You'd think after two successive, condensed seasons, two quickfire Six Nations, an Autumn Nations Cup, a Lions Tour, a Super Rugby Aotearoa and a Rugby Championship that I would be beginning to wane in enthusiasm from the knowledge of yet another action packed season on my doorstep, however, you'd be categorically incorrect. For a good six or sevens years, we've had to brace for monotony when it comes to Premiership seasons, seeing the same top four, the same finalists and the same winners every season - last season finally broke that duct. We had a rampant Harlequins clinch the trophy to everyone's surprise by prioritising traditional, balls-to-the-walls, free-flowing Rugby, something that we hadn't seen in a top four battle for a very long time. They stunned a cash rich Bristol, the rigid and machine-like Chiefs side and took home a Women's and Men's double... Who would have predicted that?
It's now time to put my money, where my mouth is (AdSense money that is) and make five key predictions for how I see this season playing out... Cue the hate train!
5. Top Try Scorer - Adam Radwan
Now there are a ton of variables that need to fall in line for this to take place, not least being a return to form for the wider Falcon's squad who really tailed off last year. Radwan is different mustard though and he's now shown that both domestically and internationally. He's electric, one of the quickest folks in the league, and he's also a naughty finisher. He will now be backed by an impressive, ex-quins line-up including Nathan Earle (who has a point to prove) and the savvy veteran, Mr Michael Brown (I think the fans call him Mike, right?)
If he remains on England's periphery and manages to clock up between 8 and 10 league matches this season, I don't doubt that he'll be able to knock up a try tally of between 10 and 12. However, you might look at the stats for years gone by and think that's not enough to clinch such an accolade, I do get the feeling that we might see some drop off's this season. Sam Simmonds was in electric form last season, but surely you'd have to think that he'll be targeted far more aggressively this year. May won't feature in the top three due to a mixture of England duties, injuries and inevitably shaky Gloucester form, Odogwu is already set to miss the first few games of the season to injury and could feature in England's Six Nation's plans again, and I can't see Naiyaravoro staying fit consistently enough to beat him to the crown. His biggest threat? Josh Bassett. Bassett has been in excellent try scoring form for the best part of three seasons now, and also has notched up a decent brace in Wasps' pre-season efforts. Again, he will be susceptible to Wasps dips in form and also has been known to be run ragged by a difficult schedule and having to play 80 minutes day in, day out.
Here at Scrum Recap, we are team Radwan!
4. Top Points Scorer - Marcus Smith
We are penning him for the double! Again, as all of these predictions do, it totally depends on a bunch of variables. Marcus Smith could end up being involved in both the Autumn tours and the Six Nations this season, ruling him out for well over half a season's worth of games. That would immediately eliminate him from the pecking order... But this is Eddie Jones we are talking about. Ford hasn't played poor enough to rule him out of that starting jersey, the Farrell axis doesn't work any more but Farrell is highly unlikely to be dropped from that England squad and he does have a certain affinity for Jacob Umaga. It is entirely possible, that the media loses it's mind once again when the Autumn tour squads are announced and we see a direct replica of what we saw last February/march.
The main contenders here include AJ MacGinty, who could well feature later on this list, Callum Sheedy, who again is susceptible to missing games due to international duty, and Joe Simmonds, who is an absolute metronome from the tee. Where Marcus dwarves this tough competition is in try scoring ability - the guy can't stop breaking lines! It's normal to see a competent Fly Half rack up between 10 and 15 points per 80 minutes, but Smith often surpasses these indicators into the early 20s - that's because he loves scoring belters!
3. Player of the Season - AJ MacGinty
Will we see the first ever American Premiership Player of the Season? Potentially, it depends on his fitness... Sale are going to a tough, tough side to beat this season. Their backup front row, was Wasps top Front Row for a good half decade. Their depth in the forwards is straight ridiculous and they have international quality back rowers littered throughout their wider squad - they should be able to supply an awesome service to de Klerk and co. MacGinty, in small doses, showcased exactly why he is one of the most exciting backs in the league with some show stealing performances last season. However, every time he put a run of form together, he'd suffer a horrendous injury.
If MacGinty remained fit throughout last season, I have no doubts that Sale would have ran rampant against the lower-table sides and could have racked up a points tally similar to Bristol and Exeter above them - that would have seriously changed things! MacGinty is evasive, plays with expression and dynamism, and has an excellent probing boot. If Sale can get ten or more games out of him in the league this season, he could find himself as the top points scorer and the leader in a backline heavily subsidised by one of the most dominant packs in Premiership history. The stage is set... Will he stay fit!?
2. Bottom of the League - Worcester Warriors
I think it could be a repeat of last season at the lower quarter of the league. What I will say, is that Wasps look incredibly shaky heading into this season. Sure, they have the new training facility, John Mitchell on board and an all-star All Black in their Second Row, but long term injuries to Willis, Launchbury, Odogwu, Barbeary and now potentially Thomas Young means Wasps are without their starlets, forced to start Championship and Academy talent against the big boys. Losing to a particularly weak Dragons side at home this weekend really has me, as a Wasps fan, terrified of what could play out this season - we only took four wins at home last season which was second worst, and I can't say that I think our record will get any better. Joining them in the bottom three, I think we could see a big drop off from Gloucester (who were already particularly weak). No Heinz, no Simpson, Gloucester will be especially weak in the half backs, with Twelvetrees likely to deputise in an uncomfortable 10 jersey. Without mixing words, they were terrible in large stretches last season, and although they have some gutsy individuals like Reid and LRZ, I just can't see them stringing together more than one or two wins in a row.
Worcester have strengthened massively in the off-season, adding some top Premiership talent in - Scott Baldwin, Willi Heinz, Duhan Van Der Merwe and Will Chudley are all fantastic signings for a team battling it out week to week. However, that's a lot of players that need to gel incredibly quickly. Van Der Merwe will miss much of the season through Scottish duties and will certainly not assist that leaky defence, Chudley and Heinz are two veterans who play in the same position and that front row, despite bringing in Owlett, is still very weak. Vailanu from Wasps and the return of Premiership top performer Owen Williams are savvy signings, bringing in two talents who have often been overlooked in favour of promoting a prove yourself mentality. I just think it's a season of transition for the folks at Sixways, who were unable to put away a 14 man, underperforming Wasps towards the back end of last season. I'm not holding out hope...
1. Premiership Champions - Sale Sharks
Oh yeah, they are bringing it back to the Bell! After reading through all of the transfers this off-season, watching closely the summer internationals with the context of how it would effect this coming year, and weighing up last season's takeaways, I can't look past Sale's promise heading into this weekend. A good sign of a side heading in the right direction, is when they don't have to make a marquee signing and yet still look as if they had the best window. Taylor, McIntyre, and Nick 'Sharky' Schonert are quality, squad signings that progress upon the departures of WillGriff John, Jake Cooper Woolley and Valery Morozov. Outside of that, it's the exact same squad.
That means no gelling needed, that means that they don't need to alter the game plan, that means they can cope with injuries from the first whistly, that means that Sale can keep consistent. Consistency has separated top sides from directionless mid-tablers over the last few seasons. That's consistency of selection, consistency of squad fitness and consistency of gameplan. Sale will bully sides up front and MacGinty will punish them from the tee. De Klerk will bring his kicking boots back from South Africa and fire them into the right areas of the pitch and the likes of Yarde will dot in the odd try to turn the knife.
What Sale must improve, is their reaction to knockout Rugby. They were poor in Europe last year and pretty poor against Exeter in the semi's. I think that would change providing the games were played at home, but that's not a definitive outcome. They need leaders on the pitch that can keep them focused and motivated in big clashes. If they can do that, they can win the league.