Not only will the race for the play-off positions be massively competitive this season, but for those fighting to avoid the drop into the Championship, the coming campaign will be truly testing.
In all, there are four or five teams who could potentially go down, with established sides such as Gloucester and Harlequins in danger of becoming entangled in the relegation scrap.
Gloucester, in particular, could suffer from a lack of leadership both on and off the field. Against the Leicester Tigers, the Cherry and Whites were leading by seven points with six minutes left on the clock, when they won a penalty 40 metres out. Inexplicably though, they opted to kick for the corner rather than take a shot at goal.
The decision was made all the more strange by the fact that they had experienced kickers such as Greig Laidlaw, James Hook and Billy Twelvetrees on the field.
In such a scenario you have to try and make it a two score game, but they went for the corner and Leicester won the line-out, went up the other end of the field and scored, before touching down with the last play of the game to win.
This leadership deficit was on show again during their second game against a 14-man Worcester Warriors team. Although the Warriors must be credited for their performance, Gloucester didn’t know how to go about winning the match.
David Humphreys’ side ended up deep in the Warriors 22, but were unable to win the game. They needed calm heads, but Willi Heinz lost his and kept going down the blindside. Gloucester should have at least been aiming to score a drop goal, but kept the ball in the forwards and ultimately had a penalty given against them.
Another example of this lack of leadership occurred in the 74th minute, when Matt Kvesic had a three on one against Donncha O’Callaghan, but instead of attempting to draw the big lock and put one of his team-mates into space, the Gloucester flanker ran back inside.
Decisions such as those will heap pressure of Humphreys and Laurie Fisher, who are both among the highest paid coaches in the league.
Newcastle Falcons are another side who could struggle this season and will be relying on their home form to stay up. Although Dean Richards can field Niki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti on the wings, two unbelievable threats, Newcastle will have to first get parity up front before unleashing the speedsters out wide.
Bristol are my tip to go down. Despite a strong opening day performance against Harlequins, a game they could have possibly won, Andy Robinson’s side were immediately brought back down to earth after their heavy 32-10 defeat at the hands of Northampton.
Gavin Henson started really well in Twickenham, but got injured and I don’t think they have the strength in depth to compete in the Premiership week after week.
Worcester will also find it tough going this season. Despite a strong first half against Saracens, they were steamrolled in the second, ultimately losing 35-3. Last week against Gloucester they showed a lot of heart, scored a brilliant try form Perry Humphreys at full back, but will be frustrated that they didn’t win the game.
Although they were angered by Alafoti Faosiliva’s red card, it was justified, you can no longer lead with the elbow in the tackle. This weekend Worcester will play an in-form Bath side who look very confident under Todd Blackadder.
While some have argued that Harlequins might get dragged into the battle at the bottom, they should have enough stay clear of the dog fight, despite missing a number of key players during the international windows.
Harlequins’ second tier of player are substantially weaker than their front liners. When Danny Care, Joe Marler, Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown, Jack Clifford, Marland Yarde and Jamie Roberts are away on international duty, their key leaders are taken out of the team.
Quins have become a victim of their own success but, unlike Wasps, they haven’t invested in players to come in and replace their international contingent.
Sadly for Quins, there is a correlation between the amount you spend and where you finish in the league. This places Worcester under pressure, as they have invested massively in both their facilities and squad, but could very well be the team that joins Bristol in the relegation zone at the end of the season.
Andy Goode, Pundit Arena