporters had to wait until the last matchday to see Northampton double their tally on the road so that record needs to be addressed by Dowson if they are to challenge once again.
Following the demise of Worcester Warriors, Fin Smith became a revelation for Dowson’s side last season, replacing Dan Biggar with relative ease but if the youngster’s form continues, this could lead to an England call-up in the not-so-distant future.
This could cause huge problems for the Saints as James Grayson is the only other recognised fly-half in the squad.
Have the Saints left themselves exposed in that area?
Round 1: Sale Sharks (A)
Round 2: Bristol Bears (H)
Round 3: Newcastle Falcons (A)
Round 4: Bath (H)
Round 5: Exeter Chiefs (H)
The Saints start their season at the AJ Bell Stadium for the second season running and will be looking for a better outcome than last year as they lost that fixture 29-22.
Dowson’s men will have home comforts in three of their next four matches, meaning they should be able to build early momentum.
Predicted finish: 5th
Saints have recruited well and Dowson will have learnt a lot from his first year as a Director of Rugby but with the quality of players and previous heights they have hit, it is hard to look past Harlequins pipping them to fourth spot.
Another top-four finish would not surprise many in the league as the Saints play some of the best rugby in the division but their away record and defensive frailties may cost them.
Another one of last season's losing semi-finalists Leicester Tigers will be starting a new era when they raise the curtain at Ashton Gate on Friday night.
Former Brumbies Head Coach Dan McKellar has taken the reins at Mattioli Woods Welford Road after Richard Wigglesworth did a superb job to get the Tigers into the top four following Steve Borthwick’s mid-season departure to become England Head Coach.
The Australian will be hoping to continue the upward trajectory of the club as the Tigers look for another top finish.
Last time out
The Tigers started the term slowly losing three of their opening five matches as they looked to retain the title they had won the previous summer.
Borthwick’s side had only won four games in total when he left the club the week before Christmas and whilst Wigglesworth got off to a winning start against Gloucester, losses to Sale Sharks, Newcastle Falcons and Northampton Saints followed.
Come February time, many people had low expectations for the rest of the Tigers’ season but six wins from their final seven matches saw the Leicestershire side finish third, setting up a semi-final against Sale Sharks.
They were ultimately beaten by the Sharks 21-13 but Wigglesworth and his team could take great pride in their second-half of the season.
Areas of strength
Everyone knows a functioning lineout is key to a successful team in the Premiership and with the strength in depth the Tigers have at hooker, they will always have a reliable throw into the likes of Ollie Chessum and George Martin.
Julian Montoya is a classy operator who continues to be a threat all around the pitch while Nic Dolly will be keen to kick on once again and get a place in the England squad for the Six Nations.
Fellow hooker Finn Theobald-Thomas is one to keep a keen eye on as he might get minutes if the two aforementioned hookers are on international duty. He impressed for England’s Under-20s in the Six Nations last term and will be eager to get some more minutes this season.
The Tigers built up a reputation for workmanlike performances with huge defensive unity under Borthwick, which was largely down to the bruising pack the now England Head Coach deployed.
When looking at the Tigers’ options in the back row, they will beat up many a side in the league once again this term with the likes of Hanro Liebenberg, Jasper Wiese and Olly Cracknell at their disposal.
The choices available to McKellar in the back row are quite ridiculous. On top of the players they already had, Leicester have brought in ex-London Irish captain Matt Rogerson to add even more depth to the position.
Many people were worried for the Tigers when Freddie Steward was constantly away with England last season, but the Tigers shrewdly recruited ex-international Mike Brown to cover the now England 15.
They have added more quality depth to that area this season in the form of Worcester Warrior Jamie Shillcock, who looked to be turning into one of the league’s finest full-backs before his club went under.
Shillcock will see a lot of action this season and will gain valuable advice from the veteran that is Brown.
Areas of weakness
It is hard to find many weaknesses in this Tigers’ squad with all positions having incredible amounts of depth. The prop area is well covered but the age profile may be of concern for Tigers’ fans.
Dan Cole, despite still being part of England‘s plans, is reaching his latter years in the game while fellow front rowers Francois Van Wyk and James Cronin are also the wrong side of 30.
??? "He's just a real hard-edged kind of guy, not much b******t about him."— Talking Rugby Union (@TalkRugbyUnion) February 28, 2023
Matt Toomua on new Leicester Tigers head coach Dan McKellar and why his move to the #GallagherPrem can have short and long-term benefits.
?? @wiffen_john https://t.co/SwDBKAO1eU pic.twitter.com/Jxn4xBH8u8
Joe Heyes and James Whitcombe will be gradually phased into the starting berths this term as McKellar looks to the future.
The only other weakness you could point out for the 2022 champions is the change of coach.
Will McKellar be able to implement his ideas quickly and will his style of play suit the players at his disposal? These are all questions that will be answered pretty early into his tenure.
Round 1: Bristol Bears (A)
Round 2: Sale Sharks (H)
Round 3: Bath (A)
Round 4: Saracens (A)
Round 5: Harlequins (H)
The Tigers have arguably the toughest start out of all the teams in the division, playing last year’s top two.
An away trip to a raucous Ashton Gate on opening night will be testing and further visits to a new-look Bath and champions Saracens will challenge McKellar’s squad, which will be without so many of their stars due to the ongoing World Cup in France.
Predicted finish: 3rd
Despite having to bed in a new head coach, Tigers look destined for another top-four finish this term. The quality of depth across their squad is arguably the best in the league and with leaders such as Liebenberg, Ben Youngs and Handrè Pollard to lean on, they should comfortably make the end-of-season semi-finals once again.
Sale Sharks will be out for revenge this season as they look to go one step further after losing to Saracens in last year’s Gallagher Premiership final.
Alex Sanderson’s young and northern side proved many doubters wrong last term, with true grit and tactical nous propelling them up the league table.
Frontrunners for a long part of the last campaign, Sanderson will be hoping that experience and heartbreak will help them go again this year.
Last time out
Sale led the table for a large majority of last season, only being pipped by eventual winners Saracens by five points.
Sanderson’s side won their opening five matches, coming out of the traps in fine form.
Late season defeats to Exeter Chiefs, Northampton Saints and London Irish curtailed their hopes of finishing first, despite beating Sarries at the AJ Bell Stadium in late March.
Sale narrowly beat Leicester Tigers in the semi-final before losing 35-25 at Twickenham to finish runners-up.
Areas of strength
Before their arrivals came in, it was looking like Sale would struggle in the hooker department this season with the loss of talismanic figure Akker Van der Merwe and young Scot Ewan Ashman, but the Sharks have recruited expertly to replace the departing duo bringing in Augustin Creevy and Luke Cowan-Dickie.
Argentine international Creevy brings a wealth of experience to the AJ Bell, becoming a try-scoring machine in his time at London Irish while Cowan-Dickie will hope to improve his England chances with a strong campaign for the high-flying Sharks.
Despite the loss of the legendary Jono Ross, Sale are still extremely strong in the back-row area with the two brother duos of Ben Curry, Tom Curry, Jean-Luc Du Preez and Dan Du Preez.
Ross’s departure means both the Curry twins will have to take on more leadership, but with Ben being captain last season, they are sure to take the extra responsibility in their respective strides.
Where do Sale keep finding young exciting scrum-halves from too?
Raffi Quirke was the first to burst onto the scene before getting a long-term hamstring injury before Gus Warr took his place and excelled in Sale’s impressive campaign last time out.
As he prepares to lead Sale into their first Premiership final since 2006, some of those who have coached, played and worked with Alex Sanderson offer an insight into how the Sharks boss operates.— Talking Rugby Union (@TalkRugbyUnion) May 24, 2023
?? "It's his ability to see deeper than a game of rugby"https://t.co/caH0gkU6F2 pic.twitter.com/CzAE8NWAmZ
Warr played 23 league matches last season becoming a mainstay in the team at just 24 years old but the production line of young nines doesn’t stop there as Sale’s academy seems to have unearthed another fearless scrum-half in Nye Thomas.
The 20-year-old played in three of Sale’s Premiership Cup games, scoring two tries in the Sharks' opening-round win over Bedford Blues.
If Sale suffer more injuries in the scrum-half department, the youngster could well be on for more game time.
Areas of weakness
Sale have a very strong and balanced squad, which should set them up for another memorable campaign but with only six signings coming in after 15 players left the club, the worry for Sharks fans could well be whether they will cope with international call-ups alongside injuries.
Round 1: Northampton Saints (H)
Round 2: Leicester Tigers (A)
Round 3: Exeter Chiefs (A)
Round 4: Gloucester (H)
Round 5: Bristol Bears (A)
Sale haven’t been blessed with the easiest of starts to the season, playing three of their opening five matches away from the AJ Bell Stadium. Leicester Tigers away will be an early test to see which of the two sides have strengthened over the summer.
A visit to Ashton Gate will be a tough task to end Sale’s first block as Bristol with their flair can be a real handful with a large backing at Ashton Gate.
Predicted finish: 2nd
Sale are starting to build something under Sanderson and with the additions of Cowan-Dickie, Creevy and Ernst van Rhyn, you can only see them getting better this season.
Young players such as Tom Roebuck, Arron Reed and Joe Carpenter will be a year wiser, which will be invaluable to this side in the crunch moments. Saracens still look too strong for Sale to finish above them in the regular season, but if the two sides meet at Twickenham again in May, you could see the match swinging the other way.
The reigning champions are back and ready to defend their title. Long-serving Director of Rugby Mark McCall doesn’t show any signs of slowing up as he attempts to win back-to-back titles for the third time in his tenure.
Sarries haven’t stood still since their title-winning day out at Twickenham recruiting various stars such as Tom Willis, Lucio Cinti and Tom Parton so can anyone stop them?
Last time out
McCall’s men won their opening eight matches of the season, losing their first match of the campaign two days before Christmas to London Irish.
Sarries slowed down after the festive period losing four further times but still finished top of the table, 16 points ahead of fourth place Northampton Saints, who they beat 38-15 in the semi-final.
The London-based side beat previous employee Sanderson in the final to win their first title since they were relegated in 2020.
Areas of strength
Saracens are stacked in every position but the hooker department is especially impressive.
McCall currently has at his disposal England’s first-choice No.2 and current second-choice hooker Theo Dan, who has become one of the league’s most exciting young talents.
Even if both are away with England, they have fellow Englishman Tom Woolstencroft to call upon.
Elsewhere in the pack, Sarries have an embarrassment of riches at back row after the signing of Tom Willis and Juan Martin Gonzalez. Willis will be arriving back to his native country after an impressive campaign for Bordeaux in France while Gonzalez was a breakthrough star last season at London Irish.
Theo McFarland is one to watch out for this season as he returns from a long lay-off and World Cup duty with Samoa.
The sheer experience across the Sarries side from George to Owen Farrell to Alex Goode will be invaluable for the reigning champions as they look to retain their title.
Areas of weakness
As much as Saracens have a quality stacked squad, this has its drawbacks as they will be without their internationals for an extended period of time.
When the likes of Nick Isiekwe, Maro Itoje and Hugh Tizard possibly depart with England, Sarries will be struggling in the lock department.
"It does put things into perspective. You definitely become more selfless."— Talking Rugby Union (@TalkRugbyUnion) May 26, 2023
The past year has been one of personal change for @NickIsiekwe and the birth of his son has given him an 'extra focus' ahead of his fourth Premiership final.https://t.co/8NWDeffcwS
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Once again, as with every other season, when Farrell goes away with England, Sarries will have to rely on Manu Vunipola.
Whether Sarries will also have the same fight and intensity to win the title again will be the big question for McCall’s side, especially with Sale Sharks gunning for them.
Round 1: Exeter Chiefs (A)
Round 2: Bath (H)
Round 3: Gloucester (A)
Round 4: Leicester Tigers (H)
Round 5: Newcastle Falcons (A)
McCall will be relatively happy with the early season fixtures his side have been given, with only one of last year’s top four playing against his side.
An away trip to Exeter Chiefs to start the term isn’t as fearsome as it used to be while home advantage in their tougher matches against Bath and Leicester Tigers should help Sarries build early momentum.
Predicted finish: 1st
McCall’s squad have the most experience in the league and with fresh additions from London Irish especially, they will be raring to go again.
Many of Sarries’ older heads will still be keen to make up for lost time after their relegation to the Championship and based on last year’s performances, they will be the team to beat again this season.
Widely regarded as the most competitive rugby union league in the world...it can only be the Gallagher Premiership.
The division is becoming more and more exciting as each year passes by so who will be lifting silverware at Twickenham in May?
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