There will be a few new faces in the Tigers’ line-up this season, as well as a few notable absentees. Alesana Tuilagi will no longer strike fear into the hearts of other Premiership wingers in a Leicester jersey; in his place will be the more diminutive figure of Miles Benjamin, who will hope to emulate Tuilagi’s impressive try-scoring record of recent years. Elsewhere Daniel Bowden seeks to reignite his career having joined the Tigers from London Irish. Fundamentally, though, Leicester will play the same game they always have: a strong set piece based around a fearsome pack, a miserly defence and a never-say-die attitude. They are historically the league’s most successful side and I suspect that, having so narrowly missed out on Premiership glory at the final hurdle so often, they will not lightly allow a third year pass them by without a victorious league campaign.
Top Four: Harlequins, Exeter, Saracens
Harlequins retain a squad almost identical to that of last season – if it ain’t broke don’t fix it – so expect them to finish in the playoff spots once more. Saracens will struggle more during international windows this season than previously, with almost their entire backline part of Stuart Lancaster’s English vision, but over the course of 22 matches I suspect their pragmatic approach, orchestrated by Charlie Hodgson and fuelled by the ever-irrepressible Schalk Brits, will be enough to secure a top four spot. For the final play-off position I offer perhaps a more controversial prediction: the Chiefs. Their story was something of a fairy-tale last season and even though some are predicting a more difficult second season in the top flight for the West Country club, to my eyes they showed too much quality last year to ignore. The signing of Dean Mumm only adds quality and experience to an already grizzled forward pack, who coupled with the try-scoring proficiency of Sireli Naqelevuki and boot of Gareth Steenson should serve the Chiefs well.
Dark Horse: Wasps
Wasps’ very existence hung in the balance at the end of last season. They narrowly avoided relegation (and extinction) on points difference and only a last minute financial care package kept the club afloat. Perhaps boldly, I am backing the London club to finish in the top half of the table this year. The old players will return to action not only energised and motivated to avoid a repeat of last year, but buoyed by the arrival of some new faces of the highest quality. The return of English internationals Tom Palmer and James Haskell will help their cause, as will the arrival of giant South African back-row Ashley Johnson. Perhaps most crucially, Wasps now have a playmaker in Stephen Jones with the experience and skill-set to secure narrow victories, take points when they are on offer and create try-scoring opportunities. Christian Wade scored nine tries in fifteen appearances last season for a Wasps side with no direction and ultimately no motivation; behind a bulked up pack and a quality fly-half he could be about to embark on a monumental season.
Relegated: London Welsh
I hope I am wrong on this one. Really I do. After the saga that almost culminated in their non-participation in the Premiership I would enjoy nothing more than to see the newly promoted club ‘do an Exeter’ and survive, but they face an almighty struggle if they are to do so. No doubt they will make their new Oxford home unpleasant for visiting sides, but ‘away’ points will be only too precious for the Exiles. They were disadvantaged from the outset; the sheer longevity of the debate over their promotion left them in a state of uncertainty and minimised their time to attract signings and prepare for Premiership life. Notwithstanding the signing of Gavin Henson (who has done little of note on a rugby pitch since 2008), I fear London Welsh may lack the quality to survive. If they do produce enough, look to the Worcester Warriors as another candidate for relegation.
Top Try-Scorer: Vereniki Goneva
Always tough to call at the start of the season. My pick is new Leicester signing Vereniki Goneva, a Fijian international henceforth best known only for his four-try haul and man-of-the-match award against Namibia in last year’s World Cup. He scored prolifically for Tarbes in the Pro D2 last season and has already notched three in three pre-season games for the Tigers. Elsewhere, look to Miles Benjamin, Charlie Sharples, Mike Brown and Rob Miller to repeat their high-scoring antics of last season.
Watch out for…. Billy Twelvetrees
The departure of Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu and recession of Mike Tindall to player-coach leaves Gloucester wanting at inside-centre. Twelvetrees, meanwhile, always struggled to secure a first-team berth at Leicester who used him as something of a bit-part player in the shadow of others. The move therefore potentially makes perfect sense to both parties and gives Twelvetrees, who scored 5 tries and 190 points last season, the chance to become an integral part of a young, exciting backline. Here he may finally realise what has always been obviously great potential. Honourable mentions to Shane Geraghty, who seeks to reignite his career at London Irish, and Jordan Crane, back from a lengthy injury absence and no doubt hopeful of an England recall.