Grading Every Club Entering Aviva Premiership Season

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Grading Every Club Entering Aviva Premiership Season
Clive Rose/Getty Images

After a long summer of waiting, the 2014-15 Aviva Premiership campaign gets underway in little more than a week. As ever, we have a bounty of pre-season questions in need of answers.

Northampton Saints enter this term as defending champions, but does that mean Jim Mallinder's men come back to the fray as the strongest outright party?

We give each of the 12 clubs competing a grade based on their squad strength, star assets, summer business and several other mitigating factors in an attempt to see which sides enter the season with the best hopes for success.

 

Bath

Having come so desperately close to a place in the play-offs last season, Bath will hope that their somewhat surprising 2013-14 success can give the club a foundation to leap from this time around.

George Ford's return from injury will be of massive significance, father and coach Mike having relied so heavily on his boot and eye for a gap easing them through some sticky situations.

Another question on everybody's lips is what to make of Sam Burgess' arrival, the National Rugby League import bringing a potential to light up the squad as their new powerhouse back-row figure.

Like many sides making such crucial steps in their evolution, it's winning against the top teams that will be Bath's issue, and while there are elite players sprinkled among their ranks, a lack of depth may see the club fall just shy of that play-off berth.

Grade: B+

 

Exeter Chiefs 

Last season's finish of eighth in the league was made to look acceptable in light of Exeter Chiefs' triumph in the LV= Cup, their first major trophy and a sign of the power that rests at Sandy Park.

Dean Mumm was monumental in leading his squad for the majority of the campaign, but multiple platforms proved to be a poisoned chalice for Rob Baxter as his team thinned out around new year and showed its shortcomings.

The Chiefs are waiting on a significant boom in talent at their disposal, though nothing would suggest that's come about over the summer.

An open and offensive style of attack is admirable to see from the club and its coaching staff, but once again it's likely that the Premiership's big guns will be able to expose Exeter and prevent them from making that next jump.

Grade: B

  

Gloucester

Gloucester are an enigma to assess this season, which could either be a grand new page in the club's history following a hectic last few months or a collapse of monumental proportions.

The controversial exit of Nigel Davies has seen Laurie Fisher brought in as head coach, and although the Cherry and Whites' mass influx of players was largely drawn up by the departed tactician, the squad nevertheless has its hands on a raft of top talents.

Mike Tindall is also a figure of the past, and it will be of interest to see how his voice in the changing room is missed, not to mention examining just how the likes of Richard Hibbard, John Afoa, Greig Laidlaw, James Hook, Tom Palmer and others all adapt to their new surroundings.

If that transition goes smoothly, Gloucester can by all means hope to pose a stiff task against the very best in the league, but rebuilding Kingsholm as a safe haven will be another job on their agenda.

Grade: B+

 

Harlequins

Recent talk at the Stoop has revolved largely around the decision to make Joe Marler club captain for the 2014-15 season, giving Chris Robshaw a relief in duties ahead of next year's Rugby World Cup.

Injuries and departures last term affected director Conor O'Shea's success in attack, but defence remained impressive throughout 2013-14, and only Northampton conceded fewer than their 33 tries.

With the additions of Marland Yarde and Asaeli Tikoirotuma on the wings, Quins can hope to see those statistics balance out, and the burgeoning contingent of England internationals provide the basis for another play-off challenge.

Grade: A-

 

Leicester Tigers

Last season was something of an anomaly for Richard Cockerill's side, but one can bet that Leicester Tigers have the ability to bounce back like no other Premiership side.

The dynasty influence of Welford Road has seen the team feature consistently in the Premiership finals over the past decade, and in truth, it was a staggeringly unfortunate amount of injuries that stunted their last campaign early on.

The signings of Freddie Burns, Brad Thorn and Seremaia Bai are particularly exciting, while 2013-14 Player of the Year Vereniki Goneva has boosted morale with his two-year contract extension.

Those new faces migrating into the team—Owen Williams and Burns will contend for Toby Flood's vacated fly-half role—will have a better understanding of what's required this term, evident in the second half of last season, winning nine of their last 11 games.

Grade: A

 

London Irish

London Irish's downward spiral continued in 2013-14, following finishes of seventh and ninth in the two previous campaigns with another disappointing decline in the league.

Despite working hard to bring in good, albeit not great players such as Tom Court, Tom Guest and Luke Narraway, the real talking point is how big of an impact Marland Yarde's departure is likely to have.

Gone are the days when a play-off finish could almost be banked on, and Yarde was the consistent component of true class that bailed them out of numerous scrapes last term, and without him they look slightly light in attack.

That being said, the aforementioned trio of signings, along with Geoff Cross, Sean Cox and others does make for an improved forward contingent at the Madejski, which they should look upon as their best asset in the months to come.

Grade: C+

 

London Welsh

Piri Weepu will play his rugby for London Welsh in 2014-15; no matter how many times you say that, it still doesn't seem real.

But such is the ambition the club have shown in their recruitment drive over recent months, adding a new depth of experience that will undoubtedly do them well back among England's elite.

Olly Barkley, Lachlan McAffrey, Koree Britton and James Down are just some of those new arrivals who have a wisdom to impart at the elite level, and the Exiles shouldn't be considered automatic picks for the drop just yet. 

Grade: C

 

Newcastle Falcons

A dismal season for Worcester Warriors last term was enough to give Newcastle Falcons some comfort in their bid for Premiership survival, but one might not bank on London Welsh rolling over as easily.

Despite maintaining their top-tier status, the north-east outfit were of a Championship standard in attack during the 2013-14 season, scoring just 23 tries in 22 games—eight less than the relegated Warriors.

The marquee signing of Samoan bruiser Alesana Tuilagi may look to aid that cause, but it would now seem in the hands of the courts as to whether he's involved at all, given he's currently embroiled in an accusation of assault, per the Irish Times.

Dean Richards has conducted other smart business to help his team's chances, but it will take a team-wide change in approach for the side's scoring habits to improve.

Grade: C

 

Northampton Saints

Jim Mallinder has taken an approach to his summer business not unlike the National Football League's success-based draft system, sticking largely with his tried-and-tested assets.

In recent years, Northampton's inability to do battle against their fellow title contenders has held them back, but last season's drive into the elite showed that such issues no longer linger.

Joel Hodgson is the Saints' only notable summer acquisition, a signing that gives the club extra padding at scrum-half behind Lee Dickson and Kahn Fotuali'i.

The latter, along with George North and Alex Corbisiero, now have a season at Franklin's Gardens under their belts, and the sustained status of the squad should see Mallinger's men figure highly once more.

Grade: A

 

Sale Sharks

Whenever Sale Sharks have looked like establishing a surge on the Premiership's top four in recent years, key player exits and a tumultuous coaching record has seen that path blocked.

However, transfer activity at the AJ Bell Stadium has been promising of late, and any significant departures have been replaced with experienced and capable new faces.

Chris Cusiter, Nathan Hines, Magnus Lund, Roberto De Marchi and Luke McLean strike as the most promising arrivals, while Dwayne Peel, James Gaskell, Kirill Kulemin, Henry Thomas and Rob Miller are no longer around.

The coaching setup looks solidified under Mike Forshaw's guidance, too, and after falling into a European Rugby Champions Cup group with Munster, Clermont and Saracens, the Premiership will be at the top of their priorities.

Grade: B-

 

Saracens 

David Rogers/Getty Images

Last season's finalists can't be looked past as another favourite to reach Twickenham once again this year, having finished 2013-14 as top scorers and not a lot changing at the club since then.

The departures of Steve Borthwick (retired) and Matt Stevens (Natal Sharks) have been eased by the arrivals of Jim Hamilton, Juan Figallo and Kieran Longbottom, which arguably put the pack in a superior state this term.

David Rogers/Getty Images

In short, Saracens are as stacked in roster talent as any other club, but the experience among their ranks also has a winning aura about it, possessing players who can perform for Mark McCall when backs are against the wall.

After topping the table in the last two campaigns, expect Saracens to contest for the No. 1 position again this season.

Grade: A+

 

Wasps

Dai Young is another coach to have made a big call in changing his captaincy this season, and James Haskell is a deserving recipient after showing himself to be a newly matured figure in last season's return to Europe.

Jan Kruger/Getty Images

That reunion came through a play-off win over Stade Francais, but without the injuries of Christian Wade and Tom Varndell blighting their path, Wasps may have qualified more easily.

Young will pray for his wing duo to maintain fitness throughout this season, and with Roy Helu and newly acquired Alapati Leiua providing back-up, the back line has a very noticeable sting to it.

There's certainly a sleeping giant regaining strength at Adams Park, but it may be another year's steady development before the club can be considered genuine threats for a top-four berth.

Grade: B+

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