Premiership Immortals - The Debate ShowAug 29
Less than a month since the curtain fell on an unprecedented season, the Gallagher Premiership's great and good are ready to do battle again in the race to be crowned kings of England.
Can Exeter go back-to-back? Will Wasps be able to go one step further this time around? Can Bristol go from dark horses to genuine challengers and will Leicester Tigers, one of the most successful teams in the history of club rugby, finally lose their fight for survival?
All that and more will be answered in what should be an enthralling 10 months of domestic competition - live on BT Sport.
It says a lot about Exeter's winning mentality that head coach Rob Baxter was already looking ahead to next season just minutes after watching his side complete a domestic and European double for the first time.
In doing so they became only the fourth English club to win the Premiership and top European competition in the same season.
But rather than compare themselves to teams like Wasps, Leicester and Saracens, the Chiefs are determined to create their own legacy.
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"There's another game in three weeks," he told BT Sport as his all-conquering side lifted the Premiership trophy for the second time in four years.
"It's all about a steady progress. I got asked what timescale was put on to try and win a trophy when we won the Premiership - there was no timescale put on anything, never has been.
"The only thing we've ever tried to achieve is to be a little bit better, either month by month or six months by six months or year by year."
It's hard to imagine how a team as dominant as Exeter can really improve, but it's a frightening prospect for the rest of the league as the Chiefs look to go back-to-back for the first time in their history.
Fittingly the champions get us underway in the new campaign, as they start the defence of their crown live against Harlequins live on BT Sport.
Friday 20 November: (A) vs Harlequins - 7pm on BT Sport 1 HD and BT Sport Ultimate
Bristol's evolution has been almost as staggering as Exeter's.
Two years on from earning promotion back to the top flight the Bears capped off a remarkable season with European silverware as they beat three-time Champions Cup winners Toulon to win the Challenge Cup final.
It was just deserts for Pat Lam's side after suffering play-off semi-final heartbreak at the hands of Wasps in the league.
The Bears will be viewing this season as a chance to properly establish their challenge to Exeter's supremacy.
Fresh from making his international bow for Wales, fly-half Callum Sheedy is growing into an all-round playmaker and could take the league by storm this season.
Fijian flyer Semi Radrada has taken to English rugby brilliantly after joining up with the squad for the first time in lockdown and will be champing at the bit to prove why he's considered one of the best players in the world right now.
Niyi Adeolokun, Tom Kessell and Peter McCabe have all signed one-year contracts while Ben Earl's loan signing from Saracens has been one of the shrewdest in years.
Fijian Rugby League winger Ratu ‘Siva’ Naulago is also due to join after the conclusion of the Super League, where he is currently representing Hull FC.
Getting the best out of that array of talent will be the challenge for Lam, but if last season is anything to go by, we're going to enjoy watching him do so!
Sunday 22 November: (A) vs Wasps - 12.30pm on BT Sport 1 HD and BT Sport Ultimate
Last season's beaten finalists will be out to go one better this time around having fallen agonisingly short in October's Twickenham showpiece.
The Midlands club defied the odds in even making it to HQ, battling through an outbreak of Covid-19 that robbed them of key players like Brad Shields and Alfie Barbeary.
In the end Exeter's might proved too strong, as the Chiefs secured a narrow 19-13 victory to upset Wasps in the final for the second time in four years.
The heartbreak of defeat will only make them stronger and with an exciting pool of young talent they are expected to once again mount a strong challenge to Exeter's grip on the Premiership trophy.
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Fly-half Jacob Umaga and flanker Jack Willis have both been rewarded for their fine club form with England recognition, while scrum-half Dan Robson is finally getting a shot at international level after years in the wilderness.
With Umaga’s emergence, the form of Willis, Malakai Fekitoa looking like an All Black again and the progress made by Zach Kibirige, Biyi Alo and Will Rowlands to name a few - Wasps' supporters will head into the season feeling optimistic.
If they can quickly get over the pain of defeat to Exeter and hit the ground running, the English giants could be at the start of something very special.
Sunday 22 November: (H) vs Bristol Bears - 12.30pm on BT Sport 1 HD and BT Sport Ultimate
The West Country giants flew out of the blocks after lockdown, losing only one of their nine games before coming unstuck against eventual champions Exeter in the semi-finals.
It was their first appearance in the play-offs for five years and a remarkable achievement given it was head coach Stuart Hooper's first full season in charge at The Rec.
As attention turns to a new campaign there is renewed hope that Bath could mount a genuine challenge at the top.
The famous old club have never wanted for talent in the backline, but now their powerful pack appear capable of creating a strong platform to release the match-winners.
The arrival of ex-England coach Neal Hartley as forwards supremo has had a huge impact on the performances of players like Beno Obano, Sam Underhill and Tom Dunn.
Behind a top-quality pack of forwards will be scrum-half Ben Spencer who made an immediate impact when he arrived from Saracens halfway through last season.
His poise, leadership and kicking ability provided the perfect link between Bath's dynamic forwards and their electric backline.
A top-four finish will once again be the target for Hooper's men but with star quality like Anthony Watson, Joe Cokanasiga and Jonathan Joseph, few would bet against Bath going one better than the last four this time around.
Saturday 21 November: (H) vs Newcastle - 12.30pm on BT Sport Extra 2 HD.
5. Sale Sharks
Last season saw the Sharks win their first piece of silverware for 14 years, with victory in the Premiership Rugby Cup - but missing out on the semi-finals will take some getting over.
The Salford club were on course for the play-offs until a flurry of positive tests meant they were unable to fulfil their final-day fixture against Worcester, handing the final spot to Bath.
The heartbreaking climax to the 2019/20 will provide added motivation for Steve Diamond's side to go in search of redemption as they target a first Premiership crown since 2006.
If Sale are to end their long wait for a second league title they will have to do so without Manu Tuilagi.
Their star signing will be out for six months after tearing his Achilles tendon at the end of last season.
Lood de Jager is also sidelined by injury, while Tom Curry will be absent because of England duty. It's a far from ideal start for Sale but Diamond is optimistic Exeter can be unseated as the kings of English rugby.
"Exeter have had a great 10 years," Diamond told the club's website.
"You can take little facets of other teams’ games but they have a unique way of playing and it’s difficult to replicate.
"We’re trying to get our own identity. I don’t think we’re that far behind in those areas.
"We’re pretty content, we have a good squad aged between 21 and 30. We’ve got no one sticking their hand up saying they want to retire."
Friday 20 November: (H) vs Northampton Saints - 8pm on BT Sport Extra 1 HD.
Northampton's season can be neatly divided into two categories: pre-lockdown and post-lockdown.
Before the league's suspension the Saints were sitting pretty in second, revelling in victories over Gloucester and Leicester in the league and a triumph on French soil over Lyon to keep their Champions Cup hopes alive.
But their season fell apart when competition resumed after lockdown, losing 10 of their next 11 games in all competitions.
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The mid-season departure of World Cup-winning scrum-half Cobus Reinach was a huge blow, but in England hopeful Alex Mitchell they have a ready-made replacement.
Talismanic lock Courtney Lawes is set to be out until March with a knee injury, but Nick Isikwe has impressed since arriving from Saracens and could grow into the sizable hole left by Lawes.
If Chris Boyd's men are to mount a serious challenge on the top four they will need their young centre Rory Hutchinson to re-discover the pre-lockdown form that made Saints so irresistible.
More will be expected of Owen Franks in his second season, after the double-World Cup winning prop failed to live up to his lofty reputation in his debut campaign at Franklin's Gardens.
Flanker Lewis Ludlam has been named new club captain and Boyd hopes the 24-year-old can lead from the front.
“It’s time for the younger guys coming through to stand up and take some ownership around the place, so we felt having the connection between Alex [Waller] and Lewis was a really good way to drive that," he said.
“Lewis is someone that speaks really confidently in front of the group; he’s really positive but also happy to call people out when required, and he really embraces everything that playing for Saints is all about."
Friday 20 November: (A) vs Sale Sharks - 8pm on BT Sport Extra 1 HD.
Last season was a major disappointment for a Gloucester side that had designs on the play-offs after ending their eight-year wait for a top-four finish the previous year.
Five league defeats in a row before lockdown ultimately cost head coach Johann Ackermann his job and the appointment of George Skivington, who became the Premiership's youngest head coach, did little to reverse Gloucester's slide down the table.
Skivington has added recently-retired Dom Waldouck and Alex King to his coaching staff in a bid to add fresh impetus and get the best out of fly-half Danny Cipriani, who mirrored the club in failing to match the heights he reached in 2018/19.
Cipriani has no shortage of firepower at his disposal, with Jake Polledri and wing Ollie Thorley both earning international recognition for their club form.
The core of the squad has promise and it’s hard not to get excited about a back-three, featuring Louis Rees-Zammit, Thorley, Jason Woodward plus the returning Jonny May.
After getting a taste for the play-offs two years ago, Gloucester are desperate to re-establish themselves as a top-four force in the years to come and rising international stars likes of Rees-Zammit, Thorley and Polledri could be the men to take them there.
Saturday 21 November: (A) vs Leicester Tigers - 3pm on BT Sport Extra 2 HD.
After an up-and-down campaign, Harlequins eventually settled in mid-table and will hope to kick on after some encouraging signs for Paul Gustard's young side.
A 41-14 victory over a full-strength Saracens side was undoubtedly the highlight of topsy-turvy season in west London.
Since that win, despite a season dogged by inconsistency, there were further triumphs to provide hope for next season, namely victories over Exeter and Sale.
Ultimately Gustard's men paid for a poor start to the season that saw them take victories from just three of their opening eight Premiership fixtures.
Most encouraging for Quins fans is the growth of fly-half Marcus Smith, whose game has developed markedly since his first call-up for England as an 18-year-old.
Now 21, Smith has addressed his deficiencies in defence and evolved a maturity to his game that is beginning to compliment his mesmeric play-making ability.
With Joe Marchant outside him, Quins will be desperate to address the inconsistency that blighted them and secure a top-six finish this time around.
Friday 20 November: (H) vs Exeter - 7pm on BT Sport 1 HD and BT Sport Ultimate
Having consolidated their place in the Premiership, the challenge now for Worcester is to push on and break into the top half of the table.
The Warriors only picked up three victories after the league's resumption in August, but they did include Harlequins and 2019 champions Saracens.
Generational talents like Ted Hill and Ollie Lawrence give Alan Solomons a basis to build around, but the priority, as ever, will be to avoid the drop.
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Lawrence won his first international cap in England's victory over Italy last week and Solomons has compared the young centre to Manu Tuilagi.
“He got quite a few Premiership games under his belt last season. That has stood him in good stead. He has got fantastic genetics. A big strong boy with a lot of power but with really good feet.
"Manu Tuilagi is exceptionally powerful but Ollie has got power, too, but at this stage in their careers, Ollie’s footwork is better and he has probably got a yard of pace on him as well.”
Saturday 21 November: (H) vs London Irish - 3pm on BT Sport Extra 3 HD.
10. Leicester Tigers
Morale is at an all-time low at Welford Road as the new season approaches.
Once upon time Leicester Tigers were the undisputed top dogs of English rugby but the East Midlanders would have been playing in the Championship this season were it not for Saracens' salary-cap breach.
It's been a remarkable fall for a club of Leicester's history.
Bizarre as it might seem to throw the 10-time Premiership winners into the relegation mix, such is the current state of chaos at England's most successful club that they cannot be left out of the conversation.
Geordan Murphy left his director of rugby role at the club on Friday, ending a 23-year association with Leicester, and departing just over a week before the start of the new season. The club, who made nine Premiership finals in a row between 2005 and 2013, have now finished 11th in back-to-back campaigns.
"The preparations for the start of the season have clearly not been ideal, given we have been locked out of the training ground since last week [due to Covid-19 cases] and will be re-entering next week to build up for the first league game. But that has been handled professionally," head coach Steve Borthwick told the club's website.
Veteran scrum-half Richard Wiggelsworth has been signed from Saracens in a bid to provide experience and cover while Ben Youngs is on international duty.
Wigglesworth, who is Premiership Rugby's record appearance holder with 288 games, said he was joining "the biggest club in the country" and would fight to add to his tally of three Premiership title wins.
"Leicester Tigers is the biggest club in the country and I am relishing the challenge," he said.
"It is a club that want to get back to the top and that isn't easy... but I am not interested in easy."
There is enough talent in the Leicester ranks that fans could dream of competing for a Champions Cup spot but, with England internationals likely to be missing for large chunks of the season, suffering Tigers fans might have to wait for another season or two for the good times to return.
Saturday 21 November: (H) vs Gloucester - 3pm on BT Sport Extra 2 HD.
11. London Irish
Having come up with ambitions of making an immediate impression on the Premiership, big-spending Irish have found it tough going in the top flight thus far.
But as they begin a new era at their home in the Brentford Community Stadium, there is fresh hope that the Exiles can challenge for European qualification this season.
Director of rugby Declan Kidney said: "We believe that in Blair [Cowan], Paddy [Jackson], Nick [Phipps] and Matt [Rogerson] we've got a very strong leadership group for the upcoming season.
"Needless to say, it's a collective when it comes to leadership and everyone plays their part - from the players, to the coaches and the rest of the staff - but each of the four players brings different strengths that will stand us in good stead over the course of the campaign.
"We're excited about the season ahead and really looking forward to returning to the capital and playing at the Brentford Community Stadium."
Irish will be hoping for more from their high-profile signings. Jackson and Waisake Naholo have both been underwhelming thus far, while Ireland international Sean O'Brien only managed two appearances last season as he struggled to overcome injuries.
Saturday 21 November: (A) vs Worcester - 3pm on BT Sport Extra 3 HD.
When the Gallagher Premiership gets underway, spare a thought for newly-promoted Newcastle away at Bath.
"We haven’t played a match in anger for 253 days. It’s a huge disadvantage to the boys," said Newcastle supremo Dean Richards.
"The other teams will obviously be prepared and match-hardened. It is going to be hard for us and it will take a couple of games to get used to.
“Bath are a really physical side, there will be a huge amount of confrontation in that area and we’re really looking forward to the challenge.”
Two friendlies against second-tier Ealing Trailfinders over the past couple of weeks will not make up for the months that Newcastle spent without a competitive game.
It makes an already difficult task even harder for Richards' newly-promoted Falcons, who will be looking to avoid an immediate return to the Championship.
Newcastle welcome eight new faces to their squad including former England centre Luther Burrell.
The Falcons are also boosted by the return of England back-rower Mark Wilson from his loan spell at Sale Sharks.
The all-action flanker has been installed as club captain for the upcoming season, while former England No 8 Nick Easter joins as defence coach following a successful three seasons in South Africa.
Saturday 21 November: (A) vs Bath - 12.30pm on BT Sport Extra 2 HD.