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Sunday, 18 November, 2018

Exeter Chiefs have the all-round game to scalp Premiership rivals

Tigers to make stability count

Exeter and Leicester could be the teams setting the pace this season
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The Aviva Premiership had new champions last season as Exeter lifted the trophy for the first time and there was a new feel to the campaign with fans treated to a feast of thrills.

Saracens had swept the board the year before with their stifling defence but 2016-17 was all about scoring tries.

Top two Wasps and Exeter both broke the barrier with remarkable tallies of 89 and 86, following the trend of international rugby.

We could be in for more of the same – and this is how they could finish in May, with a new name at the top of the table.

1 Exeter
The rise and rise of the Exeter Chiefs looks ready to continue and they have the all-round strength to top the table.

Racking up 15 try-bonus points for scoring four tries or more in 22 fixtures is testament to their attacking prowess, their set-piece solidity and their tireless defence.

There is no galaxy of stars in their squad but Exeter's strength is as a unit and they are supremely well drilled by coach Rob Baxter.
A modest turnover of players in the summer should ensure some continuity of performance.

2 Leicester
To reach the playoffs at the end of a season that was ravaged by injury and featured no fewer than three coaches was some achievement and there are signs the Tigers could have the squad and stability to reach their more familiar heights.

Fly-half George Ford, who last lined up for Leicester in their 2013 Grand Final triumph, is back to renew his partnership with Ben Youngs.

And while recent seasons seem to have featured a lot of backs, in particular, coming in from overseas for relatively short stays, the signing of England winger Jonny May suggests there is more direction at the club.

3 Saracens
Saracens put retaining their European crown before their domestic ambitions last term, resting key players for their final fixture at Wasps, where victory would have given them a home semi-final.

That was a sign of their confidence in their own abilities and they have recruited well, with Welsh winger Liam Williams the star capture, and continue to produce good players.

That may all catch up with them this season though as they already have to start without the injured Billy Vunipola and their five British & Irish Lions will need careful managing after two draining seasons battling at the very top at home, in Europe and on the international stage.

4 Wasps
Wasps' matches were rollercoaster rides last season featuring an average of almost seven tries per game, but although they scored freely they also shipped more than any other top-half team.

Their Rolls-Royce backline is missing a key man as Kurtley Beale has returned to Australia after just one season.

There's plenty of stardust but they need to find a streetwise touch to close out tough games.

5 Bath
The best of the rest last season seem set for a similar role. The clubs beneath them have question marks against them but there still appears a big gulf between Bath and the top four.

There's a change at fly-half as George Ford heads to Leicester and Freddie Burns makes the opposite journey, but otherwise personnel changes are modest and they had their moments last season with home wins over Saracens and Leicester plus a rare victory at Exeter.

6 Northampton
The Saints found it hard to establish any kind of a rhythm, finishing in the lower half of the table and bottom of their European Champions Cup pool.

Losing Louis Picamoles after just one season is a blow, but the arrival of Piers Francis and emergence of Harry Mallinder takes some of the pressure off long-serving fly-half Stephen Myler.

Pre-season results have been impressive – even taking into account what an incomplete indication they are – and the signing of experienced Australian centre Rob Horne augments an already international-class backline.

7 Sale
Some of the most exciting signings of the summer are arriving in the north-west as Springbok scrum-half Faf de Klerk and talented Aussie James O'Connor join last season's revelation Denny Solomona in a potentially thrilling backline.

The challenge for coach Steve Diamond is to turn his assembly of big names into a cohesive team. Fly-half was a problem position last season following Danny Cipriani's move to Wasps and it has been suggested O'Connor will wear the number ten shirt.


Read more

Premiership top tryscorer

Premiership team guide


8 Harlequins
The big change for Quins this term is the retirement of long-serving fly-half Nick Evans.

The club are still well stocked in that position, with Demetri Catrakilis arriving from Montpellier to join Tim Swiel and highly-rated youngster Marcus Smith, only 18 but already tipped for a big England future.

Given their impressive firepower on the wings Quins need to step up their attacking game. They scored no more than two tries in 14 of their 22 league matches last season and big changes in their playmaking department may hamper them.

9 Newcastle
The Falcons have been quietly building since winning promotion back to the top flight and they look equipped to stay above the battle for bottom spot.

Former England fly-half Toby Flood returns to the club where he started and after nine years at Leicester and Toulouse he has the nous and experience to marshal the team.

Maxine Mermoz, DTH van der Merwe and Josh Matavesi are added should help boost their attacking output.


Read more

Pro 14 season preview

Pro 14 top tryscorer

Pro 14 team guide

Pro 14 conferences


10 London Irish
Odds-on favourites to go straight back down to the Championship, Irish have enough international quality in their ranks to steer clear of trouble.

Part of the responsibility for their relegation two seasons ago was put on Kiwi coach Tom Coventry as many suggested he was not aware of the different demands of the Premiership and the threat of relegation.

A spell out of the spotlight can give time to build and reflect. Two other big teams who have spent a spell in the second tier – Harlequins and Northampton – have been crowned champions since their return and there is no sign that the Exiles are about to take on the tag of a yo-yo club.

11 Gloucester
Just seven wins in the 2016-17 Premiership campaign was a poor return for a club boasting a squad as talented as Gloucester's, and things could take a turn for the worse.

The Cherry & Whites could not string two wins together, and although they counted Wasps and Saracens among their victims at home, both those victories came during international windows.

Greig Laidlaw and Jonny May have moved on and incoming head coach Johan Ackerman must get to work quickly.

12 Worcester
Relegation was no threat in the end last term given Bristol's failed struggle to step up from the Championship, but the Warriors need to find some more this time.

When they were good they were good but they are reliant on big names such as scrum-half Francois Hougaard, centre Ben Te'o and powerful winger Bryce Heem and they managed just five wins.

Losing the experience and leadership qualities of Phil Dowson from their pack is also likely to be felt and there has been a high turnover of players.

Recommendations
Exeter to win regular season
2pts 4-1 Betfair, Paddy Power
Leicester to win regular season
1pt each-way 8-1 general
Worcester to finish bottom
2pts 2-1 Betway

Saracens put retaining their European crown before their domestic ambitions last term
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