The Premiership returns for the 2018/19 season this weekend, with last year’s beaten finalists Exeter – usurped as champions by Saracens – hosting Leicester Tigers at Sandy Park on Saturday.
There are four games in total on Saturday, including Gloucester against Northampton, with new signings Danny Cipriani and Matt Banahan expected to make their Premiership bows for Gloucester.
The champions are in action on Sunday away at Newcastle, while Bristol and Bath get us under way on Friday.
Ahead of the opening weekend, we look at all the fixtures.
EXETER V LEICESTER
New signing Alex Cuthbert, England wing Jack Nowell and lock Mitch Lees are missing for Exeter after undergoing summer surgery, but the Chiefs still parade a powerful line-up for their Premiership opener that includes the likes of Olly Woodburn, Gareth Steenson, Don Armand and Sam Simmonds.
Former Worcester forwards Will Spencer and David Denton will make their Leicester debuts at Sandy Park, with three more new arrivals – Kyle Eastmond, David Feao and Gaston Cortes – among the replacements.
Manu Tuilagi and Matt Toomua team up in midfield, with George Ford and Ben Youngs the half-back pairing.
Last season: Exeter 30 Leicester 6, Leicester 20 Exeter 13
Last six league matches: Exeter WWWWWW, Leicester WWWLLW
GLOUCESTER V NORTHAMPTON
England internationals Danny Cipriani and Matt Banahan will make their Premiership bows for Gloucester. Cipriani is joined at half-back by Callum Braley, while Banahan forges the back-three unit alongside Jason Woodward and Charlie Sharples. Lock Ed Slater captains the side.
England captain Dylan Hartley has been named on the bench for Northampton after making a successful comeback against pre-season friendly opponents Glasgow last week following five months out due to concussion.
New rugby director Chris Boyd hands Saints Premiership debuts to fly-half Dan Biggar, prop Ben Franks and flanker James Haskell.
Last season: Northampton 22 Gloucester 19, Gloucester 29 Northampton 24
Last six league matches: Gloucester LWLWLL, Northampton LLLWLW
HARLEQUINS V SALE
England flanker Chris Robshaw captains a Quins side that includes three debutants in wing Nathan Earle, centre Ben Tapuai and lock Matt Symons. Full-back Mike Brown makes his 299th appearance for the club, and exciting prospect Marcus Smith starts at fly-half.
Wing Marland Yarde will line up for Sale against his former club, with number eight Jono Ross skippering the side. Elsewhere, the Curry brothers Tom and Ben both start, and there is a Sale debut for ex-Bath forward James Phillips alongside Bryn Evans in the second-row.
Last season: Sale 30 Harlequins 29, Harlequins 42 Sale 26
Last six league matches: Harlequins WLLLLL, Sale WWWLLL
WORCESTER V WASPS
Three of Worcester’s new signings will line up in the starting XV against Wasps, with centre Francois Venter, fly-half Duncan Weir and prop Callum Black – who has returned for a second spell with the Warriors – all featuring. Fit-again hooker Niall Arnett, meanwhile, makes a first league appearance since late 2016.
Billy Searle, a summer arrival from Bristol, fills the fly-half berth for Wasps at Sixways, while flanker Joe Atkinson also makes his competitive debut for the club. Searle forms a half-back partnership with Dan Robson, while England international Elliot Daly and South African Juan De Jongh team up in midfield.
Last season: Wasps 30 Worcester 15, Worcester 10 Wasps 24
Last six league matches: Worcester LLWLWL, Wasps WLLWWW
Sunday, September 2
NEWCASTLE V SARACENS
Newcastle boss Dean Richards hands a first Premiership start to wing Adam Radwan for Saracens’ Kingston Park visit. The 20-year-old scored tries in all of the Falcons’ pre-season friendlies.
New signing Logovi’i Mulipola starts in the front-row, where his colleagues include George McGuigan, who has returned for a second spell with Newcastle.
Wing David Strettle will make his Premiership return for Saracens after rejoining the club from French heavyweights Clermont Auvergne. Strettle, whose last competitive Saracens game was in 2015, lines up in a side that also sees starts for scrum-half Ben Spencer and lock Will Skelton.
Billy Vunipola, who is recovering from injury, is not included.
Last season: Saracens 25 Newcastle 3, Newcastle 7 Saracens 29
Last six league matches: Newcastle WWLWWL, Saracens LWWWWW
With a swag of big name signings the Premiership is set for a rich infusion of talent for the 2018/19 season, that should make games more competitive and the style of rugby more entertaining.
But who will win and who will be taking the dreaded drop to the Championship?
We take a look at all 12 clubs chances ahead of the new season which kicks off this Friday at Ashton Gate as newly promoted Bristol Bears take on local rivals Bath in the southwest derby.
Position last year: 6th
Director of Rugby: Todd Blackadder
Captain: Matt Garvey
One to watch: Jamie Roberts has arrived from Harlequins with a desire to push for one last Rugby World Cup campaign with Wales. He will form a good combination with fellow Red Dragon Rhys Priestland.
Outlook: The arrival of Roberts will make a difference but the loss of Matt Banahan, and injuries to Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph will see them struggle, especially in the opening months.
Position last year: Promoted
Director of Rugby: Pat Lam
Captain: Jordan Crane
One to watch: Bristol broke the bank bringing Charles Piutau to Ashton Gate on a £1 million (Dh 4.8m) per year deal. The former All Blacks flyer will no doubt repay them with some devastating running – when he gets on the park. The Bears are sweating over a pre-season shoulder injury that could put him out for months.
Outlook: The ambitious Bears have gone big in the transfer market with Piutau, John Afoa and Wallabies legend George Smith being brought in among others. Steven Luatua ain’t bad either. They ran away with the Championship last season, hard to see them going straight back down.
Position last year: Runner-up
Director of Rugby: Rob Baxter
Captain: Jack Yeandle
One to watch: England speedster Jack Nowell had a disappointing season by his own lofty standards last term and he will be desperate to bounce back with some big games for club and country in 2018/19
Outlook: The Chiefs will still be disappointed they didn’t go back to back, losing to Saracens in last year’s decider, but with Wales winger Alex Cuthbert adding some pace and power out wide they will again be hard to beat.
Position last year: 7th
Coach: Johan Ackermann
Captain: Willi Heinz
One to watch: Franco Mostert was one of the form locks in Super Rugby, and the Bok second rower is sure to make an impact in his first year in the Premiership. A source of good ball in the lineout, the 27-year-old is also good in the loose and very mobile.
Outlook: The arrival of a pride of Lions – Jaco Kriel, Mostert and Ruan Dreyer – from Ackermann’s former South African team will add some real bite in the pack. The question is can Danny Cipriani can stay on the rails long enough to exploit it?
Position last year: 10th
Director of Rugby: Paul Gustard
Captain: James Horwill and Chris Robshaw
One to watch: Scrumhalf Danny Care was given a break from England’s tour to South Africa and the livewire No9 is jumping out of his skin for the new season. Fireworks can be expected as he tries to lift Quins out of their recent slump.
Outlook: Arriving boss Paul Gustard turned down a new contract with Eddie Jones’ England and is already shaking up The Stoop with his unconventional approach. He’ll make a difference but with a lack of new signings it may not be enough – this year.
Position last year: 5th
Coach: Matt O’Connor
Captain: Tom Youngs
One to watch: Winger Jonny May was one of the few bright spots on England’s tour of South Africa and big things can be expected of him again this season. New arrival David Denton gives the forwards some much needed oomph.
Outlook: They missed the playoffs for the first time in 14 years last season, and with Ben Youngs, George Ford, May and Telusa Veainu they have the backs to take any team apart – the forwards now just need to lay the platform.
Position last year: Semi-finallists
Director of Rugby: Dean Richards
Captain: Will Welch
One to watch: The “Samoan beast” Logovi’i Mulipola has arrived from Leicester and the Falcons will be hoping he can get back to his rampaging best to get the pack going forward. Veteran flyhalf Toby Flood will also need to pull the strings expertly.
Outlook: Tough for Newcastle to reproduce the fairy-tale form of last year and much will depend on how key players like Niki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti back up. They look light on genuine quality and much could depend on the Matavesi brothers – Josh and Joel.
Position last year: 9th
Director of Rugby: Chris Boyd
Captain: Dylan Hartley and Alex Waller
One to watch: On his day Wales playmaker, and new signing, Dan Biggar is one of the best fly-halfs on the planet. He scored a staggering 2,161 points in his decade at Ospreys, expect a lot more for the Saints.
Outlook: The arrival of Hurricanes miracle-maker Boyd has begun a new era at Franklin Gardens and with new signings like Biggar, James Haskell, Ben Franks and NSW Waratahs flyer Taqele Naiyaravoro they will go further than many people expect.
some really good stuff in this. @AlexMLowe speaks exclusively to Pat Lam, Paul Gustard, Chris Boyd and Dai Young. The recently promoted Lam articulates why promotion is bad for English player development. Boyd agrees.https://t.co/s5bxt1Wi8T— owenslotTheTimes (@owenslot) August 29, 2018
Position last year: 8th
Director of Rugby: Steve Diamond
Captain: Jono Ross
One to watch: Former England star Chris Ashton broke the Top 14 try-scoring record at Toulon last season and the Manchester faithful will be hoping for more of the same at the AJ Bell Stadium. If he can stay out of trouble.
Outlook: All-action scrumhalf Faf de Klerk was one of the stars of the Sharks revival last season and with Ashton and James O’Connor outside him they will score plenty of points. But do the pack have the grunt to be true competitors consistently over the season.
Position last year: Champions
Director of Rugby: Mark McCall
Captain: Brad Barritt
One to watch: On his day Wales flyer Liam Williams is one of the most exciting ball runners in world rugby. He was finding his feet at Sarries last season, expect him to be devastating this term. Opposition defences beware.
Outlook: With a squad weighed down by exhausted Lions and dispirited England stars last term, Sarries somehow managed to rally themselves from a mid-season slump last season to reclaim their crown from upstarts Exeter. Brutal forwards and speedy backs. Hard to beat.
BREAKING | Wasps boosted with news that Sopoaga & Shields could feature against Exeter after DoR Dai Young confirms both are expected to arrive next week reports @Jacob_Leeks— Wasps Rugby News (@WaspsRugbyNews) August 23, 2018
Full story: https://t.co/rD2XtKilDJ
Position last year: Semi-Finals
Director of Rugby: Dai Young
Captain: Joe Launchbury
One to watch: Highlanders flyhalf Lima Sopoaga ranks right up alongside Charles Piutau as the most exciting signing of the new season, along with ‘Canes captain Brad Shields he is a huge coup for Young and Wasps.
Outlook: The thought of Sopoaga linking up with Bok magician Willie le Roux and England star Elliot Daly has rightly got Wasps fans in a frenzy. If Joe Launchbury and co can do the job upfront Ricoh Arena should be a grave yard for visiting teams.
Prediction: Runners up
Position last year: 11th
Director of Rugby: Alan Solomons
Captain: GJ van Velze
One to watch: Stylish Cheetahs centre Francois Venter will add some starch and creativity to the Warriors midfield and his combination with Te’o should be exciting when Big Ben is fit again.
Outlook: Avoided relegation dog-fight last year simply because London Irish were so poor. “Solly” will have his hands full especially with Ben Te’o once again injured and a squad lacking depth and quality.
The wait is nearly over and to continue our build up ahead of the new PRO14 season, we have profiled every team competing in rugby’s premier professional club competition in Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Wales and South Africa.
Do you agree with our assessment of the teams’ chances?
Position last year: Semi-finalists
Coach: Johann van Graan
Captain: Peter O’Mahony
Outlook: The Red Army have real x-factor in new signings Tadhg Beire, Arno Botha, Mike Haley and Joey Carbery, and if all goes to plan, they could clinch a first title in seven years.
One to watch: Tadhg Beirne. The destructive secondrow-cum-backrow could become a real superstar at Thomond Park. He is strong, carries well, tackles effectively, a solid line-out option and is a serial turnover merchant. The 26-year-old made a record breaking 39 turnovers, 17 more than any other player.
Position last year: 6th in Conference A
Coach: Andy Friend
Captain: Jarrad Butler
Outlook: With four out of their first six games at home, Connacht have a real chance to gather some early momentum. A play-off spot is likely, but any improvement upon their nine wins last campaign, coupled with more consistency in defence, will be deemed a success.
One to watch: Kyle Godwin. The former Wallabies international can add some real solidity in defence as well as posing a threat going forward, where he has the speed in Tiernan O’Halloran and Matt Healy to unlock out wide.
Prediction: 5th in Conference A
Position last year: 4th in Conference A
Coach: John Mulvihill
Captain: Ellis Jenkins
Outlook: The Blues have averaged 11 wins in three successive campaigns, and with a new Australian coaching ticket, have the potential to be a force in Conference A. US Eagles star Samu Manoa could be the man to inspire them along with Dmitri Arhip.
One to watch: Dmitri Arhip. The Moldovan prop looks a real coup and will be a formidable scrummaging force at Arms Park.
Prediction: 4th in Conference A
Position last year: Quarter-finalists
Coach: Franco Smith
Captain: Oupa Mohoje
Outlook: The biggest challenge for the Bloemfontein outfit will be the 18 departures from last year’s side – and an eye-catching 26 new recruits. How quickly can they adapt to Smith’s game plan?
One to watch: Ox Nche. The 23-year-old tighthead was named in the PRO14 Dream Team after an impressive campaign. He’ll need to be at his sterling best again if the Cheetahs are to replicate last season’s superb maiden season.
Position last year: Semi-finalists
Coach: Dave Rennie
Captain: Ryan Wilson
Outlook: May have lost Finn Russell to Racing 92, but Glasgow still remain frontrunners for their conference alongside Munster. With the best defensive record in the league last season, it will be hard to stop their dominance and ruthlessness around the tight areas.
One to watch: Adam Hastings. The 21-year-old, son of Gavin, has the chance to make the 10 jersey his own with his high-tempo running and offloading game.
Position last year: 5th in Conference A
Coach: Allen Clarke
Captain: Justin Tipuric
Outlook: Their nine wins last term was the lowest since the 2007/08 season – and just the third time in eight campaigns they failed to qualify for the penultimate stages of the competition. Shorn of the services of Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar, it’s hard to see the Ospreys take flight.
One to watch: George North. The Welsh international is the man who can make the magic happen at Liberty Stadium, but he is unlikely to play as regularly in the build up to the World Cup.
Prediction: 6th in Conference A
Position last year: 7th in Conference A
Coach: Michael Bradley
Captain: Tommaso Castello
Outlook: With an unchanged squad, Bradley and Co. could make a real push for a first ever play-off spot. Remarkably, their seven wins and 50 tries scored last campaign represented their greatest season so far. Hard to believe they were on the verge of extension over a year ago.
One to watch: Matteo Minozzi. The elusive 22-year-old impressed during the Six Nations, scoring four tries in five games. On the domestic front, if Zebre are to go on and book a place in the quarter-finals, then the Azzurri international needs to be at his immaculate best.
Prediction: 7th in Conference A
Position last year: Champions
Coach: Leo Cullen
Captain: Johnny Sexton
Outlook: The European champions showed plenty of quality and class during their successful double-winning campaign. Although Isa Nacewa and Jamie Heaslip have retired, and Joey Carbery and Jordi Murphy have moved on, expect the Dublin side to shine once again.
One to watch: Jordan Larmour. The 21-year-old winger scored eight PRO14 tries in his rookie campaign and will be an unstoppable force once more in a strong Leinster back-line.
Position last year: 4th in Conference B
Coach: Dan McFarland
Captain: Rory Best
Outlook: The Ulstermen struggled for large parts of last campaign but finished on a high note to secure Champions Cup rugby for this season. In spite of the retirement of key men, high expectations still remain for McFarland with the acquisition of influential figures like Billy Burns, Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy.
One to watch: Billy Burns. The former Gloucester man has the rugby brain and game management skills to step into Paddy Jackon’s boots with aplomb. Could be a real gem at Kingspan Stadium.
Prediction: 4th in Conference B
Position last year: Runners-up
Coach: Wayne Pivac
Captain: Ken Owens
Outlook: Pivac’s loose and open game plan is exciting to watch and the 2017 champions should match Leinster again in Conference B. The signings of Uzair Cassiem, Clayton Blometjies and Maori All Black Blade Thomson are sure to bolster their attack, but the loss of key cog Tadhg Beirne remains a significant blow.
One to watch: Leigh Halfpenny. The three-time British & Irish Lion will be the conductor of the orchestra, but his minutes will be limited with the World Cup in sight.
Position last year: 5th in Conference B
Coach: Kieran Crowley
Captain: Dean Budd
Outlook: A stunning 2017-18 campaign for the Italian side with 11 victories, after winning just three, three and five in their previous three seasons. Improvements in their skillset, game plan and ability to play a more attractive brand of rugby make them an exciting side. Expect them to finish in a similar position in Conference B.
One to watch: Monty Ioane. The Kiwi scored eight tries in 11 appearances last term, including a superb hat-trick against Scarlets. If he can’t replicate the same figures then expect him to set up chances for other players around him.
Prediction: 6th in Conference B
Position last year: 6th in Conference A
Coach: Bernard Jackman
Captain: Cory Hill
Outlook: The former Grenoble boss has a mammoth task on his hands to implement new tactics and shift the attitude and culture at a fading club, especially with 20 players released and 14 new signings during the summer. With just two wins last season, the Rodney Parade side should improve under a new chairman and coaches.
One to watch: Ross Moriarty. The 24-year-old back-rower is a powerhouse with serious strength in and out of the tackle. Along with Richard Hibbard, ten years his senior, the former Gloucester man will be out to prove why he is considered one of the most promising players in Welsh rugby.
Prediction: 5th in Conference A
Position last year: Quarter-finals
Coach: Richard Cockerill
Captain: Stuart McInally
Outlook: Cockerill may have exceeded expectations last season with 15 wins, but he needs to improve further in a group that includes Leinster and Scarlets. John Barclay, Henry Pyrgos, Matt Scott and Kiwi out-half Simon Hickey can add the mettle they need to progress.
One to watch: Simon Hickey. The former Bordeaux man’s control at 10 and accurate place kicking can bring another dimension to the Murrayfield-based team.
Position last year: 7th in Conference B
Coach: Deon Davids
Captain: Michael Willemse
Outlook: Hard to see the Port Elizabeth-based side improve upon last season, especially after 22 players leaving during the off-season. Need to show more consistency with ball in hand and tighten up in defence – and cut down on the woeful 829 points shipped in 21 matches.
One to watch: Bobby de Wee. The 24-year-old lock is a totemic presence in and out of touch. Although his impact is minimal going forward, he is one of the few Southern Kings players that step up when the pressure is on. A class act.
Prediction: 7th in Conference B