The English Premiership 2019/2020 season has been over for a few weeks, but the 2020/2021 season is now fast approaching. Newcastle United have joined the league, following their promotion as Championship champions, and have replaced Saracens, who were relegated to the Championship after their salary cap issues last season. This article will preview each of the 12 teams playing Premiership rugby this season, looking at which players will be key players to their hopes, as well as going through some predictions for what sort of season they could have.
2019/2020 LEAGUE PLACING: 4th (play-off semi-finalists)
DIRECTOR OF RUGBY: Stuart Hooper
CAPTAIN: Charlie Ewels
KEY PLAYERS: Tom Dunn (hooker), Tom Ellis (back row forward), Josh Matavesi (centre), Ruaridh McConnochie (winger).
Last season was Stuart Hooper’s first season in charge, and many were perhaps expecting it to be a relatively lukewarm season, with little things being improved here and there. However, it turned out to be one of their best seasons in recent memory, reaching the play-off semi-finals and generally playing some really good rugby throughout the season.
What was really impressive was that they had groups of players across the team who lined up together every week where possible, so for example the forward line wasn’t changed around too often, with Beno Obano, Tom Dunn and Will Stuart all impressing there, and all now being full England internationals. This meant that they had groups of players who knew how each other played, what they could and couldn’t do, and this helps to get a team working together and going in the same direction.
Their threat last season definitely came from the wings, with Ruaridh McConnochie in particular being a really consistent performer in the latter stages of the season, constantly causing problems for opposing defences with his try-scoring ability, whilst the versatile Anthony Watson always helped wherever he could on the pitch, in defence or attack.
Following last season, the expectations of Bath have been raised. You feel now that the fans will expect this style and standard of rugby in all games this season, so they can try and go one step further and reach the final this season, which would be seen as even more progress. Overall, last season was good, but, like with everyone else, they will now need to step it up a bit more to ensure they don’t slide away from the top four.
2019/2020 LEAGUE PLACING: 3rd (play-off semi-finalists)
DIRECTOR OF RUGBY: Pat Lam
CAPTAIN: Steven Luatua
KEY PLAYERS: Ben Earl (flanker), Nathan Hughes (number 8), Callum Sheedy (fly-half), Piers O’Conor (centre), Semi Radradra (centre), Charles Piutau (full-back).
Bristol were easily my favourite team to watch last season, because they play effortless rugby that flows on the pitch. All the players know what their roles are, too, and that shows, because, if one player moves out of position, such as being dragged inside, then another comes in and fills the vacated space. This means that, when in possession, they are very dangerous to stop. Pat Lam also knows his way around the recruitment side of things as well, with Semi Radradra, Max Malins and Ben Earl all joining in the season break, and all impressing in the latter stages of the season.
The essential ingredient for any player to play in this Bristol side is pace, it seems, because they don’t wait for teams to come onto them; instead, they like to be directing the play. This becomes even easier when you have a player like fly-half Callum Sheedy in the team. Sheedy was one of their best players last season, and that says a lot, given the whole team was good. However, Sheedy was the one directing play, creating chances, making key passes into space, and consistently kicking the points as well.
They tailed off a little at the end of last season, only just securing their place in the play-offs in the last round after spending much of the season in the top two, but much will be expected of a side that some are suggesting could be the ones to knock Exeter Chiefs off their perch. This is unlikely, given how good the Chiefs are, but they will definitely give it a good go.
2019/2020 LEAGUE PLACING: 1st (champions)
DIRECTOR OF RUGBY: Rob Baxter
CAPTAIN: Jack Yeandle
KEY PLAYERS: Luke Cowan-Dickie (hooker), Jonny Gray (lock), Jonny Hill (lock), Sam Simmonds (back row forward), Joe Simmonds (fly-half), Ollie Devoto (centre), Ian Whitten (centre), Tom O’Flaherty (winger), Stuart Hogg (full-back).
There is nothing to say about Exeter that hasn’t already been said, to be honest. Over recent seasons, they have had closely-fought title battles with Saracens, but last season, following Sarries’ automatic relegation, that was not the case. This meant that Exeter had a virtually free passage to the title, because they almost shrugged everyone else off in every game.
The quality they have in the team is unbelievable, and the squad depth is also really good. They also have a mix of everything you need, so, at centre, for example, Ollie Devoto is an attack-minded player, whilst Ian Whitten is a bit more defensive in his play, and the two often replace each other as substitutes as a result. However, it means that, no matter what the situation, Exeter have the players to suit the way the game is going. That is one of the key reasons why they are consistently at the top and so difficult to beat.
This season, they will need to step up even more, because, now the likes of Bath and Bristol have all had a taste of the play-offs, plus the fact that Wasps have been rejuvenated and look back to their best, Exeter will likely find the title challenge even harder this time around.
2019/2020 LEAGUE PLACING: 7th
DIRECTOR OF RUGBY: George Skivington (head coach)
CAPTAIN: Lewis Ludlow
KEY PLAYERS: Jake Polledri (flanker), Mark Atkinson (centre), Chris Harris (centre), Louis Rees-Zammit (winger), Ollie Thorley (winger).
Gloucester have had a few seasons of playing some really good rugby, but most will agree that the less said about last season, the better. It wasn’t a disaster in rugby terms, but it will probably be considered one by the team. Star fly-half Danny Cipriani has been their talisman in their rise up the table, but he was very quiet last season, and it showed that, when he has a bad day, Gloucester have a bad day. They need others to step up and perform when Cipriani isn’t, and that is something I think head coach George Skivington, who came in for the last few games of last season, will need and want to address before this season kicks off.
There is no doubt that this season will be seen as a chance to start again, with fresh ideas and still relatively new leadership, but it will take a lot for them to find their form again and challenge at the top of the table. Can they do it? We will have to find out as the games go on, but a win in their opening game would surely give them and their fans confidence that this season will be much different to last season.
2019/2020 LEAGUE PLACING: 6th
DIRECTOR OF RUGBY: Paul Gustard
CAPTAIN: Stephen Lewies
KEY PLAYERS: Alex Dombrandt (number 8), Will Evans (flanker), Marcus Smith (fly-half), Joe Marchant (centre), Cadan Murley (winger).
The best way to describe Harlequins’ 2019/2020 season was solid but not spectacular. They didn’t trouble the top teams fighting for play-off places, despite being in the running for a place up until the last few rounds, but they were also never in danger of going down. I actually thought Quins played much better last season than I have seen them play in the few seasons before, and this is the effect of Paul Gustard’s coaching coming through. Under previous boss John Kingston, they had moments where they were too easy to beat, but they now cause problems for opposing teams, and have a good attacking style of play. Their attacking threat comes mainly from the back of the team, in players such as Joe Marchant and Cadan Murley, but also from the back row forwards, with Alex Dombrandt being involved in most of their attacking moves, becoming one of the best players in the league in the process.
This season, they need to kick on and try to get even better, because they are former Premiership champions, let’s not forget. Therefore, they know they can get there, but maybe not with Exeter in the form they are in. However, there is no reason why they can’t be a bit more consistent and look to break into the top four this season.
2019/2020 LEAGUE PLACING: 11th
DIRECTOR OF RUGBY: Steve Borthwick (head coach)
CAPTAIN: Tom Youngs
KEY PLAYERS: Luke Wallace (flanker), George Ford (fly-half), Matt Scott (centre), Nemani Nadolo (winger).
A bit like with Gloucester, the less said about last season, the better with Leicester. In fact, the less said about the last few seasons, the better. It really has not been a happy time for the Tigers or their fans, and, had Saracens not been relegated, it is probable that the English rugby giants would have been heading to the Championship.
However, there have been a few signs that they are (slowly) turning a corner, with some elements of the performances since former England assistant Steve Borthwick came in during the break showing some promise. Nemani Nadolo has shown an attacking instinct that Tigers haven’t had for a while, whilst Luke Wallace and Matt Scott have looked OK in defence, putting pressure on opposing players at times.
What we need to see now, with new leadership in place, is Leicester starting to put together some strong performances, and then they can use that to build on and get wins on the board. Ultimately, if they don’t get the performances right, then they will continue to struggle, and there is no failsafe this season of a club already being confirmed as going down.
Steve Borthwick is a good coach, but now that he has sole charge of the team, with club legend Geordan Murphy leaving in the last week, we need to start seeing some improvements on the pitch. They won’t be fighting for the top four, but if they can look to finish in the top half of the table, that will be a good season’s result for them. It is all about baby steps with Tigers, such as the distance they need to claw back to reach everyone else.
2019/2020 LEAGUE PLACING: 10th
DIRECTOR OF RUGBY: Declan Kidney
CAPTAIN: Blair Cowan
KEY PLAYERS: Blair Cowan (flanker), Ollie Hassell-Collins (winger).
Last time London Irish were in the Premiership, they went back down with a whimper, with a poor defence being one of the main reasons for them struggling to pick up points. However, last season, they looked completely different, carrying more of a threat in attack, whilst they weren’t too bad in defence either. There were areas that they needed to work on, and Declan Kidney is an experienced coach who knows how to get his team playing high quality rugby, and I think they will be fine this season if they can keep pushing on.
They finished only above Leicester and relegated Saracens last season, so they will know that they need to improve in order to stay out of the relegation battle. They do have some good players in their team, and winger Ollie Hassell-Collins is one of the most exciting pacy wingers in the league, so that means that Irish always have a try-scoring threat in attack.
They do need to start well this season, otherwise they could find themselves in the relegation battle early on, and that will put pressure on them to perform, which may lead to mistakes being made. That is something they can’t afford to have.
2019/2020 LEAGUE PLACING: 1st (in Championship, promoted as champions)
DIRECTOR OF RUGBY: Dean Richards
CAPTAIN: Mark Wilson
KEY PLAYERS: Logovi’i Mulipola (prop), Gary Graham (flanker), Will Welch (flanker), Mark Wilson (flanker), Toby Flood (fly-half), Cooper Vuna (winger).
Newcastle were in a three-way relegation battle with Leicester and Worcester the last time they were in the Premiership, and ultimately lost. However, they went down to the Championship, have worked on a few things, and will make their return to the top division with plenty of hope that they can survive an immediate drop back down.
The thing that is clear about their squad is that they have experience, and that will definitely help them as the season goes on. Prop Logovi’i Mulipola in particular has seen plenty of Premiership action, both for Newcastle, Leicester before that for six years, and for Gloucester at the end of last season, and he is a dependable player. Back row forwards Gary Graham and Will Welch also played for Newcastle in the Premiership previously, whilst fly-half Toby Flood can always be relied upon to kick points under pressure. The key player for the Falcons will be England flanker Mark Wilson, who spent last season on loan at Sale Sharks, and is a player who can make things happen when his team need a spark to get them going.
What we have shown is that Newcastle’s experience will be essential to them, and they will need to make a good start this season to avoid being in the relegation places too often. However, like with London Irish, I fear that, if they don’t make a good start, they will find themselves quickly under pressure at the foot of the league.
2019/2020 LEAGUE PLACING: 8th
DIRECTOR OF RUGBY: Chris Boyd
CAPTAIN: Teimana Harrison
KEY PLAYERS: Mikey Haywood (hooker), Teimana Harrison (number 8), Alex Mitchell (scrum-half), Rory Hutchinson (centre), Taqele Naiyaravoro (winger), George Furbank (full-back).
Northampton are a team I like watching, but I just want a bit more from them at times. They have plenty of quality in their team, which has never been doubted, but they seem to be a bit too inconsistent in their performances. Last season, they had a spectacular fall in the last rounds, not putting on good performances, and this ultimately cost them any hope of fighting for a play-off place. They have everything that is needed for a title fight; pace, power, strength, and a mix of experience and youthfulness, to name just a few. However, this season, they need to work on their consistency, because they can’t afford to play as they did at the end of last season, and need to hit the ground running.
I think they will finish in the top half of the table, but it will take something special for them to gain a play-off place. When I compare them to the likes of Bristol, Bath, Wasps and Exeter, who all finished in the play-offs last season, I can’t see a matchup in performance levels. However, I can see them improving on last season’s poor finish, and that is the least that needs to happen at Franklin’s Gardens this season.
2019/2020 LEAGUE PLACING: 5th
DIRECTOR OF RUGBY: Steve Diamond
CAPTAIN: Jono Ross
KEY PLAYERS: Tom Curry (flanker), Jono Ross (flanker), Faf de Klerk (scrum-half), Sam James (centre), Luke James (centre/full-back), Rohan Janse van Rensburg (centre), Marland Yarde (winger), Simon Hammersley (full-back).
Sale were one of the better sides in the Premiership last season, and they always asked questions of their opponents in every game. What was key to their excellent performances is the squad depth, with plenty of players who can fill numerous positions, such as Luke James, who can play at either centre or full-back. They also have attack-minded players, such as Sam James, who I think is one of the most underrated players in the whole league, and Simon Hammersley, who is one of the best full-backs in the league, doing everything defensively and in attack that a full-back needs to do. It was only the last game being cancelled due to positive coronavirus tests in the squad that stopped them finishing in the play-offs, which I thought they would do after their excellent performances across the season.
However, despite the disappointment of the way their season ended, I still think that they will come into this season with renewed vigour, and a strong desire to go again and push for a place in the top four at the end of the season. For me, they are the team that Bristol and Bath will need to match this season, in terms of performances and results, because any slip-up from the two West Country teams could be all the Sharks need to break into the top four.
2019/2020 LEAGUE PLACING: 2nd (play-off runners-up)
DIRECTOR OF RUGBY: Lee Blackett (head coach)
CAPTAIN: Joe Launchbury
KEY PLAYERS: Alfie Barbeary (versatile forward), Joe Launchbury (lock), Will Rowlands (lock), Jack Willis (flanker), Dan Robson (scrum-half), Jacob Umaga (fly-half), Malakai Fekitoa (centre), Matteo Minozzi (full-back).
Wasps were the team who made the biggest improvement last season, and it was extraordinary how they changed from Christmas onwards. Dai Young was a good coach, and had given Wasps some good moments and memories, but his time had unfortunately come, with performances dwindling and league placings going down every round.
However, Lee Blackett gave them fresh belief, and the performances have been better under him. New England flanker and Premiership Player of the Year Jack Willis played a major role in that improvement, being absolutely devastating at the breakdown, winning 46 turnovers (the most of anyone in the Premiership last season), and that is a major reason why Wasps became so hard to beat, after being so easy to beat. It also helps that they have a very creative duo at scrum and fly-half, with Dan Robson being one of the sharpest nines in the league, constantly using any inch of space he is given, whilst at the back, Italy international Matteo Minozzi is an attacking full-back who has added a lot to all areas of the team on the pitch.
Given that they finished last season as the Premiership runners-up, and that was having come from lower down the table, it is likely that they could really challenge Exeter Chiefs for the top spot this season. This is also because they have gained that experience of a play-off final, and will now want to go one step further and win the league. If they can play in the same way that they did in the second half of last season, then there is absolutely no reason why they can’t, and it could make for a thrilling title race.
2019/2020 LEAGUE PLACING: 9th
DIRECTOR OF RUGBY: Alan Solomons
CAPTAIN: Ted Hill
KEY PLAYERS: Cornell du Preez (back row forward), Francois Hougaard (scrum-half), Ollie Lawrence (centre), Ed Fidow (winger), Perry Humphreys (winger), Chris Pennell (full-back).
Worcester Warriors have always been a team lagging at the bottom of the league, but they always have just enough quality and just enough good performances to swerve away from danger at the end of each season. Last season, they managed to finish ninth, ahead of London Irish, Leicester and relegated Saracens, which suggests that they turned a corner last season, and the hope is that they will be able to keep it.
They have good players in the team, and plenty of promising players coming through, such as new England centre Ollie Lawrence, as well as Scotland back row forward Cornell du Preez, who can always be relied on to tackle or pass when needed, and young captain and England international Ted Hill, who seems to be built in the Ben Earl mould, in that he is a try-scoring forward. They also have plenty of experience in the team, with players such as full-back Chris Pennell and scrum-half Francois Hougaard having been at Sixways for a long time, which is another big reason that they manage to get out of trouble each season.
The main question that pundits, writers and fans will have about Worcester this season is whether they can finish as high up the league this season, or whether it was only because of Saracens finishing bottom that they finished higher in the league than they have in previous seasons. I like Worcester, but I do often worry about them. They need to be a bit more consistent across the whole season, but I do think that, under Alan Solomons, they always have a chance and always cause problems, and some of their tries last season showed how they use spaces and punish mistakes made by opponents. This is likely to be something we will see a lot of this season, and it means that the other 11 teams in the league can never underestimate them.
This article has given us an idea of what we can expect from each of the 12 teams in the Premiership this season, and where in the league they are likely to finish. The things each team needs to do varies, with some needing to work on a lot of performance-related things, whilst some only need to improve a little to stay ahead of their direct competitors. The new season starts on Friday night, so we won’t have to wait too long to find out each team’s possible fortunes during 2020/2021.