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Wednesday, 12 December, 2018

Super Saracens a cut above Premiership contenders

Paul Gustard should inject some steel into talented Harlequins squad

There was no stopping Saracens in the second half of last season
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Season preview

The best got better and better last season, and it's hard to see any team keeping up with Premiership favourites Saracens this term.

Sarries couldn't take top spot in the table and came up short in Europe last season, but the way they finished their campaign marked them out as the one English club who have absolutely nailed the modern game.

After claiming the domestic and European double in 2016, Saracens put retaining their Champions Cup crown before their domestic aims in 2017 and went out in the Premiership playoff semi-finals. 

But last season an early exit in Europe meant they could concentrate on the home front and their run-in was little short of sensational.

From Christmas Eve onwards Sarries won ten of 12 Premiership matches, the two defeats coming on Six Nations weekends. They covered the handicap in nine of those ten victories, on seven occasions by a double-figure margin. They scored 424 points and shipped 177, bagging 54 tries to 20.

In other words, they weren't just beating their rivals, they were smashing them. By the time they got to a Twickenham final against defending champions Exeter, the other team who have separated themselves from the pack, it was soon clear there was going to be no stopping them.

There has been relatively little movement in or out of Allianz Park this summer, and anyway Saracens have always been a club to build gradually, from inside as well as outside. 

There is always a danger in backing teams on the regular-season market when there is no advantage in finishing first or second in the table, and it would be not surprise if reclaiming their European crown is seen as more of a priority for Saracens after their disappointment in the last campaign.

But there's also no doubt that Sarries looked a cut above the rest in the second half of last season, and there are question marks over whether any of their rivals will be able to win enough games to finish above them.

Exeter finished eight points clear in the regular-season standings last season and their Sandy Park home has become a Premiership fortress.

But there were signs last season, especially in Europe, that opponents have got wise to their defensive, ball-retaining style of play, while the loss of Thomas Waldrom and Julian Salvi from their back row weakens their most effective weapon.

Wasps have finished in the top four in the last three seasons, topping the table in 2016-17, and they made the most eye-catching signing of the summer by tempting All Black fly-half Lima Sopoaga to Coventry.

He steps into the boots of Danny Cipriani, who has departed for Gloucester, but his task has been made immeasurably harder by a season-ending injury to Jimmy Gopperth.

That leaves Sopoaga to take on the playmaking role in his first season in the northern hemisphere, and that has to be a concern for a team whose success has always been based on their flair rather than their solidity. 

Leicester missed out on the playoffs for the first time in 14 years last season, largely down to a pair of late home defeats to Northampton and Newcastle, and they don't appear to have overhauled their squad significantly. Bath were too inconsistent in 2017-18 and may still lack a bit of power up front to dog out tough games.

Two teams attracting attention for their signings are Gloucester and Sale. South African coach Johan Ackerman made a big impact in his first season at Kingsholm and has added a raft of names from his former Super Rugby side the Lions, as well as fly-half Cipriani.

Sale have enjoyed a big cash injection and their signings included former England winger Chris Ashton, who augments an already exciting backline.

However, both those clubs have provided plenty of false dawns in the past and if there is to be a surprise package breaking into the top four, at the prices it could be worth taking a chance on Harlequins.

Champions in 2012, Quins had their worst season in 2017-18 since returning to the top flight, finishing tenth – a performance that cost director of rugby John Kingston his job.

In his place comes Paul Gustard, who spent eight seasons at Saracens before becoming England defence coach, and if he can instil that Sarries mentality into a talented Quins squad, they could become a force again.

The set-up at Quins had often been painted as too comfortable under the avuncular Kingston, and Gustard should add some steel. Seasoned internationals Mike Brown, Chris Robshaw, Joe Marler and Danny Care remain from the title-winning side.

Northampton, like Harlequins, had a disappointing campaign and have made some exciting signings, notably Wales fly-half Dan Biggar, but won just twice away from home last season and may settle for steady progress.

The battle for bottom spot has been priced up as a shootout between promoted Bristol and Worcester, who are odds-on to finish last.

Bristol have the benefit of significant funding and have had more time to prepare for the top flight than many sides in the past.

But marquee signing Charles Piutau is injured and they may yet find the step up in pressure and pace from the Championship is too much. At the prices the Bears look worth a bet to prop up the table.

Saracens to win regular season
3pts 15-8 Betway
Harlequins to finish in top four
1pt 14-1 Paddy Power
Bristol to finish bottom
2pts 7-4 Paddy Power

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From Christmas Eve onwards Sarries won ten of 12 Premiership matches, the two defeats coming on Six Nations weekends
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