RUGBY is back this evening – and with a new sponsor and some intriguing changes among its 12 teams, the Gallagher Premiership kicks off feeling fresher than it has for many seasons.
ROAR Sport’s Steve Cotton breaks down the prospects of the four teams within our region – Bath Rugby, Bristol Bears, Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester Rugby – ahead of the 2018-19 curtain raiser between Bristol and Bath at Ashton Gate Stadium.
SO, here we are once again. The new rugby season is upon us, with this evening’s game between Bristol and Bath the first time there has been Premiership rugby in August since 2002.
The early start is one Bristol in particular are relishing, having boldly rebranded to Bristol Bears on June 1, with promotion back to the Gallagher Premiership having been secured two months earlier.
Bristol have had 147 days to prepare for their return to the Premiership, compared with only 101 days when they went up two years ago.
Another key difference this time is that it was clear for some time before April that Pat Lam’s team would be promoted, after the controversial play-off system – which had denied and hindered Bristol in the past – was scrapped.
Promotion, combined with some shrewd recruitment and the bold rebrand have ensured Bristol go into this evening’s derby game brimming with positivity – something that was badly lacking during their last stint in the Premiership two seasons ago.
That time, they mustered only three league wins – albeit one against Bath, which delighted their long-suffering supporters – and despite a brief resurgence around Christmas and New Year they finished 13 points adrift of safety.
Will this time be different? Take a look at our club-by-club assessment of Bristol and their regional rivals below.
Director of rugby: Todd Blackadder
Last season: 6th
Title odds (provided by Sky Bet): 16/1
Key signings: Jamie Roberts (Harlequins), Jackson Willison (Worcester), Lucas Noguera Paz (Jaguares), Will Chudley (Exeter), Joe Cokanasiga (London Irish).
Key departures: Matt Banahan (Gloucester), Ben Tapuai (Harlequins), Nick Auterac (Harlequins), James Phillips (Sale Sharks), James Wilson (Southland), Guy Mercer (released).
Hopes: That their top-class back row is able to hit the ground running – and key players can stay fit. Injuries to big players hurt them last season, but their squad contains plenty of quality.
Concerns: That, with Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph already out injured, they get off to a slow start and are left playing catch-up. Losing Matt Banahan to rivals Gloucester could also come back to haunt them.
Opening three fixtures: Tonight – Bristol Bears (A); Sept 8 – Gloucester (H); Sept 15 – Harlequins (A).
ROAR Sport prediction: 6th
Head coach: Pat Lam
Last season: Championship winners
Title odds (provided by Sky Bet): 100/1
Key signings: Charles Piutau (Ulster), John Afoa (Gloucester), Nic Stirzaker (Melbourne Rebels), Harry Thacker (Leicester), Jake Heenan (Connacht), George Smith (Queensland Reds).
Key departures: Jordan Williams, Rhodri Williams, Ryan Bevington (all Dragons), Ross McMillan (Leicester), David Lemi (Chanlon), Billy Searle (Wasps), Gaston Cortes (Leicester).
Hopes: That their new signings gel quickly and their pack is able to hold its own to unleash a back division littered with talent. The Bears rebrand has already reinvigorated the club.
Concerns: That the front five creaks and that, with marquee summer recruit Charles Piutau already injured, they fail to make the most of their early opportunities to get points on the board.
Opening three fixtures: Tonight – Bath Rugby (H); Sept 8 – Saracens (A); Sept 14 – Gloucester (A).
ROAR Sport prediction: 9th
Director of rugby: Rob Baxter
Last season: Runners-up (1st in regular season)
Title odds (provided by Sky Bet): 9/4
Key signings: Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), Santiago Cordero (Jaguares).
Key departures: Will Chudley (Bath), Thomas Waldrom (Wellington Lions), Kai Horstmann, Carl Rimmer, Lachie Turner, Julian Salvi (all retired).
Hopes: That their young but experienced core can find another level once again, navigate a way past Saracens and deliver a second Premiership title in three seasons. Few clubs have an infrastructure as impressive as Chiefs’.
Concerns: That Saracens continue to improve, having showed in last season’s final they have found a formula for denying the Chiefs when it matters most.
Opening three fixtures: Saturday – Leicester (H); Sept 8 – Wasps (A); Sept 15 – Sale (H).
ROAR Sport prediction: Runners-up
Head coach: Johan Ackermann
Last season: 7th
Title odds (provided by Sky Bet): 14/1
Key signings: Matt Banahan (Bath), Danny Cipriani (Wasps), Ruan Dreyer, Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert (all Lions), Gerbrandt Grobler (Munster), Franco Marais (Sharks).
Key departures: John Afoa (Bristol), Billy Burns (Ulster), Richard Hibbard (Dragons), Ross Moriarty (Dragons), Matt Scott (Edinburgh), Jeremy Thrush (Western Force).
Hopes: That their pack – which is likely to have few peers in the Premiership – serves up the kind of platform from which new recruit Cipriani can get the backs singing.
Concerns: That the summer signings – many of them forwards – could take time to integrate to the side; interestingly, all eight of the starting pack for the season opener were with the club last season.
Opening three fixtures: Saturday – Northampton (H); Sept 8 – Bath (A); Sept 14 – Bristol (H).
ROAR Sport prediction: 4th