There are 2 questions to answer here. Who has the best side? Who has the most depth? Winning the Premiership is not about having the best side it is about having the depth to deal with injuries and the inevitable call ups.
Factors to be taken into account
The Lions – How long will it be before sides get their Lions back and how many games can they play before needing a rest/rotation? Mako Vunipola is surely not going to play as many games at Saracens this year nor is Corbisiero or George North at new club Northampton.
The autumn internationals and the 6 nations will see 3 games being played while England are playing, however Scotland have an extra week and Wales have 2 weeks extra when Premiership matches are being played. Who do they have to meet in this period /how does the fixture list look?
I think the fixture list is key here. The top sides will lose players in these periods, however if the fixture list falls kind they could find home games v other sides losing players and not away games at Exeter, Sale, London Irish and Worcester.
Full fixture list can be found here
So who can win the Premiership regular season title?
I think we can rule out Sale, London Irish and Newcastle who will all be vying to finish 1 above the bottom of the table.
Bath, Worcester and Exeter are all decent sides who will win their fair share of games but are not consistent enough to be at the top come May. Exeter are the team though that could make that leap in to the big boys with a top 4 or 5 finish I they avoid injuries and call ups.
That leaves us with 6 to discuss
Were certainly the most improved side last year after a period of mediocrity suddenly found a younger side full of attacking intent and desire. This is probably still too early for them to dominate the league but more large strides will be taken this year with the young side gaining more experience in tough matches. They may also miss Christian Wade and Joe Launchbury for longer periods this season.
The name George North will be on everyone’s lips after the Lions tour and it could be a great signing but how much will they see of him? He will need a rest after the Lions, he is sure to feature in any Welsh side and he has been plagued by injuries. This could mean the Saints fans only get to see him for maybe 10-12 matches a season. All well and good if available for the playoffs but this signing is not one to help them finish top of the pile. The loss of Tonga’huia and Mujati is also a massive blow as both of them started a large percentage of Saints games and with Corbisiero now surely a cast iron England starter, Northampton can no longer rely on the strong platform they have enjoyed over the past 3-4 years and this will ultimately cost them.
A very good youth policy is now paying dividends with more and more of the players making the grade and stepping up further to England honours. Freddie Burns, Henry Trinder, Johnny May and Charlie Sharples have all recently made the grade and there looks to be potentially another few in the pipeline with Dan Robson, Ryan Mills and prop Shaun Knight already having played big parts in the success of the England u-19’s and 20’s – side. Add in to that EPS members Billy Twelvetrees and new signing Matt Kvesic and Gloucester have the makings of a very good side. The integral part of Gloucester though is Freddie Burns and as we saw last year when he was injured and out of form Gloucester struggled to get going and it may be the same this season if Lancaster gives him the chance he deserves at 10 for England. This is the area where Gloucester are a little weak in the squad and this may cost them a shot at the title.
Another season where the summer has not seen much activity. Quins have also had a successful youth set up that is serving them well and their squad is generally strong with the A team winning the title last year but the lack of new blood will surely catch up with them as sides are now devising plans for a side that is going to be playing the same game plan for the 3rd year running. Nick Easter when released from England was the key last year with performance after performance but another year older and a bigger workload on him may tell. Nick Evans also was instrumental in the good form and him staying fit and in good form will be key to another good season. Quins still should be able to compete well but the lack of signings, Nick Kennedy apart, they will do really well to dominate other sides for a 3rd year running without new ideas and blood.
The most consistent side in the last 10 years they are always in the frame. Their relative lack of Lions players this year may not see them suffer as badly as they previously have after Lions tours and World Cups in the opening few weeks. That said they are not the force they once were and with talismanic Geordan Murphy retiring and Martin Castrogiovani moving on they just don’t have the same aura of invincibility about them. They may see more of Toby Flood this year with the emergence of Freddie Burns but on the whole signings made look as though they are back up players only and mainly in reaction to better players leaving. It will be interesting to see where the Tigers dominate this year but there are more sides that can beat them now, however as long as they finish in the top 4 they should be a force to reckon with when they do have their strongest side out.
This is my idea of the league winners again despite the fact they will lose players to the international periods. They just keep replacing good players with class or very good potentials and the fixtures have fallen nicely with 3 home games. Billy Vunipola is a great signing at 8 as is James Johnston at prop adding more bulk and dynamic running to the pack. The backs struggled last year in the international periods with Farrell, Barritt, Ashton, Strettle and Goode all away, however Ashton and Strettle are now possibly being overtaken as are Barritt and Goode and perhaps this could mean rotation is only needed for rests. On the whole they look the complete package with quality to replace quality and with some of the England players maybe not going away for long periods and the new foreign signings not required in international periods they look to have all bases covered to win the Premiership regular season title.
Best Bet – Saracens at 3.5 to win again.
Best trade – Harlequins could get into week 7 and November before they are beaten
To Finish Bottom – London Irish have lost too many players and at 4’s look good value