Predicting Champions, Playoff Teams and Relegated Teams in Aviva Premiership

Terence O'RorkeContributor ISeptember 3, 2013

Predicting Champions, Playoff Teams and Relegated Teams in Aviva Premiership

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    Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Aviva Premiership rugby season is the fact that most games are keenly contested. 

    From top to bottom, games are never a foregone conclusion, and for this reason the season maintains its excitement to the very end. 

    Yes, there are teams that are traditionally battling for the silverware and those that have more chance of relegation. 

    But such is the competition that there is always a chance for teams to break into the top four, as Harlequins proved a few seasons ago. 

    Here we make some key predictions for the season ahead:

Saracens: Champions

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    While most punters might have Leicester down as firm favorites to repeat their success of last season, Saracens' summer activity in the transfer market gives them an edge. 

    Mark McCall's side were overpowered by the Northampton front-row in last season's semi-final and have take steps to prevent that happening again by signing giant prop James Johnston from Harlequins. 

    Johnston was the cornerstone of the Quins pack last season and adds some vital ballast to the North London club alongside Lions prop Mako Vunipola. 

    Mako Vunipola is joined by his younger brother Billy at No. 8, and together with Johnston these three have the potential to steamroll most Premiership packs. 

    Johnston will provide stability and the Vunipola brothers a wrecking-ball edge in the loose. 

    Look out also for fly-half Owen Farrell to make great strides this season. Farrell's abilities have looked limited at times, but he grew in stature during the British and Irish Lions tour this summer and looks set to take his game to a new level.

    Saracens finished top of the table in the Premiership's regular season, and we can expect them to go one better this time round and add to the title they won in 2010/11.

Leicester: Play-offs

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    It's a brave man that bets against a club that has contested the last nine Premiership finals and are reigning champions. 

    Leicester have won five Premiership titles since the start of the millennium and last season played some of their best rugby under current head coach Richard Cockerill. 

    But there also will be changes at Welford Road this season, not least the retirement of Geordan Murphy and departure of talismanic prop Martin Castrogiovanni. 

    Leicester thrive on tradition and processes that are tried and tested, and the impact from a raft of changes in their squad—those two in particular—may take a season on two to play out. 

    Cockerill's nine-match touchline ban resulting from behaviour in last season's final is also likely to have some effect. 

    With the departure of George Ford and Toby Flood's recent run of head injuries, the Tigers may also find them short in genuine fly-half cover. Ryan Lamb has been added to the squad but he has still to prove he has the consistency for a title-winning side.

Northampton: Play-offs

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    Northampton may have lost their front-row giants Soane Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati, but they have brought in the considerable frame of Alex Corbisiero. 

    The England prop is joined by fellow Lions star George North as the two most exciting signings of the summer. Both have the ability to make a real impact at Franklin's Gardens, and Saints fans in particular will be rubbing their hands at the thought of North running amok on the wing. 

    With Tom Wood, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and now Corbisiero, the Saints have four regular members of the England pack and will look to dominate up front. 

    But it is in the backs where Northampton still look a touch light, despite the arrival of North. Fly-half Stephen Myler is reliable but no more, while the Saints still need to show they have replaced the formidable partnership of James Downey and Jon Clarke in midfield. 

    Northampton will be confident of going one better than their losing appearance in last season's final and are certainly good enough to make the play-offs once again.

Harlequins: Play-offs

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    The remaining play-off spot will be keenly contested between Harlequins and Gloucester, with the London club sneaking through courtesy of their experience in recent seasons. 

    Quins will miss giant forwards Johnston and the retired Olly Kohn, but they have brought in experience in the shape of prop Paul Doran-Jones and Nick Kennedy, both England internationals. 

    Quins' biggest challenge could well be getting one or two of their star performers over the finish line of what will be another long season. Fly-half Nick Evans is 33 and No. 8 Nick Easter is 35, though the club's academy is producing a decent flow of talent. 

    Look out for flanker Chris Robshaw to hit the ground running after missing out on the Lions tour and being rested from England's tour to Argentina. 

    Robshaw has had his doubters of late and his England jersey is under threat, while teammates Danny Care and Mike Brown also need to impress with Quins to remain in contention. 

    Expect these five core players to once again lead Quins to the play-offs.

London Irish: Relegated

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    There has been a sense of malaise about London Irish since the coaching team of Toby Booth and Neal Hartley jumped ship last year to join Bath. 

    Returning director of rugby Brian Smith has struggled to keep hold of his top players and although he's brought in a raft of new blood for the season ahead, their quality is not a match of those departed. 

    Corbisiero, Jonathan Joseph, Matt Garvey and Jamie Gibson will be missed, and Smith will very much have to rely on a team effort if the Exiles are to avoid another relegation scrap in this campaign. 

    Much will depend on Irish avoiding a similar start to last year when they lost 10 of their first 12 games.

    On paper, the Exiles are probably stronger than new boys Newcastle, but Falcons head coach Dean Richards has an impressive record of success and his influence could be the deciding factor in the relegation battle.