Premiership Immortals - The Debate ShowAug 29
While there’s been little to talk about on the pitch, there have been a host of off-field storylines to keep fans interested.
From arrivals to departures, to loan signings and salary cap negotiations, it’s been a whirlwind five months for the domestic game.
To get you up to speed ahead of the competition’s return on Friday with Harlequins v Sale Sharks - live on BT Sport 2 from 7pm - here’s our club-by-club guide to the goings on around the Premiership during lockdown.
With 11 regular-season rounds still to be completed, as well as play-off semi-finals and finals, there’s plenty still to play for and BT Sport will bring you all the action between now and the final day with every single game being broadcast live.
1st - Exeter Chiefs (45 points)
Exeter sit five points clear at the top of the table with Saracens’ relegation meaning the Chiefs are mid-season favourites to end their three-year wait for a Premiership title.
Having been the bridesmaids in the last two finals, Rob Baxter’s men know they won’t have to face their old nemesis this time around.
Not one for resting on their laurels, their big summer signing has been Glasgow and Scotland lock Jonny Gray and the giant second row should be available for their first game against Leicester Tigers.
The Chiefs will be without long-serving scrum-half Nic White who has returned home to Australia however. The 30-year-old spent three years at Sandy Park, marshalling Exeter’s formidable forward pack.
Last year's finalists will also be without their back-row try-scoring machine Matt Kvesic, who is heading up the M5 to join Worcester Warriors.
Director of Rugby Baxter is anticipating a reshaped Premiership landscape when top-flight clubs do eventually get back to playing.
Baxter believes those clubs in the lower half of the table may look to use the remainder of the 2019/20 campaign as an opportunity to build for the future, whilst those in and around the top six will adopt a very different strategy when the action resumes.
“Some teams will play completely differently and you’ll have some teams with absolutely nothing to lose,” said Baxter. “There will be some clubs out there who will see this as a huge opportunity to almost restart their squad process.
“For us, our first goal is to qualify in that top four, then our second will be to try and get into that top two for obvious reasons. That may mean our approach is totally different to that of Leicester, but that’s why every game will be so interesting.”
Rob Baxter has brought in Scotland's Sam Hidalgo-Clyne to replace him, while the club also has once-capped England nine Jack Maunder and Stuart Townsend as options. But can any of them fill the White-sized void?
Exeter should make the top four barring an almighty collapse, but will they make a fifth successive final and win a second title?
Next fixture vs Leicester Tigers - Saturday 15 August, 2pm BT Sport 1
2nd - Sale Sharks (40 pts)
Without a doubt the biggest rugby news of the summer has been Manu Tuilagi’s decision to jump ship and join high-flying Sale.
The centre was a free agent after rejecting a 25 per cent pay cut at Leicester Tigers where he had played since a teenager.
The British and Irish Lion signed a deal that will keep him at Edgeley Park until the end of the 2020-21 season, ensuring he remains eligible for international selection.
Tuilagi’s arrival will be a huge boost for Sale’s play-off push and automatically transforms them from dark horses to joint-favourites with Exeter.
With Denny Solomona, Marland Yarde, Sam James, Robert du Preez and Faf de Klerk to pick from, director of rugby Steve Diamond has the league's most stacked backlines at his disposal.
The 29-year-old is in line to make his debut in Sale's return to action against Harlequins this Friday.
Sharks scrum-half De Klerk has hailed Tuilagi's immediate on the club ahead of his first appearance.
“All the things that have been said about Manu are absolutely true,” Sale and South Africa scrum-half de Klerk told the PA news agency. “A guy like that, you have only previously played against him, and while you know he has got a great reputation, you never know how he is going to filter into a squad.
"But he has been absolutely great and I have been very impressed with him. The way he has trained, he just sets the standard really high and drives us to be better. Everyone in the squad knows they need to perform every week to keep their spot and that just lifts the whole training environment. It has been great these last few weeks.”
The rest of the Sale squad have agreed to take permanent pay cuts to help the club through the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many Premiership sides, including Sale, had agreed temporary pay cuts of up to 25% in the early stages of the crisis to help clubs remain solvent.
But the club say their salary reductions will allow their squad - which includes South African stars like De Klerk and Lood de Jager, as well as England back row Tom Curry and Scotland back Byron McGuigan - to remain together for the next three or four years.
Next fixture vs Harlequins - Friday 14 August, 7.45pm BT Sport 2
3rd - Bristol Bears (38 pts)
The Bears will emerge from their lockdown hibernation as genuine challengers for a maiden Premiership title boasting one of the most star-studded rosters in the competition.
The West Country outfit will have no fewer than eight new players when they welcome reigning champions Saracens to Ashton Gate on Saturday 15 August and there is growing optimism that they can upset the odds and claim Sarries' crown.
Head coach Pat Lam has added an array of firepower to a squad that already contained the likes of Charles Piutau and Nathan Hughes.
In Fijian winger Semi Radradra the Bears have acquired a genuine global superstar with the potential to tear up Premiership defences.
The scale of Bristol's ambitious plans were a huge motivation in England prop Kyle Sinckler's decision to join the club.
He said: “The Bears are an ambitious club on the up . There’s a clear plan in place for long-term success and I’m looking forward to contributing."
“Kyle is an outstanding player and it’s fantastic to bring someone of his international calibre to the Bears,” said Director of Rugby, Lam. “A key part of our vision is developing our homegrown contingent to become England internationals. Kyle can set the example of what it takes for a young player to succeed at the highest level.”
As well as Sinckler, in come young England hopefuls Ben Earl and Max Malins who will both make their debuts for the club after agreeing loan deals from relegated Saracens.
Malins could fill the hole left at fly-half following the departure of Ireland international Ian Madigan, who has joined Ulster.
The club have also opened a new state of the art training ground which they hope will help cement their rise to the top of English rugby.
Next fixture vs Saracens - Saturday 15 August, 4.30pm BT Sport 1
4th - Northampton Saints (35 pts)
Despite the ongoing financial impact of Covid-19, Saints have managed to agree new deals for 19 first-team players.
England World Cup finalist Courtney Lawes, Wales fly-half Dan Biggar and Scotland centre Rory Hutchinson are among the players to have signed new contracts.
Other internationals to put pen to paper are Lewis Ludlam, Teimana Harrison, Piers Francis and freshly-capped England full-back George Furbank.
Alex Mitchell, Alex Moon and Fraser Dingwall – three Saints Academy graduates who all received their first England squad call-up during this year’s Six Nations – have all also signed on again.
Meanwhile the likes of club co-captain Alex Waller, Mikey Haywood, David Ribbans, James Grayson, Ehren Painter, James Fish, and Lewis Bean have all also been rewarded for a string of impressive performances at Franklin’s Gardens.
"Getting so many influential players bought in to what we're trying to achieve, and committed to staying with us for an additional two or three years, is a huge coup for Saints," said Director of Rugby Chris Boyd.
"We have a great balance of emerging and world-class players at our disposal, with a home-grown spine to the team, so it was vital for us to keep this exciting group together and build the core of our side.”
Northampton’s push for back-to-back seasons in the top four has also been boosted by the arrival of Nick Isiekwe on loan from Saracens.
The 6ft 7in forward will stay at Franklin’s Gardens until the end of the 2020-21 season giving Boyd a wealth of back-row options ahead of Saints' first game back against Wasps on Sunday 16 August.
Next fixture vs Wasps- Sunday 16 August, 3pm BT Sport 1
Re-opening weekend fixtures
Friday 14 August: Harlequins v Sale Sharks
Saturday 15 August: Worcester Warriors v Gloucester
Saturday 15 August: Exeter Chiefs v Leicester Tigers
Saturday 15 August: Bath v London Irish
Saturday 15 August: Bristol Bears v Saracens
Sunday 16 August: Northampton Saints v Wasps
Every game available to stream live online and on the BT Sport app
5th - Wasps (33 pts)
Three victories on the bounce, including a statement 60-10 win over Saracens - catapulted Wasps into top-four contention before the league's suspension.
In fact, their last Premiership defeat came way back in early February, lighting up the league with an exciting brand of rugby that fans at the Ricoh Arena had not seen for some time.
The Midlands club will resume the 19/20 season away at Northampton with high hopes of earning a semi-final berth.
Off the pitch, ongoing negotiations around the club's home at the Ricoh Arena look set to plague their season, but things are a lot brighter on it.
The most promising performances before lockdown came from fit-again back-rower Jack Willis. The 23-year-old led the league in turnovers (23) while his carrying and work rate on the ball has led to calls for him to be included in Eddie Jones' next England squad.
Cruelly denied a trip to South Africa in 2018 by an ACL injury, Willis will be looking to return to where he left off in order to push for international recognition.
England internationals Joe Launchbury, Brad Shields, Dan Robson and Jacob Umaga are among 15 Wasps players who have signed new long-term contracts ahead of next month’s restart of the season.
The raft of new deals come just weeks after Jimmy Gopperth, Marcus Watson, Rob Miller and Biyi Alo all committed their futures to the club.
Speaking on the club website, head coach Lee Blackett said: “I’m delighted to see so many of our existing players committing their futures to the club.
“We are working hard to develop a brand of winning rugby that gets supporters off their seats and having a nucleus of international experience to help bring through some of our younger players is going to be key in achieving this.”
Next fixture vs Northampton Saints- Sunday 16 August, 3pm BT Sport 1
6th - Bath (30 pts)
Bath return to action in the midst of a re-building phase as the famous old club look to return to summit of English rugby.
Forwards coach coach Neal Hatley has been named as the club's head coach and will work under director of rugby, Stuart Hooper.
Hatley returned to the Rec after last year's World Cup following three-and-a-half years as England's scrum coach.
"We're thrilled to confirm Neal as head coach. The director of rugby and head coach set-up has always been the route I want to follow," Hooper told the club's website.
"Bringing Neal back into our environment was about reconnecting, finding out how I can complement him, how he can complement me and how we can deliver the best programme here at the club."
16 players in total have been released over the summer as the club said goodbye to Wales international and Lions hopeful Rhys Webb, Japan-bound Freddie Burns, Francois Louw and Tom Homer - who became London Irish's big-name signing along with Wallabies international Rob Simmons.
“Those leaving the squad is an inevitable part of professional sport and with that new players come into the side as we look to develop our playing group for the now and for the future. We will make the best effort possible to say thank you and goodbye to those leaving in the right way.”
The key arrival comes in the form of Champions Cup and Premiership-winning scrum-half Ben Spencer. The England international pen to paper on a three-year deal after a nine-year stay with Saracens, bringing genuine title-winning experience to the Rec.
"We believe Ben’s attributes will help us continue to develop our game, and the nine position that we intend to grow as an area of real strength and depth," added Hooper.
“His experience and understanding of the game is impressive, and he offers something with his running game that we are really excited about."
Bath return to action against Premiership new-boys London Irish.
With the two teams separated by just two points in the table, Hooper’s men will be looking to lay down an early marker against one of their rivals for a European berth.
Next fixture vs London Irish - Saturday 15 August, 3pm BT Sport App
Premiership rugby returns
With every single Premiership game available to watch on BT Sport until the end of the season, here are six faces to keep an eye on as rugby returns.
The one and only Squidge Rugby breaks down why this year's Prem Rugby title race is wide open and potentially one of the most exciting ever.
In a ground-breaking agreement between Premiership Rugby and BT Sport, subscribers can watch every single match from the remainder of the 2019/20 season live.
7th - Harlequins (28 pts)
Quins will resume the 2019/20 season knowing it will be Chris Robshaw’s 16th and final year at the club.
The former England captain, who led his country in 43 Tests over a five-year-period, will continue his rugby in America with Major League Rugby (MLR) side San Diego Legion.
The 33-year-old helped Quins win their first ever Premiership title in 2011-12 and was also in the side that lifted the Challenge Cup a year earlier.
Quins may be losing one England veteran but they have also gained one in the form of winger Chris Ashton. Ashton had his Sale Sharks contract terminated by mutual consent in March and signed a deal with the south west London club two days later.
The 33-year-old, who has scored 86 Premiership tries, says he hopes the move will see him become the first past the 100 mark.
"I can't wait to get started at Quins. It is a club filled with incredibly experienced and talented players,” he said.
"When I spoke to Gussy (head of rugby Paul Gustard) and heard more about the direction the club is going in, and what it means to be a Harlequin, I knew that this was the right move for me."
Ashton looks set to fill the void left by the outgoing winger Gabriel Ibitoye who is close to agreeing terms on a move to Top 14 side Agen.
The loss of Ibitoye, who has been a part of recent England camps as an apprentice, is a huge blow to Harlequins’ hopes of securing a place in next season's Champions Cup.
Centre Joe Marchant's return from a short stint in Super Rugby with the Auckland Blues will ease the pain of Ibitoye's exit.
The 24-year-old will be keen to put himself back in the international shop window after making impressive cameos in England's World Cup warm-up games last year.
Quins have also bolstered their ranks with South Africa prop Wilco Louw and fellow countryman Andre Esterhuizen in the backs.
Next fixture vs Sale- Friday 14 August, 7.45pm BT Sport 2
8th - London Irish (28 pts)
Newly-promoted London Irish have settled back into top-flight life quickly.
After a busy summer of recruitment, Irish were many people's pre-season dark horses for a play-off push but a run of four games without a win over the Christmas period put pay to those ambitions.
The Exiles bounced back at the turn of the year and are now well placed for a late-season push for one of the European spots.
They will play their remaining home matches at Harlequins' home ground, The Twickenham Stoop, when the 2019-20 Gallagher season resumes later this month.
The Exiles were due to move into the new Brentford Community Stadium, a ground they will share with Premier League hopefuls Brentford, but construction has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
London Irish chief executive Brian Facer said: “Although we may be fierce competitors with Harlequins on the field, even rivals can support each other during extraordinary circumstances such as these, and I would like to thank the Quins Board, and in particular their Chief Executive Laurie Dalrymple and his team, for their positivity in accommodating our matches.”
Irish's quest to secure qualification for Europe next season will be boosted by the arrival of Wallabies lock Rob Simmons, who will join up with the side at the end of the Super Rugby season.
The 31-year-old has 100 caps for Australia including three World Cup tours.
“Coming over to England is a brilliant opportunity for me and I can’t wait to get going,” Simmons said.
Declan Kidney's side resume their campaign with a trip to the Rec to face Bath before they play host to Northampton Saints in their first game at the Stoop.
Next fixture vs Bath - Saturday 15 August, 3pm BT Sport App
9th - Gloucester (26 pts)
It’s been all change in the West Country with a whole host of comings and goings at Kingsholm.
Johan Ackermann ended his three-year stay as head coach to take charge of Japanese club NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes.
Ackermann has been succeeded by George Skivington, who joins from London Irish, while Director of Rugby David Humphreys has also left the club in what has been a whirlwind few months for the Cherry and Whites.
Skivington is an exciting appointment. At 37, he’s is the Premiership’s youngest head coach - 12 days younger than Wasps' Lee Blackett.
His arrival was welcomed in glowing terms by star fly-half Danny Cipriani.
The 32-year-old tweeted: "This is the most exciting announcement of a head coach I’ve seen in rugby, forward thinking.
"The type of man you build a club around. Very grateful I’ll get to play out my last years under him."
A second-row who played for Wasps, Leicester Tigers and Irish, making 177 appearances in the Premiership, he has started his first head coaching role with a clear purpose - to turn Gloucester’s set of forwards back into the intimidating force of yesteryear.
“We have an interesting period coming up when we restart; an interesting dynamic. We will get a chance to see everyone play.
“I want to give everyone a chance to impress me in the remainder of this season. There are massive positives in finishing this season and I will be giving guys opportunities."
On the playing side, Tom Marshall, Franco Mostert, and Franco Marais have chosen to further their careers elsewhere.
Next fixture vs Worcester Warriors - Saturday 15 August, 12.30pm BT Sport App
10th - Worcester Warriors (22 pts)
Worcester’s best lockdown business came in the form of Ted Hill’s decision to commit his long-term future to the club.
The highly-rated flanker will now stay at Sixways until 2024 in a real coup for the Midlands club. Hill has also been rewarded for his eye-catching performances with the club captaincy.
At 21, it makes him their youngest skipper in 16 years of Premiership rugby. Hill, who won his one England cap against Japan in 2018, succeeds experienced South African GJ van Velze.
"The appointment of Ted and Will accords with our vision for our young Worcester lads to form the core of our team," said Director of Rugby Alan Solomons.
"Ted has developed into a terrific player who has the full respect of our whole squad. He is a young lad who has a massive future in the game.”
Alongside Hill, much is expected of Worcester’s 20-year-old centre, Ollie Lawrence.
Lawrence is rated one of the hottest young No.13s in the Premiership and is size and skillset has drawn comparisons with Manu Tuilagi and Sonny Bill Williams.
Next fixture vs Gloucester - Saturday 15 August, 12.30pm BT Sport App
11th - Leicester Tigers (20 pts)
Leicester will resume 11th in the Premiership table following a chaotic summer of contract negotiations and the high-profile departure of Manu Tuilagi.
New head coach Steve Borthwick has a huge task in store having officially taken charge at Welford Road on 1 July.
The man tipped by Eddie Jones as a future England head coach left his role as the Australian’s number two in a bid to restore Leicester to rugby’s top table, but his first few weeks in charge have been far from plain-sailing.
While Tuilagi’s departure is a bitter blow to the club, Borthwich has backed the famous old club to 'adapt' to life without their superstar centre.
"I think with any situation you find yourself, you adapt, you find a way to adapt; find a way to adapt and overcome," he said.
"We've made some signings, the players we have here are working exceptionally hard to improve themselves, to help improve this team and take this team forward. And that's what we'll continue to do."
Fiji back Nemani Nadolo is arguably the biggest name arriving at Welford Road while Kini Murimurivalu, Argentina's Mathias Moroni and Scotland man Matt Scott have also joined Borthwich's Leicester revolution.
The Tigers have also managed to tie down a number of other marquee players ahead of the restart.
England internationals Ben Youngs, George Ford and Ellis Genge are the latest players to agree new terms to stay at Welford Road.
In total, the Tigers have announced 18 new player contracts since the weekend, having seen Tuilagi, Telusa Veainu, Noel Reid, Greg Bateman and Kyle Eastmond all leave.
While the club have seen a number of departures since the league’s suspension, the appointment of World Cup winner Aled Walters has been hailed as a potential game-changing signing.
Walters will become Leicester’s head of physical performance having worked as South Africa’s strength and conditioning coach, overseeing the training of Rassie Erasmus’ 2019 winners.
“I want us to win,” Borthwick told the Telegraph. “I am unequivocal about that. I am not going to give a timescale – I am saying that, every day, we are working towards that point.
“We have a lot of work to do, but we’ve got very good coaching staff here. Aled Walters did not leave the South Africa team to come here and not work towards winning.”
Next fixture vs Exeter Chiefs- Saturday 15 August, 2pm BT Sport 1
12th - Saracens (Relegated)
The reigning Premiership champions are in the unusual position of knowing they will not be competing at this season’s final at Twickenham.
Earlier this season the north London club were automatically relegated to the Championship for historic salary cap breaches.
The sanction has forced the club to sell or loan a number of prized assets but many players have pledged to remain with the club in the second tier of English rugby next season - most notably England internationals Owen Farrell, Jamie George and Maro Itoje.
They will resume the season without internationals Liam Williams, Nick Tomkins, Will Skelton, Rhys Carre, Nick Isiekwe, Ben Earl, Jack Singleton, George Kruis, Alex Goode and Ben Spencer along with promising back Max Malins, who have all moved to new clubs in England, Wales, France and Japan respectively.
Long-serving captain Brad Barritt has signed a contract extension to ensure he will be a Saracen until the conclusion of the 2019/20 season, his 12th and final season at the club.
Managing to persuade Farrell to remain at the club in a Lions year has been the biggest coup for the club and a huge boost in their bid to restore their Premiership status next year.
“It was an easy decision,” says Farrell. “I have got a huge amount of care for the club along with a lot of other people who have been there for a similar amount of time.
"We all came to it individually but I guess there is an understanding how much the club means to the people involved in it. We didn't know what each other was doing but I guess there would have been an inkling.
“I have always been happy at the club, always competing to win things. That's the exciting thing in the future. Getting back to that. Obviously we have this season to finish off and that's exciting. Next season obviously will be a different challenge but I am looking forward to what the future is.”
Director of rugby Mark McCall believes star players like Farrell, George, Itoje and Elliot Daly will benefit physically from a 'sabbatical' in the Championship next season.
“Those senior players might only need a couple of Championship games to keep them ticking over," said McCall.
"This is their golden opportunity to have a quieter club year, something akin to a sabbatical.
“The opportunity has arisen for these players to have a little bit of a different year and we will look to use it as wisely as we can.
“They’ve got a huge role to play in terms of the standards they set here, which they’ve done already in this pre-season, and they’re hugely important going forward even though they probably won’t play that many Championship matches.”
Next fixture vs Bristol Bears - Saturday 15 August, 4.30pm BT Sport 1