Exeter are scrapping with Sale for the title, Bath need to do some soul-searching and there’s no pressure on already-relegated Saracens… Sportsmail’s club-by-club guide on the Gallagher Premiership restart as rugby returns this weekend
- The Gallagher Premiership returns on Friday after being delayed by COVID-19
- Harlequins v Sale Sharks will restart the campaign with plenty still to play for
- Sportsmail provides a club-by-club guide with everything you need to know
Premiership rugby restarts on Friday after a five month delay, and there’s plenty to be resolved after some time off following the coronavirus shutdown.
The competition was halted in March, along with most sports around the world, amid rising fears around COVID-19, but rugby fans can look forward to action resuming – with the Premiership final scheduled for October 24.
Exeter, who will be hoping to wrap up their title win will get us underway as they take on Harlequins, while for other teams it’s an opportunity for stability and reconsolidating their form before lockdown.
Sportsmail offers a club-by-club restart guide, giving insight on each side’s objective for the remainder of the season and where we think they’ll finish.
The Premiership is back after months of shutdown as clubs bid to finally wrap up the season
Next four fixtures: Leicester (h), Sale (a), Bristol (a), Worcester (h) Major ins: Jonny Gray (Glasgow), Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (Lyon), Josh Hodge (Newcastle).
Major outs: Nic White (Brumbies), Sam Hill (Sale), Matt Kvesic (Worcester), Greg Holmes (Western Force).
Form before lockdown: LWWLW
Restart aim: Win the title.
Exeter will be looking for focus during the restart as they look to seal their Premiership title
That’s all that will satisfy Rob Baxter and his Chiefs. The club feel they have been cheated out of a few Premierships by Saracens, so now they are out of the picture they must capitalise.
The most settled and harmonious of squads with stars like Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Stuart Hogg and new recruit Jonny Gray they are big favourites.
Exeter did wobble a little before lockdown – losing to Harlequins and Sale – and their battles with Bristol and Sale quickly after the resumption will be hugely important. Will Sandy Park be a less intimidating place to go without the usual baying fans?
Sportsmail prediction: Champions.
Next four fixtures: Harlequins (a), Exeter (h), Wasps (a), Bristol (h).
Major ins: Manu Tuilagi (Leicester), Sam Hill (Exeter), Cobus Wiese (Stormers) Major outs: Rob Webber (retired), Mark Wilson (Newcastle – back from loan).
Form before lockdown: WLWWW
Restart aim: Hunt Exeter down.
Sale have one task ahead of the restart – hunt Exeter down in the battle to win the league
Sale have already won at Sandy Park this year and have breathed new life into the title race. Their recruitment looks outstanding too with Manu Tuilagi and former Chiefs centre Sam Hill snapped up by the Sharks.
Expect their forwards like Lood de Jager, Tom Curry, Jono Ross et al to be gnashing and backs Faf de Klerk, Sam James and Denny Solomona to be fired up too. They can push Exeter all the way with no-nonsense Steve Diamond in charge.
Simon Orange put the masterplan like this recently – ‘sign Manu, win the league, fill the stadium’. They can’t do the latter yet but having completed one target the other could well follow.
Sportsmail prediction: Losing finalists.
Next four fixtures: Saracens (h), Gloucester (a), Exeter (h), Sale (a).
Major ins: Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins), Semi Radradra (Bordeaux), Ben Earl, Max Malins (both Saracens, loan), Ratu Naulago (Hull FC), Chris Cook (Bath).
Major outs: Jordan Crane (retired), Ian Madigan (Ulster), Nic Stirzaker (Montauban), Luke Hamilton (Oyonnax).
Form before lockdown: WWWWW
Restart aim: Let superstars shine.
Bristol Bears must get the best out of their stars, including Semi Radrada and Kyle Sinckler
Good lord they have signed Semi Radradra. And Kyle Sinckler… as mid-season playoff-pushing recruits go that is as good as it gets. The interesting aspect will be how they integrate those two in particular quickly at Ashton Gate.
You don’t suppose it will take Radradra long, mind. Bristol managed to stop their inconstancies and curb some attacking naivety before lockdown, so are a frightening prospect. Do they have the nous to outdo Sale and Exeter, though? And is this season one too early? It is hard to tell, but it is going to be fun finding out.
Sportsmail prediction: Play-off semi-finalists.
Next four fixtures: Wasps (a), Irish (a), Bath (h), Harlequins (a)
Major ins: Nick Auterac (Harlequins), Nick Isiekwe (Saracens, loan).
Major outs: Ben Franks (retired), Gordon Reid (released), Cobus Reinach (Montpellier).
Form before lockdown: LLLLW
Restart aim: Swashbuckle to the playoffs.
Northampton were in poor form pre-lockdown but should be recharged to battle for play-offs
Lockdown probably came at a good time for Northampton – they were on the slide with one win in five since January. But now re-charged and playing on the hard grounds of summer should help their sprightly side coached by New Zealander Chris Boyd.
With Cobus Reinach gone it is a great chance for England apprentice Alex Mitchell to shine alongside youngsters George Furbank, Rory Hutchinson, Fraser Dingwall and Ollie Sleightholme in the boyband backline. And any side with Dan Biggar at fly-half will have a never-say-die attitude.
Sportsmail prediction: Playoff semi-finalists.
Next four fixtures: Northampton (a), Worcester (h), Sale (h), Bath (a)
Major ins: Ryan Mills (Worcester)
Major outs: Billy Searle (Worcester), Nizaam Carr (Bulls), Ashley Johnson (Birmingham Moseley), Charlie Matthews (Kamaishi Seawaves)
Form before lockdown: WLWWW
Restart aim: Rediscover fine form.
Wasps could become a true force again if they can flush out their defensive lapses
Wasps were buzzing after they let go of Dai Young and promoted Lee Blackett in February, scoring 18 tries in their last three games to move two points off the playoffs. With young English duo Jack Willis on the flank and Jacob Umaga at No 10 they are exciting, if a little raw.
The return of stalwart Jimmy Gopperth should add calmness and if they can get the best out of All Blacks Lima Sopoaga and Malakai Fekitoa, Wasps could become a true attacking force again. Prone to defensive lapses, away wins will be vital.
Sportsmail prediction: 6th.
Next four fixtures: Irish (h), Leicester (a), Northampton (a), Wasps (h)
Major ins: Ben Spencer (Saracens), Juan Schoeman (Sharks), Will Spencer (Leicester).
Major outs: Francois Louw (retired), Freddie Burns (Toyota Shuttles), Chris Cook (Bristol), Tom Homer (L.Irish), Lucas Noguera Paz (released), Aled Brew (released), Rhys Webb (Ospreys).
Form before lockdown: WWWLL
Restart aim: Soul-search.
Young Bath coach Stuart Hooper must rally his underachievers to inspire a push up the table
Do Bath always want to be the team that finishes between fifth and ninth, makes Europe and then crashes out at the Pool stage without making a mark? Obviously not – so time for a rethink.
There are no excuses now. Anthony Watson, Sam Underhill, Jonathan Joseph, Taulupe Faletau, Zach Mercer, Ben Spencer, Beno Obano, Rhys Priestland, Semesa Rokoduguni and Ruaridh McConnochie are all fit and available and are more than capable of pushing Bath up the table. Young director of rugby Stuart Hooper needs to coax something greater out of the league’s great underachievers.
Sportsmail prediction: 7th
Next four fixtures: Sale (h), Saracens (a), Worcester (a), Northampton (h)
Major ins: Andre Esterhuizen (Sharks), Wilco Louw (Stormers), Tyrone Green (Lions), Scott Steele (L.Irish)
Major outs: Kyle Sinckler (Bristol), Francis Saili (Biarittz), Gabriel Ibitoye (Agen), Semi Kunatani (Castres), Vereniki Goneva (Mont-de-Marsan), Nick Auterac (Northampton), Mark Lambert (retired), Renaldo Bothma (released).
Form before lockdown: WLLWL
Restart aim: Push for Europe.
Play-offs might be a step too far for Harlequins, who will be hoping for European qualification
Oddly the loss of Kyle Sinckler may be a catalyst for change. In come beefy South African recruits in prop Wilco Louw and centre Andre ‘The Giant’ Esterhuizen who could combine superbly with Joe Marchant – the England centre just back from a stint in New Zealand learning from Beauden Barrett and Dan Carter.
Behind the scenes former Ireland hooker Jerry Flannery should add much-needed grit up front, and the return of Mike Brown is a big boost. Playoffs a step too far probably, as they lack consistency, but top European qualification should be very achievable.
Sportsmail prediction: 5th
Next four fixtures: Bath (a), Northampton (h), Leicester (a), Saracens (h).
Major ins: Tom Homer (Bath), Rob Simmons (Waratahs).
Major outs: Stephen Myler (Ospreys), David Porecki (Waratahs), Scott Steele (Harlequins), Pat Cilliers (released), Saia Fainga’a (released), Franco van der Merwe (released).
Form before lockdown: WWWLL
Restart aim: Build care-free foundations.
The pressure is off London Irish – now is the time to prepare the foundations for next season
No risk of relegation, and time to form a firm base before their move to ‘home’ territory in South-West London next year, this seems an ideal hit-out for Irish.
They could take some scalps, but also some thrashings in the weeks to come. Most intriguing will be the form of big, young winger Ben Loader and the impact of Sean O’Brien who has played just once since his move last summer. They need to make sure that when Saracens come up in 2021, it is not them going down again. Now is a good time to start looking up not down.
Sportsmail prediction: 11th
Next four fixtures: Worcester (a), Bristol (h), Saracens (a), Leicester (h).
Major ins: Jonny May (Leicester), Jack Singleton (Saracens, loan), Matias Alemanno (Jaguares), Matt Garvey (Bath), Logivi’i Mulipola (Newcastle).
Major outs: Owen Williams (Docomo Red Hurricanes), Franco Mostert (Honda Heat), Gerbrandt Grobler (Stade Francais), Ruan Dreyer (Lions), Callum Braley (Benetton), Tom Marshall (Docomo Red Hurricanes).
Form before lockdown: LLLLL
Restart aim: Stability.
It’s been a chaotic few months for Gloucester with changes to the playing and coaching staff
What a mad lockdown it has been for Gloucester – both director of rugby David Humphreys and head coach Johan Ackermann have left, and replaced by George Skivington coming from disgruntled London Irish who threatened legal action over the move.
Big players like Franco Mostert have gone, but also Jonny May is back. Gloucester looked onto a winner last year with Ackermann, but dropped off a cliff before lockdown. Like Bath they are almost permanently positioned in mid-table despite being a club seemingly prime for success. A fresh phase of renewal is needed, again.
Sportsmail prediction: 9th
Next four fixtures: Gloucester (h), Wasps (a), Harlequins (h), Exeter (a) Major ins: Billy Searle (Wasps), Matt Kvesic (Exeter).
Major outs: Ryan Mills (Wasps), Joe Taufete’e (Lyon), Jono Lance (Western Force).
Form before lockdown: LLLLL
Restart aim: Consolidation.
Worcester are the least glamorous side in the division but have exciting flanker Ted Hill
Probably the least glamorous or hyped of the current Premiership sides, Worcester have finished 10th or 11th every year since they came back up in 2015. They do have exciting youngsters in England flanker Ted Hill, now the 21-year-old club captain, and biffing centre Ollie Lawrence who hopes to be the next Manu Tuilagi.
Alan Solomons is a wily coach who could encourage the Warriors to have a go now there is no fear of the drop. It could prove vital in the development of young talent.
Sportsmail prediction: 10th
Next four fixtures: Exeter (a), Bath (h), Irish (h), Gloucester (a).
Major ins: Nemani Nadolo (Montpellier), Matt Scott (Edinburgh), Kini Murimurivalu (La Rochelle), Kobus van Wyk (Hurricanes), Luke Wallace (Coventry), Cyle Brink (Lions), Matias Moroni (Jaguares).
Major outs: Manu Tuilagi (Sale), Jonny May (Gloucester), Jonah Holmes (Dragons), Noel Reid (Agen). Sione Kalamafoni (Scarlets), Telusa Veainu (Stade Francais), Will Spencer (Bath) Tatafu Polota-Nau (released), Adam Thompstone (released), Greg Bateman (released).
Form before lockdown: LWLWL
Restart aim: Revolution.
Leicester Tigers are keen to re-earn their stripes after an overhaul by coach Steve Borthwick
As if to herald a complete departure from the past the Tigers now have a multi-coloured away kit. It’s been so long since Leicester challenged now that they can release themselves from the burdens of their past feeling mightily fortunate Saracens have already been relegated.
With new head coach Steve Borthwick and a big overhaul of the squad (no less than 16 players in and 27 out) Leicester need to re-earn their stripes. The former England coach took the squad round Welford Road to remind them of their duty to this great old club – he should be an excellent coach to build to a brighter future and has time now to sort things out before next season.
Sportsmail prediction: 8th.
Next four fixtures: Bristol (a), Harlequins (h), Gloucester (h), London Irish (a)
Major ins: Aled Davies (Ospreys), Tim Swinson (Glasgow), Will Hooley (Bedford), Harry Sloan (Ealing), Juan Pablo Socino (El Salvador)
Major outs: Ben Spencer (Bath), Titi Lamositele (Montpellier), Will Skelton (La Rochelle), Rhys Carre (Cardiff Blues), Ben Earl (Bristol, loan), Max Malins (Bristol, loan), Jack Singleton (Gloucester, loan), Nick Isiekwe (Northampton, loan), Alex Lozowski (Montpellier, loan), Nick Tompkins (Dragons, loan).
Form before lockdown: LWLWW
Restart aims: A fresh start.
Saracens are already down and they’ll play with freedom ahead of a promotion bid next year
Down, out and damaged, but with the form of a side who should and would probably win the league again if they had not fiddled the salary cap.
Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Elliot Daly, Jamie George and the Vunipola brothers are all staying to slog it out in the Championship next year – or really, to have a chilled out year and then gun for the Lions. It’ll do those a world of good to refresh, and the club have time to eat some humble pie and return. Meanwhile expect them to go round ruining everyone else’s seasons.
Sportsmail prediction: Already relegated.
WILL KELLEHER’S PREDICTED TABLE
1 Exeter (Champions)
11 London Irish
12 Saracens (Relegated)
Q&A AHEAD OF THE PREMIER SHIP RESTART
Somewhat incredibly we’re only just over half-way into the season. There are nine regular-season rounds plus semi-finals and a final to come on October 24.
WHAT IS UP FOR GRABS?
Pretty much everything – aside from relegation. The intrigue comes at the top with Exeter fighting off Sale, Bristol, Northampton and possibly surges from Wasps, Bath or Harlequins.
Up to eight teams will make next year’s Heineken Champions Cup too so there is plenty to play for; unless you’re Saracens who are on -63 points and doomed after their salary cap breaches. Their absence from the playoffs will make things even more uncertain.
Plenty of squads look fresh. The Premiership allowed mid-season moves on July 1, so Kyle Sinckler is now at Bristol not Harlequins, Jonny May has swapped Leicester for Gloucester, Manu Tuilagi has gone from Tigers to Sale and Saracens youngsters Ben Earl, Max Malins (both Bristol), Nick Isiekwe (Northampton) and Jack Singleton (Gloucester) are on loan to rivals. Gloucester (George Skivington) and Leicester (Steve Borthwick) both have new head coaches too.
HOW HAS CORONAVIRUS ALTERED THINGS?
A lot. While clubs will play at their own grounds (barring London Irish, who are sharing with Harlequins until their Brentford move can be completed) there will no fans for at least a few rounds. Players are being tested every Monday, but so far there has not been a plethora of positives. If games are cancelled due to a spike they can’t be replayed, so that could cause chaos.
The schedule is also brutal with around five days between games for clubs, and the addition of some mid-week rounds. Teams will have to rotate or players will break down. Players will travel in coaches to games, with socially-distanced seating arrangements, and during matches there will be a water-break every 20 minutes so players can keep to a personal bottle.
WHERE CAN I WATCH IT?
If you’re a club season-ticket holder then your side will be offering you the chance to watch all their games for free via the BT Sport app, whether or not you subscribe. If you do already then all behind-closed-doors games will be live on BT Sport via the red-button service, if it is not a ‘picked’ match.
The selected games will have fed-in crowd noise, but red-button ones will not. Some games will be live on Channel 5, who will still show their weekly Monday night highlights show.
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