The Premiership is back on Friday, with Harlequins hosting title-chasing Sale. With nine regular-season rounds to come, followed by semi-finals and a final at Twickenham on October 24, there is plenty to play for.
Several clubs are in the play-offs hunt and up to eight can qualify for next season’s Heineken European Champions Cup.
Regime changes and squad overhauls add to the anticipation. And with Saracens relegated for salary-cap breaches there is a fresh look at the top of the table…
Who are the main title challengers?
Exeter are leaders and favourites but Sale can put down an early marker after assembling a formidable squad. They have the pedigree, driven largely by a South African influx, to be a major threat.
Manu Tuilagi starts against Quins on Friday and his arrival is proof that the Cheshire club mean business.
Director of rugby Steve Diamond hailed the England centre as ‘exceptional’, adding: ‘You wouldn’t want to be a No 10 playing against us. We’ve got two big packs and 32 players of a very high level with Jono Ross, Faf de Klerk, the Du Preez brothers, Curry twins and Manu Tuilagi. But it’s not about having a good team on paper.’
Manu Tuilagi will feature during Sale’s match against Harlequins on Friday evening
Isn’t the title the Chiefs’ for the taking?
The Devon club won’t be fazed by the favourites tag and certainly won’t lack motivation. Rob Baxter’s team will be hell-bent on claiming a prize that they believe they were unfairly denied in previous years.
The Chiefs lost to Saracens in the 2016, 2018 and 2019 finals and were aggrieved to discover that their nemesis club were operating outside the regulations.
Baxter will be delighted that so much of the attention is on Sale and Bristol.
He has quietly added Scotland lock Jonny Gray, whose Test captain, Stuart Hogg, can provide a spark of genius from full-back.
England pair Henry Slade and Jack Nowell bring Test class out wide, while the Simmonds brothers Sam and Joe offer pace, vision and shrewd game-management between them. Exeter are the team with the pedigree, the team to beat.
The Exeter Chiefs go into the resumption as leaders and favourites for the Premiership title
Bristol also bought well… will they be challenging?
Yes and they are fuelled by impatient ambition. Backed by billionaire Steve Lansdown, the third-placed Bears have rapidly re-established themselves among the domestic elite.
They have a magnificent new training complex and a strong squad. Just two years after promotion back to the Premiership, they want to win it for the first time, on the way towards conquering Europe.
Semi Radradra and Kyle Sinckler are the big-name newcomers and captain Steve Luatua leads by sterling example, as does another ex-All Black, full-back Charles Piutau. He won’t stand by and allow Radradra to eclipse him.
‘There’s no doubt more people will want to watch our games because Semi and Charles are involved and that’s great for English rugby,’ said Pat Lam, Bristol’s director of rugby. ‘But individuals do not win championships, it’s always about teamwork – being better than the sum of your parts. We’re in third place and don’t want to go below that.’
Northampton are fourth, are they in with a shout?
They can’t be ruled out. The Saints were the last club to interrupt the Saracens-Exeter duopoly when they won the Premiership in 2014.
They have not delved into the transfer market to make the sort of high-profile signings that some of their rivals have but they have a good crop of young talent, a decent core of experience and international class, plus an acclaimed coaching staff.
Chris Boyd, the Kiwi director of rugby who came to the East Midlands from the Wellington-based Hurricanes with a stellar reputation, set the scene for what his side are up against, saying: ‘Exeter were the form side up until Covid.
‘Sale have formed a formidable squad. Bristol have strengthened. Wasps had some difficulty and then found themselves.
‘I would expect it to be fast and furious. Whilst we’d all be surprised if Exeter weren’t in the play-offs, after that it starts getting interesting.’
Any others in the hunt?
Absolutely. On Sunday, Northampton welcome Wasps to Franklin’s Gardens and the visitors have also forced their way into play-off contention since Lee Blackett took charge of the first team at the start of this year.
The Coventry-based club had been in a protracted slump but Blackett has galvanised his side in fine style with the half-back pairing of Dan Robson and Jacob Umaga inspiring a back line featuring the revitalised ex-All Blacks playmaker, Lima Sopoaga.
If they pick up where they left off before shut-down, Wasps can become genuine contenders.
The Northampton Saints are one of several teams who could put themselves into the equation
With relegation decided, will there be any intrigue lower down the table?
Yes, notably at Gloucester and Leicester – two clubs in new-era mode and hoping to enjoy revivals with new coaching regimes in place. George Skivington has been installed at Kingsholm, while at Leicester, Steve Borthwick is head coach after overseeing the England pack for several years as part of Eddie Jones’s Red Rose set-up.
As is the case for Gloucester, a priority for the fallen Tigers is to re-establish their lost heritage of forward power and dominance, and Borthwick is seen as just the man to do it.
If Leicester gain a platform up front again, they should soon rise up from 11th and hint at better times ahead.
Who are the transfers to look out for?
The Premiership allowed mid-season moves on July 1, when Sinckler left Quins for Bristol, Jonny May swapped Leicester for Gloucester, Tuilagi went from Leicester to Sale and Saracens rookies Ben Earl, Max Malins (both Bristol), Nick Isiekwe (Northampton) and Jack Singleton (Gloucester) are on loan to rivals.
It will be novel to watch players take on former team-mates in the same season that they were playing alongside them.
The real box-office focus is on Radradra. The Fijian is a sensational runner while his compatriot, new Leicester signing Nemani Nadolo, is a giant wing who will give the Tigers clout and try-scoring potency to alleviate the loss of May.
Saracens have already been relegated from the Premiership after salary cap breaches
How has coronavirus altered things?
By quite a lot. While clubs will play at their own grounds, barring London Irish, who are tenants at Harlequins until their Brentford move can be completed, there will be no fans for at least a few rounds.
Players are being tested twice every match-week, but so far there have been few positive cases. If games are cancelled due to a spike they can’t be replayed, which could cause chaos.
The schedule is also brutal, with the addition of some midweek rounds. Teams will have to rotate or players will break down.
Players must be socially-distanced on coaches to games and during matches there will be a water break after 20 minutes with each player using only his personal bottle.
Where can I watch it?
Clubs are offering season ticket-holders the chance to watch all their games for free via the BT Sport app, whether or not you subscribe.
All behind-closed-doors games will be live on BT Sport via the red-button, if it is not a ‘picked’ match. Selected games will have fake crowd noise but red-button ones won’t. Some games will be live on Channel 5, who continue their weekly highlights show.