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THE SEASON RESUMES: WHO WILL TRIUMPH?
By P G Tips
July 21 2020


Baxter: surprises?

The Premiership season restarts next month with preparations and the fixture list disrupted by the Corona pandemic. Squad makeups have been affected too- some radically, by clubs reducing wage bills and the early implementation of close season transfers. The runners and riders could either be stronger for the season run-in or weaker as a result. The current top 4 seem to be the obvious play off candidates, but who of these will win through, and what of Bath’s prospects of a top 6 finish? Let’s take a look.

Exeter Chiefs

At first glance Chiefs have not strengthened as comprehensively as some of their rivals, with more leavers than joiners, including the departure of dynamo scrum half Nick White and veterans like Steenson and Kvesic. That view though overlooks the patient long-term squad building that Rob Baxter favours. The signings may not be many but are significant, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne in for White, Jonny Gray beefing up an already formidable pack, promising Argentine Facundo Cordero to strengthen the backs and Josh Hodge as back up to Stuart Hogg. With a 5 point lead and 9 rounds to go, few would bet against Exeter holding their play -off place, or topping the table. They will have been working on their relentless keep-ball driving game and, with Slade, Nowell and Hogg to call on for flashes of magic, Baxter is likely to have some sharp surprises up his sleeve. Look a good bet to go all the way.

 

Sale Sharks

Perhaps the surprise package of the season, Sharks currently sit 2nd, with Bristol breathing down their necks. Theirs has been among the most eye-catching recruitment with Manu Tuilagi adding to an already physical midfield (backed up by Exeter’s Sam Hill for good measure) and Cobus Wiese adding further Springbok heft to an uncompromising pack. The prospect of Tuilagi partnering Rohan Jense van Rensburg, (described by one COML poster as “a pair of super tankers”) behind Oosthuizen, De Jager and the Currys will delight all who like their rugby raw and powerful. They will certainly be a handful and strengthened as they are should comfortably make the play-offs. Whether Steve Diamond can coax out of his squad those little moments of class to turn the tightest of games is yet to be seen. Will leave many opponents bruised, but can they replicate the class of ’06 and take the title? To be proven.

 

Bristol Bears

Surely the big winners in the late season transfer merry-go-round. Sinckler and Earl add star names to an already fast and furious pack. Behind them Malins and Radrada boost the power and guile of the backs. Bristol have played with admirable (some would say at times foolhardy) ambition this season and the newcomers can only enhance their quest for big eye-catching wins and plenty of bonus points. Ashton Gate has become an intimidating stadium where even Saracens and Chiefs will have to work hard for a win. The Bears have few tough away ties to go. If they resume as they left off should be very strong challengers at the play-off stage.

 

Northampton Saints

Saints began the season brightly, notching 6 wins in their first 8 games. Their form since early January though has slumped, home defeats to London Irish and Bristol paving the way for a thumping at Exeter. Although 4th in the table they are only just in positive territory- 7 wins from 13 fixtures. Of the incomers, Nick Isiekwe on a season loan is the only noteworthy name, while Cobus Reinach, the engine of so much of their attacking play has departed for France. On top of that, they have lost talismanic flanker Tom Wood to injury for at least 3 months. With Exeter and Bristol on their away ties roster they will need to work hard to stay in 4th place. Should have enough to see off the challenge of Wasps, but could be vulnerable if Bath or Harlequins hit their stride.

 

Bath

Bath, in 6th, have the same win-loss ratio as Northampton, but lag in the table for dearth of bonus points. Recruitment has been sparing, although Ben Spencer can add dimensions to the attack, both with a swift and long pass and a potent running threat. Will Spencer and Juan Schoeman add depth up front, but there is no news of a 10 to aid, or contrast Rhys Priestland, despite Stuart Hooper revealing in early June that Bath were looking for a ball playing back who could play 10 but not exclusively. The “interesting options’ he mentioned have not led to an announcement, so any addition there may have to wait until the 2021 season.  With a 5 point gap to make up and 5 of the remaining 9 fixtures away, Bath look unlikely to break into the top 4. They do though have a few advantages to build on. Of the opening 4 fixtures: London Irish, Leicester, Northampton and Wasps, 3 at least look highly winnable. A good start to the resumption could give the flying speed needed for a tilt at the top. With the inevitable fixture congestion caused by a 5 month delay, clubs will have to trust their strength in depth. Bath claim a lot of faith in the young players coming through from the academy. They may get their chance to shine, against the opposition’s youngsters. Now would be a good time to show their mettle. Hope springs eternal and Bath have a habit of putting on a late season sunshine surge. Will it be enough? What will be the effect of empty grounds? I believe Bath will find their parlous bonus point position a handicap and will miss out on the play-offs, but I’ll stick my neck out and predict they will sneak 5th place.

 

The Winner?

Looking at the run-in, squads and their enhancements and respective form before the break, I think the current leading 4 will be there at the play-off stage. I expect the order to change slightly, with a reinforced Bristol overtaking Sale into 2nd place. They should win their home semi, then meet Chiefs in the Final. That will be the limit of their exploits though as I expect Exeter’s experience, their pack strength and a little flash of flair from one of their Lions’ backs to be too much.

 

Exeter to win the title, with Bristol runner up. Exeter, Bristol, Sale, Northampton, Bath and Harlequins to qualify for the Champions Cup.