In 11 days, the Gallagher Premiership season will begin as the newly promoted and newly named Bristol Bears host Bath Rugby at Ashton Gate.
In a series of three articles, Pundit Arena will be analysing the twelve teams in the League and order them based on where we believe they’ll finish.
We start with the four bottom teams and given the quality of this year’s Premiership throughout the League that it is almost certain that this year, there will be a genuine battle for survival.
12th: Worcester Warriors
There’s no doubt that you can make a credible case for Worcester’s survival. Indeed, looking back to the last time we had this line-up of 12 teams, they ultimately eased past Bristol in the relegation fight, with the big-spending Bears going straight back down under Andy Robinson’s stewardship.
That season Worcester didn’t do anything to set the world alight, but they found a way to win those tough, tight games and perhaps most importantly picked up points from a variety of different games and situations.
Indeed, Worcester can be credited with having done that in every season since they made their top flight return in 2015. Although they’ve not finished above tenth, relegation has never looked particularly likely.
That’s why it makes predicting them to finish last so difficult, and my heart would say they will do it again, but logic has taken over.
In terms of their business, Worcester have done OK. But the loss, and failure to replace loose forwards Donnacha O’Callaghan, Will Spencer and David Denton.
They have brought in some very exciting players into their back division, but just don’t have enough in the forwards to suggest they’ll be able to dominate teams. With the club up for sale and facing a potentially difficult season off the field, I just don’t think they’ll have the squad and the settled nature needed for a 4th consecutive survival fight, but I really hope I’m proved wrong.
11th: Bristol Bears
It has been a long time since a team was promoted into the Premiership quite so confident of survival, indeed, if you look at Bristol’s squad, the thought of putting them so low in the table seems absurd.
Their recruitment has been eye-catching, Charles Piutau signing on a world-record wage of £900,000 a year, Australian legend George Smith making his second stint in the Premiership, and some useful experience in the front row in the form of John Afoa and Harry Thacker.
But it doesn’t take long to find the flaws in both their summer business, and their squad as a whole.
For all the singings they’ve made, Bristol have lost young Welsh prospects Jordan and Rhodri Williams and Ryan Bevington back to their home, with all three heading to Dragons. They’ve also lost plenty of top-level experience with David Lemi, Soane Tonga’uiha and Dan Tuohy all heading elsewhere. Of course, all three were past their best, but are the kind of squad players that seem strange to dispose of heading into such a vital season.
In Pat Lam, they have a serious coach. Someone who has a proven track record of getting the best out of his squads, the Kiwi guided Connacht to their first ever major trophy with the shock Pro12 title win in 2015/16.
But with so many ins and outs, he will need to settle the squad very quickly if his side are to escape the drop, which three of the last four promoted sides have overwhelmingly failed to do.
Prior to the 2016/17 season, when Andy Robinson last brought Bristol to the Premiership, he considered that finishing 11th would be a “failure”.
They finished 12th, and if you offered any Bristol fan the former, they’d bite your hand off.
To say Harlequins have endured a difficult 2018 would be one of the understatements of the year. Had the League began in January, Quins would have vanished to the Championship without a trace. They can be thankful for the likes of Marcus Smith and Danny Care putting in some outstanding solo performances that got them enough wins in the first half of the season to survive.
Over £1 million paid off to sacked coaches, a failed £1.4 million investment in Rugby International Marketing, a subsidiary of USA Rugby which is on the brink of collapse after £3m losses and a toxic atmosphere at the Stoop, with protests akin to football from fans in a bid to remove former Director of Rugby John Kingston and you have an unhappy club.
Perhaps the worst thing for Quins was that the club never seemed to realise anything was wrong, awarding inexplicable contracts to their failing coaching staff in January 2018, having a childish and at times bizarre online presence that resembles that of a parody account and continuing to proceed with a stadium that is set to leave them saddled in debt.
Such is the quality of both their squad and energy of the new coaching set up, that if they are drawn into a relegation fight, you would feel they would survive. When they have their internationals available, they’ll also feel confident of a good run in the European Challenge Cup, but this will be a season of consolidation at best for Quins, boosted by the occasional big home win.
9th Northampton Saints:
If 2017/18 was a horror show for Harlequins, it wasn’t much better for Northampton. The Saints will not play in the top European Competition for the first time since the 2008/09 Season (the year they returned to the Premiership), and a conceded whopping 645 points (at an average of 29.2 per game, second only to bottom club London Irish, who only conceded 6 points more).
That led to a shake-up in the backroom and whilst the appointment of Chris Boyd has led to many Saints fans and some bookies expecting a quick revival, it’s not as clear as it appears.
Whilst Saints’ recruitment has been OK for a club trying to save money following the building of the Barwell Stand, but it is beginning to look like major changes are needed and whilst Dan Biggar is a very solid replacement for Stephen Myler, he is unlikely to add the new dimension to their attack which new boss Boyd will be trying to implement.
Saints will do much better with the arrival of Boyd, but to see them instantly moving up the table is unlikely. Saints will have a good energy about them, but with much more settled and ultimately more talented squads in mid-table, this will be a season where they consolidate.