After much waiting, the English Premiership is back, with many avid fans expecting interesting scorelines, dramatic performances and as many as eight teams competing for the four playoff places and a chance of lifting the trophy at Twickenham next May. There is also the small matter of next year’s Rugby World Cup to think about, with players hoping to perform well and put themselves in the plans of their various nations for the showpiece event in France, so individual displays will be just as important as their team’s form.
There will be plenty of tactical analysis to enjoy over the coming months, and this season preview serves to whet the appetite of English top flight followers before all of that comes in, providing an update on each of the 13 squads and a brief insight into some of the tactics and rough final positions that can be expected from each. The analysis also picks out a key player to look out for in each side, and why they could play a critical role in their club’s fortunes.
Arrivals: Niall Annett (Worcester Warriors), Matt Gallagher (Munster), Wesley White (Jersey Reds), Louis Schreuder (Newcastle Falcons), Chris Cloete (Munster), Dave Attwood (Bristol Bears), Piers Francis (Northampton Saints), JJ Tonks (Northampton Saints), Louie Hennessey (Cardiff), GJ van Velze (Tel Aviv Heat), Aranos Coetzee (Free State Cheetahs), Quinn Roux (Toulon), Michael Etete (Leeds Tykes)
Departures: Taulupe Faletau (Cardiff), Max Clark (Dragons), Semesa Rokoduguni (Montauban), Valery Morozov (Worcester Warriors), Tian Schoeman (Newcastle Falcons), Danny Cipriani (released), Anthony Watson (Leicester Tigers), Jacques du Toit (Zebre Parma), Ollie Fox (Ealing Trailfinders), Harry Casson (released), Ma’afu Tia (end of loan), Tom Prydie (released), Joe Simpson (end of loan), Will Vaughan (released)
One to Watch:
Dave Attwood is not a new face at the Rec, having left Bath to join West Country rivals Bristol back in 2019, but the experienced lock is someone who could have a big say in how his team get on this season. His abilities in and out of possession have never been doubted and he is a key player at scrums, so his decision to re-join the club this summer could help last season’s strugglers to be more robust in defence and pose a bigger offensive threat during the coming campaign.
Bath had a season to forget in 2021/2022, languishing at the bottom of the table for the majority of it and never really looking like a side capable of winning matches. There were a lot of questions asked about the squad and where they were going, and they have responded by appointing former Munster head coach Johann van Graan to oversee all on-field matters, with former Director of Rugby Stuart Hooper moving to another role at the club.
The South African’s task this season simply has to be stabilising a team who at times looked bereft of ideas last time out, and it doesn’t much matter where they end up as long as the club and the fans see signs of improvement and progress. A mid-table finish would be considered a success for them.
Arrivals: AJ MacGinty (Sale Sharks), Ellis Genge (Bristol Bears), Magnus Bradbury (Edinburgh), Gabriel Ibitoye (Tel Aviv Heat), James Williams (Hartpury University), Richard Lane (Bedford Blues), Jono Benz-Salomon (Hartpury University), Toti Benz-Salomon (Hartpury University), Oscar Lennon (Hartpury University), Joe Owen (Clifton), Morgan Eames (Beziers), Sam Lewis (Worcester Warriors)
Departures: Dave Attwood (Bath), Antoine Frisch (Munster), John Afoa (Vannes), Niyi Adeolokun (released), Joe Cotton (released), Mitch Eadie (released), Theo Strang (released), James Dun (Jersey Reds, loan), Charlie Powell (Jersey Reds, loan), Tiff Eden (Zebre Parma), Ashley Challenger (Chartres), Alapati Leiua (Waikato), Nathan Hughes (Black Rams Tokyo)
One to Watch:
Highlighted before as a player to keep an eye on, Gabriel Ibitoye was snapped up by Bristol this summer after two years away, and his pace and try-scoring threat will give the Bears a lot of what they were missing at times last season. His pace and try-scoring threat will both entertain the fans and be an important part of Bristol’s overall tactics, and it will be interesting to see how the other 12 teams deal with his threat as the season progresses.
Bristol were one of last season’s surprise packages, and not in a good way. Having gained a reputation for being one of the league’s most creative and dangerous teams in recent campaigns, helping them to consistently challenge for the title, they saw their form fall away last time out and eventually ended up in 10th place.
They will be widely expected to mount a comeback this season and have made some good signings to help them do that, but it won’t be easy given that, as they were falling down the table, the likes of Leicester and Gloucester were going the other way and showing huge signs of improvement. Therefore, with even more competition for the top four than before, the Bears cannot afford any slip-ups.
Arrivals: Jack Dunne (Leinster), Rory O’Loughlin (Leinster), Aidon Davis (Free State Cheetahs), Iestyn Harris (Cardiff), Ruben van Heerden (Sharks), Solomone Kata (Moana Pasifika), Scott Sio (Brumbies)
Departures: Sam Skinner (Edinburgh), Jonny Hill (Sale Sharks), Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (Benetton), Sean Lonsdale (Dragons), Tom O’Flaherty (Sale Sharks), Don Armand (retired), Sam Nixon (Grenoble), Jack Walsh (Ospreys), Aaron Hinkley (Northampton Saints), Alfie Petch (Northampton Saints), Jordon Poole (Coventry), Shea Cornish (Coventry, loan), Danny Southworth (Coventry, loan), Will Witty (Perpignan)
One to Watch:
Will Witty was one of Exeter’s stars last season, becoming an important player in attack and defence and a dangerous player to leave in any kind of space. With his departure, the Chiefs will need someone to step up and bring the same qualities to the side, and young second row Christ Tshiunza might be the solution. The young Wales international has shown himself to be a tough and physical opponent who doesn’t shy away from tackles, makes good decisions with the ball, gains ground and, most importantly, is capable of darting towards the try line when he has a chance to score, so brings a lot of what Exeter are looking for in their squad.
With forwards Sam Skinner, Jonny Hill, Sean Lonsdale and Don Armand all moving on from Sandy Park this summer, 2022/2023 could be the year when Tshiunza really establishes himself in the first team picture.
Exeter’s 2021/2022 campaign was disappointing by their own standards, as they finished outside the top four for the first time in seven years, and the need to regain their bring the club back to the top of the Premiership has been shown by Director of Rugby Rob Baxter stepping away from matchday duties and allowing long-serving head coach Ali Hepher to take charge.
Despite this alteration at the top, the season ahead could be a difficult one, simply because so many of their star players have moved elsewhere and there will be a lot of pressure on those who are left and who have come in to replace them. However, if they can hit the ground running this weekend, then they are very capable of challenging at the top once again.
Arrivals: Albert Tuisue (London Irish)
Departures: Will Britton (Cornish Pirates), Jack Stanley (released), Olly Adkins (Cornish Pirates, loan), Josh Gray (Jersey Reds, loan), Toby Venner (Jersey Reds), Seb Nagle-Taylor (Cornish Pirates), Joe Simpson (Sale Sharks), Ed Slater (retired), Jason Woodward (Sale Sharks)
One to Watch:
Gloucester have been one of the teams to watch in recent times, with one player who has been integral to their strong form being captain Lewis Ludlow. The flanker was one of the Cherry and Whites’ best players last season, making territorial gains, exploiting gaps in opposing defences and providing a major threat in the opposing 22, and his desire and commitment to the cause will be really important if his side are to go one better than 2021/2022 and seal a place in the top four.
Ever since George Skivington was appointed at Kingsholm at the back end of the 2019/2020 campaign, Gloucester have shown signs of resurgence and improvement after a poor end to Johan Ackermann’s tenure, and they only missed out on a playoff place last season by two points, which was a huge achievement.
This season, breaking into the top four will be their pre-season target, and it is a very realistic one as long as they can keep developing and making themselves hard to beat. The fact that they have retained the vast majority of the squad from the last campaign could also prove critical in helping them over the line.
Arrivals: Irne Herbst (Benetton), Charlie Matthews (Kamaisha Seawaves)
Departures: Hugh Tizard (Saracens), Matt Symons (retired), Joe Gray (retired), Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors), Christian Scotland-Williamson (released), Craig Tenier (retired), Mak Wilson (Doncaster Knights)
One to Watch:
There are so many players in the Harlequins squad who contribute to their performances, but the one who glues the whole operation together is England fly-half Marcus Smith. The standoff had another solid season last time out and will be hoping to continue his individual development and form ahead of next year’s World Cup, and any hope that the 2020-2021 winners have of picking up another Premiership title will rest on how often they can get Smith on the ball and how often he can work his magic.
After such a good 2020/2021 season, Harlequins’ title defence wasn’t as strong as they might have perhaps hoped for, but they still managed to make it into the playoff picture which was a good reward for a campaign in which they showed their ability to get results in closely contested matches – their 20 bonus points (the highest attained last season) reflected how it was tight when they lost and that they also scored plenty of tries.
It is expected to be more of the same this time around, and the fact that arrivals and departures at the Stoop have been fairly minimal reflects their feeling that the players they have right now are perfect for what they want to do, so another playoff position and title fight is not beyond them.
Arrivals: Handre Pollard (Montpellier), James Cronin (Biarritz), Phil Cokanasiga (London Irish), Olly Cracknell (London Irish), Jimmy Gopperth (Wasps), Anthony Watson (Bath), Joe Taufete’e (LA Giltinis), Lachlan Shelley (Eastwood), Tom Horton (NSW Waratahs)
Departures: George Ford (Sale Sharks), Ellis Genge (Bristol Bears), Jonny Law (Jersey Reds), Matias Moroni (Newcastle Falcons), Ollly Robinson (end of loan), Jack Rowntree (released), Tomiwa Agbongbon (Loughborough Students), Jaco Taute (retired), Marco van Staden (released), Sam Aspland-Robinson (Rosslyn Park), Jordan Olowofela (Nottingham), Juan Pablo Socino (UE Santboiana), Nemani Nadolo (NSW Waratahs, midway through season), Bryce Hegarty (Western Force, midway through season)
One to Watch:
The obvious standout name in the Tigers’ squad is World-Cup winning fly-half Handre Pollard, who has come in to replace George Ford in the side as Leicester’s new creative spark. However, given that Leicester pride themselves on the quality and strength of their pack, a player who will be vital to their play is fellow South African Hanro Liebenberg. The flanker is one of a number of Tigers players capable of punching holes in defences and making territorial gains, whilst he has also shown himself to be strong in defence too.
Having recently stepped up from his vice-captain role to succeed Ellis Genge as skipper, his leadership qualities will also be important if Leicester are to defend their crown.
Last season, Leicester shocked everyone by storming to the Premiership title, ending their nine-year wait for a domestic success and completing their remarkable recovery under former England assistant Steve Borthwick. It was quite incredible to see them lifting the trophy at Twickenham after only just surviving relegation as recently as 2019/2020, when Saracens’ salary cap breaches sent them down instead, but it was richly deserved after a campaign in which they had barely put a foot wrong on the field.
The summer departures of major players like England duo Ellis Genge and George Ford might hinder their hopes of securing a second successive title, but some good recruitment to bring in the likes of Handre Pollard, the experienced Jimmy Gopperth and the versatile Anthony Watson will give them a good chance of finishing in the top four once again.
Arrivals: Danilo Fischetti (Zebre Parma), Luca Morisi (Benetton), Josh Basham (Newcastle Falcons), Josh Caulfield (Cornish Pirates), Ed Scragg (Cornish Pirates), Api Ratuniyarawa (Northampton Saints), Joe Powell (Melbourne Rebels), So’otala Fa’aso’o (Brive), Isaac Miller (Worcester Warriors)
Departures: Albert Tuisue (Gloucester), Terrence Hepetema (Grenoble), Steve Mafi (Oyonnax), Sean O’Brien (retired), George Nott (Dragons), Phil Cokanasiga (Leicester Tigers), Olly Cracknell (Leicester Tigers), George Davis (retired), Jamie Dever (released), Tadgh McElroy (end of loan), Rory Morgan (released), Cillian Redmond (released), Noel Reid (released), Marcus Rhodes (released), Theo Smerdon (retired), Alandre van Rooyen (released), Rory Brand (Watsonian), Marcel van der Merwe (Brive), Allan Dell (Glasgow Warriors), Nick Phipps (Green Rockets Tokatsu)
One to Watch:
A lot of what London Irish do well is the result of their ability to spot opportunities and take them, whether that is through a long run up the field by one of their speedy backs or through a quick dart inside the opposing 22 from a burly forward. Consistency is also key, and one of those who rarely has a bad game for the Exiles is Argentina hooker Agustin Creevy, who is an important player at set-pieces and always looks to drive his teammates forwards in order to gain ground. Any chance that London Irish have of improving on last season’s eighth place finish will be down in no small part to whether they can keep Creevy fit and in form throughout the campaign.
London Irish continue to be a favourite of neutral rugby fans to watch, largely because of their attractive style of rugby, and that has helped them to stay well away from the bottom of the table for a couple of seasons now.
They have continued to progress under Declan Kidney and Les Kiss, moving up the table since their return to the top flight in 2019/2020, and a Champions Cup place for this season is a just reward for their efforts. Another one for next season is not beyond them if they can continue to build and develop, and reaching double figures for matches won might be a target worth aiming for after just nine victories last time out.
Arrivals: Tian Schoeman (Bath), Josh Peters (Doncaster Knights), Josh Thomas (Ospreys), Sebastian de Chaves (Austin Gilgronis), Josh Barton (Coventry), Matias Moroni (Leicester Tigers), Veremi Qorowale (British Army)
Departures: Louis Schreuder (Bath), Will Haydon-Wood (Wasps), Robbie Smith (Northampton Saints), Rob Farrar (Ealing Trailfinders), Will Montgomery (Ealing Trailfinders), Josh Basham (London Irish), Mike Brown (released), Luther Burrell (released), Kyle Cooper (released), Ollie Lindsay-Hague (released), Mathew Ward (released), Max Wright (end of loan), Marco Fuser (Massy), Morgan Passman (Darlington Mowden Park), Joel Hodgson (Glasgow Warriors), Oscar Caudle (Tynedale)
One to Watch:
Newcastle’s squad tends not to contain many major names, with the club instead preferring to go for under-the-radar players who can make an impact on the pitch, and one who has done just that in both the Championship in 2019-2020 and the Premiership since then is winger Adam Radwan. The England star has established himself as one of the league’s quickest and most dangerous players and someone who simply cannot be left in any kind of space, and there is no doubt that keeping him fit and in fine try-scoring form is critical if the Falcons are to have any chance of winning matches this season.
Newcastle always seem to start well and give people the impression that it could be their year to shine at last, but they then fall away as the season progresses and end up finishing near the bottom, with last season a perfect example of that as they ended up on the same number of points as Bath at the foot of the table.
With Dean Richards gone and Dave Walder now in charge of the team, fans will be hoping to see some form of progression and signs of improvement in their performances, and it will be interesting to see how just much development they do make as the season goes on and how far up the league they can get themselves. The Falcons will be a side worth keeping an eye on for that reason.
Arrivals: Callum Braley (Benetton), Ethan Waller (Worcester Warriors), Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (Queensland Reds), Angus Scott-Young (Queensland Reds), Sam Graham (Doncaster Knights), Robbie Smith (Newcastle Falcons), James Ramm (NSW Waratahs), Aaron Hinkley (Exeter Chiefs), Alfie Petch (Exeter Chiefs)
Departures: Teimana Harrison (Provence), Piers Francis (Bath), Conor Carey (released), Connor Tupai (released), Ollie Newman (Ealing Trailfinders), Tom Wood (retired), Josh Gillespie (Ealing Trailfinders), JJ Tonks (Bath), Karl Garside (Doncaster Knights), Nick Auterac (Edinburgh), Api Ratuniyarawa (London Irish), Ahsee Tuala (Counties Manukau), Leroy O’Neil (Bury St. Edmunds), Reece Marshall (Chinnor), Pete White (Ampthill), Taqele Naiyaravoro (Green Rockets Tokatsu)
One to Watch:
The Saints have plenty of quick and dangerous attacking players in their squad, including Courtnall Skosan, Tommy Freeman, Ollie Sleightholme and Tom Collins, and ensuring that they have enough ammunition during games is the job of their scrum-half, with their tactics revolving around securing possession quickly whenever the ball hits the ground.
Fortunately, Northampton have one of the best nines in the English game, with Alex Mitchell likely to once again be their first choice in that position, and he not only has a good ball distribution ability but is also able of making his own runs at opposing defences when chances to do so present themselves, scoring 11 tries last season, so he brings a lot to their game and will be a critical player to have on the pitch.
Northampton are one of those teams who quiet go about their business and cause teams problems, but often aren’t noticed until they are in a really promising position in the table. The Saints play an exciting style of play that uses spaces around the pitch in an effective manner, and the fact that they secured a place in the playoffs last season was a just reward for their efforts and a sign of how far they went under Chris Boyd’s leadership during his four years at Franklin’s Gardens.
This season, with Phil Dowson stepping up to replace the New Zealander, fans will be hoping for more of the same, with the departures of key players like long-serving Fiji lock Api Ratuniyarawa offset by arrivals such as Italy scrum-half Callum Braley and Australian trio Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Angus Scott-Young and James Ramm. Another top four finish is absolutely possible.
Arrivals: George Ford (Leicester Tigers), Jonny Hill (Exeter Chiefs), Tom O’Flaherty (Exeter Chiefs), Joe Simpson (Gloucester), Jason Woodward (Gloucester)
Departures: AJ MacGinty (Bristol Bears), JP du Preez (Glasgow Warriors), Curtis Langdon (Worcester Warriors), Cameron Nield (Worcester Warriors), Faf de Klerk (Yokohama Canon Eagles), Rohan Janse van Rensburg (Sharks), Simon Hammersley (retired), Lood de Jager (Saitama Wild Knights), Jack Metcalf (Ealing Trailfinders)
One to Watch:
Whilst Sale’s recruitment this year has been largely focused on English players, they have tended in previous years to hunt around the South African market, with many of their best players in recent campaigns hailing from the Southern Hemisphere.
One of those who never seems to have a bad game for them is versatile forward Jean-Luc du Preez, who has proven himself to be important in both defensive and attacking situations and who was rewarded for his excellent performances with a recall to the Springboks squad in 2021. He is someone that epitomises the Sharks’ grit and desire in tight games and will be important if they want to continue developing on the field.
Sale are another side who have been looking to develop and improve under the guidance of former Sharks lock Alex Sanderson, and, by and large, they have been doing better each season and have been a handful to play against. Last time out, they ended the regular campaign in sixth place, which would have been a disappointment for them, but they should be pleased with the manner of performances that they have been putting on for their fans since he took over.
This season, they need to realistically be aiming for the top four, with their recruitment showing that they want to be challenging at the top of the table and recognising that they need a bit more Premiership-winning experience in their ranks in order to do so. If they can get the likes of George Ford, Jonny Hill and Tom O’Flaherty working their magic early on and get some wins on the board, then a playoff place is very possible.
Arrivals: Hugh Tizard (Harlequins), Christian Judge (Worcester Warriors), Eduardo Bello (Zebre Parma), James Flynn (Jersey Reds)
Departures: Vincent Koch (Wasps), Sean Reffell (Ulster), Richard Barrington (Agen), Tim Swinson (retired), Elliott Obatoyinbo (released), Janco Venter (released), Charlie Watson (released), Harvey Beaton (Cornish Pirates, loan), Tom Mills (Richmond)
One to Watch:
A player that Saracens fans will be eager to watch again this season is Samoa international Theo McFarland, who impressed in his debut campaign at the StoneX Stadium and picked up the club’s Try of the Season award for his effort against Northampton Saints. He formed one third of a back row trio that last season gave Saracens so much quality in and out of possession, alongside Ben Earl and Billy Vunipola, and his form will be worth keeping an eye on ahead of next year’s World Cup.
Despite Saracens being last season’s league “newcomers”, there was never much doubt that they would be amongst the top teams and be in the title fight, with the majority of the squad from their last Premiership campaign retained during their year in the second tier. Reaching the playoff final was no doubt a big positive for the club and showed that they are still a force to be reckoned with, and Mark McCall would have been further encouraged by the positive form of key players like England captain Owen Farrell towards the end of the campaign.
This season, it is widely expected that they will once again be fighting for the title and be a tough team to beat, and they will no doubt be hoping to go one better and get their hands on the trophy after missing out in the dying minutes at Twickenham in June. However, with so many teams capable of doing the same, they will know that playing well week after week is an absolute must in order to get there.
Arrivals: Vincent Koch (Wasps), Immanuel Feyi-Waboso (Cardiff), Burger Odendaal (Lions), Kiran McDonald (Glasgow Warriors), John Ryan (Munster), Will Haydon-Wood (Newcastle Falcons), Cam Dodson (Austin Gilgronis)
Departures: Thomas Young (Cardiff), Vaea Fifita (Scarlets), Malakai Fekitoa (Munster), Jimmy Gopperth (Leicester Tigers), Cameron Anderson (released), Rob Miller (released), Jeff Toomaga-Allen (Ulster), Michael Le Bourgeois (Bedford Blues), Pieter Scholtz (Bayonne), Marcus Watson (Benetton), Alex Pleasants (Leeds Tykes), James Gaskell (Toyota Industries Shuttles Aichi)
One to Watch:
Wasps may not have had an easy time of late, but their squad still contains some really strong individuals who continue to catch the eye, such as Jack Willis and Paolo Odogwu. However, one of their most exciting talents is versatile forward Alfie Barbeary, who continues to build his impressive reputation season after season. Capable of playing as either a hooker or a flanker, he has shown himself to be a vital player with the ball and someone who is capable of breaking opposing teams down at ease, and his call-up to the England squad for the 2022 Six Nations reflected the attention that his strong form is bringing him.
It is always difficult to predict how well Wasps will do, because they have moments when they look difficult to play against and moments when they fall away and make some really basic mistakes on the field. The fact that they finished ninth last season is perhaps unsurprising when considering how much their form fluctuated during the campaign.
They clearly have a talented squad, with the likes of Jack Willis, Alfie Barbeary and Jacob Umaga on the roster, whilst the addition of South Africa tighthead Vincent Koch from Saracens will add experience and power, but it is difficult to see them really troubling those above them in the table on too many occasions. Instead, securing a place in the Champions Cup for 2023/2024 after missing out this season might be a good aim for them to have, and one that should be achievable too.
Arrivals: Curtis Langdon (Sale Sharks), Cameron Nield (Sale Sharks), Fergus Lee-Warner (Western Force), Santiago Medrano (Western Force), Hame Faiva (Benetton), Valery Morozov (Bath), Renato Giammarioli (Zebre Parma)
Departures: Ethan Waller (Northampton Saints), Niall Annett (Bath), Sione Vailanu (Glasgow Warriors), Matt Garvey (retired), Christian Judge (Saracens), Sam Lewis (released), Joe Morris (released), Ben Murphy (released), Joe Richardson (released), Cheick Kone (Colorno), James Scott (Jersey Reds), Isaac Miller (London Irish), Marc Thomas (Cardiff RFC), Melani Nanai (Bay of Plenty), Caleb Montgomery (Ampthill), Sam Lewis (Bristol Bears)
One to Watch:
It’s tough to pick a player to keep an eye on at the Warriors for the moment because their much-publicised financial issues mean that it is difficult to see who will still be at the club in the next few weeks. However, one player who will have a major impact on Worcester’s fortunes this summer if he does stay at Sixways is Scotland winger Duhan van der Merwe, who has shown himself to be one of their best try-scorers and a player that opposing teams have to shut down quickly in order to prevent Worcester from building momentum during matches.
There is no easy way to say it, but Worcester have in recent seasons been the league’s whipping boys, constantly finding themselves on the wrong end of huge scorelines and never seeming to be capable of pulling themselves away from the foot of the league. Last season, with former Sale coach Steve Diamond in charge after the departure of Jonathan Thomas mid-season, they managed to finish third from bottom, so that will give them something to build on when the new season gets underway this weekend.
However, the main worry now for Warriors fans is not on the field, but off it, with aforementioned financial issues plaguing the club as they fight to simply stay in existence, and that could determine their final league position more than their performances on the pitch will.