Domestic rugby union returns this week and all 12 of the Gallagher Premiership sides will be keen to make an immediate impact.
After another busy summer both on and off the field, it promises to be an exciting campaign of English rugby union.
Saracens – Grand Final Winner @ 7/5
After losing out in 2016-17, Saracens regained their title last season and understandably lead the betting to triumph at Twickenham again on May 25 next year.
Mark McCall’s side demonstrated their mental strength as they survived the club’s poorest run in the professional era to regain their composure and eventually outclassed an excellent Exeter in the Grand Final.
They may not be everyone’s favourite due to their physical, pragmatic style but by goodness they are good and while Schalk Brits may have retired, the likes of Maro Itoje, the Vunipolas and Jamie George can more than take up his mantle in the pack.
Behind, Owen Farrell will steer the ship and is increasingly likely to find himself alongside Alex Lozowksi. Comfortable at 10, 12 or 13, and probably 15 at a push, Lozowski oozes class and McCall found himself shoe-horning him wherever he could.
His extra pair of playmaking hands will make Saracens even better and they will be tough to stop.
Exeter – Grand Final Winner @ 2/1
It all looked so good heading to Twickenham for Exeter in May but they were second best on the day. However, Rob Baxter’s side will have regrouped and will be ready to go again.
An opening fixture at home to Leicester can help them set the tone and while stalwarts such as Thomas Waldrom and Julian Salvi have departed, they were starting to see their influence diminished and Sam Simmonds is a brilliant, versatile back-rower and his brother Joe is just as capable at fly-half.
Argentinean winger Santiago Cordero could light up the Premiership after making his stay at Sandy Park permanent and can complement the talent inside him.
Their only downfall could come if the Chiefs lose focus and get distracted by their European hopes. With a feeling they have got a handle on domestic rugby, they may put extra emphasis on continental honours, with them 8/1 for the European Champions Cup.
Wasps – Grand Final Winner @ 13/2
Three straight play-off appearances and no trophies demonstrate that Wasps are still searching for the killer instinct that saw them dominate the domestic and European scene during the middle part of the last decade.
Again they look to have added well, with Springbok number eight Nizaam Carr now a permanent member of the squad, while the back-row will be further bolstered by new England cap Brad Shields and Lima Sopoaga comes in to steer the ship at number 10.
Danny Cipriani’s departure is a blow but Sopoaga is a classy performer, leading The Highlanders to Super Rugby glory in 2015, while he also has 18 caps for the All Blacks.
Another stalwart to leave is James Haskell but they look better balanced with Shields and Carr and the international pair could provide the extra steel required to a team that has suffered from a soft underbelly at times, much to Dai Young’s chagrin.
Leicester – Grand Final Winner @ 10/1
It seems a while since Leicester were top dogs in England and missing out on the play-offs in 2017-18 was a reality check.
Being robbed of his international stars did not help Matt O’Connor, neither did injuries, but it is no secret they were underpowered up front last term. Both Guy Thompson and David Denton will add extra strength but lack the quality traditionally expected of the Tigers’ pack.
Their back-line is amazing though, with George Ford, Matt Toomua, Manu Tuilagi and Jonny May all at Welford Road. Keeping them fit is the key, although providing them with the necessary ammunition may still be an issue.
Bath (22/1) have been floundering in recent years and despite losing Matt Banahan and Ben Tapuai from their back-line, have made some interesting signings in Jackson Willison and Jamie Roberts, while England Sevens start Ruaridh McConnochie could prove to be a very shrewd acquisition.
Todd Blackadder’s lack of consistency in selection, especially in the halves, is an issue, while in contrast, neighbours Gloucester (14/1) now have a standout number 10 in Cipriani.
Despite his well-publicised off-field indiscretions, the 30-year-old is England’s leading fly-half and will try and give a side with plenty of style but lacking substance some much-needed direction.
Newcastle overperformed last season but may struggle with their heightened expectations. The same may well be the case for Northampton who have class throughout their squad but even with a change of regime and Kiwi Chris Boyd taking the reins, they need a strong start.
Worcester – Grand Final Winner @ 300/1
There is no point looking at the top of the table if you ignore the bottom and it could be a long season for Worcester. The Warriors have added solid but perhaps unspectacular new faces and could be the victims of a strong Bristol.
They are the real outsiders when it comes to the outright betting so by default are the favourites for relegation.
The aforementioned Bears have built a classy squad over three or four years and have an excellent coach in Pat Lam, who will be desperate to excel in the Premiership.
Charles Piutau will light up the back-line, while John Afoa is a good man to build your squad on, while George Smith remains ageless to add an extra element to a squad which has pace, strength and experience.
Harlequins are beginning a new era with Paul Gustard at the helm. Watch out for fly-half Marcus Smith who will now have Tapuai inside him to add both physicality and panache but their inconsistency remains a worry.
10/17 to beat Sale on Saturday looks a reasonable price, especially as losing new signing Chris Ashton for the opening seven weeks of the season will blunt the Sharks’ attack and harm their hopes of hitting the ground running.
Steve Diamond remains as determined as ever but whether his team can find the consistency to match remains doubtful.
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