NEWS

Rugby's Premiership set for exciting season

September 2, 2016

Unlike football's equivalent, rugby's Premiership will start its season against a backdrop of an England side that has enjoyed a successful summer and is looking forwards with optimism.

While the footballers crashed out of the European Championships with a shock defeat against Iceland, the rugby team completed a triumphant tour of Australia with an unprecedented 3-0 whitewash of the Wallabies. While football fans wonder what Sam Allardyce can do, rugby fans have already been given plenty to celebrate since Eddie Jones became head coach.

Following the Six Nations Grand Slam and friendly win over Wales, England are now on a run of nine straight wins since Jones took over, and fans booking corporate hospitality for the Six Nations matches at Twickenham in the new year will be looking to see the side develop further.

To do that, of course, requires a strong domestic game, and there is no doubt this is one of the more exciting premiership seasons.

While England's established stars and fringe players alike will be looking to impress at club level, they will be kept on their toes by a host of international stars, including Springbok Schalk Burger at Saracens, Australian full-back Kurtley Beale at Wasps, French number 8 Louis Picamoles at Northampton and Wales' Taulupe Faletau at Bath. Such signings have been made possible by a new £225 million financing deal between the Rugby Football Union and the Premiership, plus new rules allowing two players to be exempt from the salary cap.  This number means that clubs can seek out their own 'galacticos' while still maintaining a strong English base, a balance that, it is hoped, will help provide more top players in the years ahead.

On the field, Saracens will be aiming to defend their title, with the side proving virtually unbeatable when Maro Itoje plays, while runners-up Exeter chiefs will have some exciting competition from around the west country. Bath suffered last season amid the circus surrounding Sam Burgess and the sacking of Graham Ford, slipping to ninth. However, new coach Todd Blackadder will be expecting his men to come up with some cunning plans for doing better this year. Gloucester will expect to do better than last year's eighth place with so many emerging youngsters, and Bristol's promotion means there will be some fierce derby matches.

Harlequins will also be expecting to put in a big challenge, with Joe Marler fit and refreshed after his summer lay-off.

Unlike in football, it wasn't a team called Leicester who won last year, and it equally wouldn't be the most astonishing if a team called Leicester did win this year, not least as they have signed Springbok JP Pietersen and Wallaby Matt Toomua to play alongside the mighty Manu Tuilagi.

With so many potential contenders, this could be a riveting season of great rugby, close contests and a high standard of play to keep the fans interested. And it is in this crucible that England's players will be refined as they seek to raise the bar in this autumn's Old Mutual International Series and then against the rest of Europe in early 2017.

By Alex Brundell  

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