Which Teams Will Challenge Harlequin FC for Aviva Premiership?

Paul MurphyCorrespondent ISeptember 1, 2012

Which Teams Will Challenge Harlequin FC for Aviva Premiership?

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    The home of Rugby will welcome the return of the Aviva Premiership on Saturday afternoon with a doubleheader at Twickenham.

    Last season, the Harlequins finally put the "bloodgate" scandal to bed and took home their first ever league title.

    Now that they've reached the pinnacle of English rugby, they will have a host of teams battling to knock them off their perch.

    Here is a run down of the contenders and pretenders in English rugby this season


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    In a league dominated by 10-man rugby, Harlequins were a breath of fresh air last season.

    They played an exciting brand of rugby built on a solid forward foundation. While the forwards keep it simple the backs are given a licence to thrill.

    Nick Evans is still pulling the strings and remains one of the top fly-halves in world rugby and he has a strong partnership at scrum-half with Danny Care.

    Chris Robshaw is the key man in the pack, but he will be a marked man after a breakout season last year.

    They lack depth, so injuries will play a key role. I still expect they will have enough in the tank.


    Prediction: Contender

Leicester Tigers

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    I'm not sure what it is about Leicester, but they never seem to have a bad team.

    Once again they will find themselves right in the mix.

    Their pack will be as solid as ever, while their back line will be augmented by the addition of a few exciting finishers in Adam Thompstone, Vereniki Goneva and Miles Benjamin.

    With Manu Tuilagi punching holes, they will get plenty of go forward ball, so these finishers should make Leicester more dangerous than last season.

    I also expect George Ford to become a key man for the Tigers over the course of the season, with Daniel Bowden playing a key role outside him.


    Prediction: Contenders

Northampton Saints

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    Watching Northampton in action, it is hard to believe that just five years ago they were languishing in the second division.

    Since then Jim Mallinder and Dorian West have cemented themselves as one of the brightest coaching teams in European rugby.

    Northampton will pose a challenge, but they have failed to address their main issue from recent seasons: the number 10 shirt.

    With a dominant pack and a back line full of talent, the lack of a top class 10 is becoming a serious issue.

    While they may scrape into the semifinals, I think they will once again fall short of the mark.


    Prediction: Pretenders

Gloucester Rugby

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    Every year, Gloucester are spoken of as a potential dark horse but end up falling short.

    I think this year they may finally break that hoodoo.

    They have a back line brimming with talented youngsters whom new coach Nigel Davies will be tasked with unleashing.

    Davies has a proven track record for developing young players and for installing an exciting brand of rugby. This bodes well for the upcoming season.

    Signing Jimmy Cowan could be a master stroke, as he is an intelligent game manager who will, when necessary, rein in the side's youthful enthusiasm.


    Prediction: Contenders

London Irish

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    London Irish appear to have gone through a total overhaul over the summer, so they are still an unknown quantity.

    Gone is Scott Booth and his coaching team to be replaced by the much-maligned Brian Smith.

    Irish fans will be hoping they get the Brian Smith who coached them in the early noughties and not the man who led a toothless England attack from 2008 to 2012.

    They have looked promising in preseason and should improve as the season goes on, especially as Shaun Edwards begins to mold the defence.

    If they can make it through the winter, the Irish will be a dangerous team on the hard ground come the end of the season.


    Prediction: Pretenders


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    Now three years into the Saffracens experiment and not much has changed from last season bar the arrival of Chris Ashton.

    For me this is like buying a Ferrari without the engine, as Saracens simply don't have the back line to get the best out of the England flyer.

    They will try be more expansive but will quickly revert to the suffocating 10-man rugby that has served them so well in recent years.

    Their pack is loaded with talent, so they will be a match for anyone in the coalface. The decider will be if their defence can hold up.


    Prediction: Contenders


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    Bruce Craig is man with big ideas. Sadly those ideas have failed to materialise on the pitch in his time at the club.

    The question going into this season is if Gary Gold is the man to realise those dreams. He has a solid coaching resume in his homeland and has a decent squad at his disposal.

    Stephen Donald will be settled having had a full season to adjust and get over the high of the 2011 World Cup Final.

    Much will depend on the pack and the continued growth of young flanker Carl Fearns could help them reach the playoffs.

    They are probably a player or two short of challenging just yet.


    Prediction: Pretenders

The Rest

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    Sale Sharks

    They surprised a few teams last season and hope to build on that success with a raft of summer signings. Teams will be wary of them this year, so much will depend on Danny Cipriani.

    I for one wouldn't trust him when the pressure comes on.


    Exeter Chiefs

    Now firmly established as a Premiership team, they will once again cause serious problems for the big boys. Sadly the club is still a few players short of being genuine contenders.


    London Wasps

    With the prospect of administration now in the rear-view mirror, they will focus on stability this season. Stephen Jones will be tasked with leading them to a respectable mid-table finish.


    London Welsh

    They had to fight hard just to get here, so the question will be if they have any fight left in them. That said, the legal battle may have given them the chip on the shoulder they need to compete.

    I just think they are lacking the quality needed at this level. Relegation battle awaits.


    Worcester Warriors

    They have survived relegation in recent years by the skin of their teeth, and this season should be no different. They lost two of their finishers over the summer, so they will need Josh Matavesi to settle quickly.