The Aviva Premiership concluded on Saturday with the rare sight of the league winners actually lifting the trophy after Saracens withstood an Exeter Chiefs fightback to win 28-20. The men from north London are clearly the team to beat and next season looks like it will be the most competitive yet. Many will look at who can topple Saracens at the top but the more interesting battle may be at the bottom where one of an ever-growing group of strivers will be relegated.
The promoted team is nearly always the primary candidate for relegation but next season Bristol Rugby are the most well-equipped team to be promoted in years and will be desperate to re-establish themselves in the top division. They certainly have the money to be able to compete with their league rivals, and they also already have players with Premiership and international experience such as Ian Evans and Tom Varndell. The main issues for the West Country side will be how they react to losing games, something they haven’t been used to over the past few years in the Championship. Rumours are that former Northampton Saints prop Soane Tonga’uiha will follow Jordan Crane to Ashton Gate; exactly the sort of experience needed. They are reportedly also looking to bring in ex-Wales international Jonathan Thomas, although he has suffered relegation before with Worcester Warriors. On the other hand as London Welsh can confirm it is important not to unsettle a winning squad too much after promotion, as the Premiership is not the place for a whole new squad to have to gel rapidly.
So who else should be worried about the drop? It is probably safe to say that Bath cannot be as poor as this season, Gloucester have to start producing the goods and reach the top six, and Sale under Steve Diamond always seem to be able to punch above their weight. Harlequins have had a shock relegation before and are a bit of an unknown quantity now Conor O’Shea has left, but they have enough talent to be looking up, not down.
The other two most obvious relegation contenders are therefore Newcastle Falcons and Worcester, two sides who have never seemed to be able to pull into safe mid-table and beyond in recent years. However, under Dean Ryan, Worcester are slowly building into a stronger outfit and the signing of Francois Hougaard could be the best in the Premiership for years. Now they have comfortably survived the Warriors will be looking up the table and other signings like Ben Te’o could help them reach the next level. Ryan was brought in with a mandate to completely reconfigure the club to compete at the higher end of the league, with the Board showing strong loyalty and patience.
So what about Newcastle Falcons, who haven’t moved above 11th place since being promoted in 2013? Logically they are the ‘next to go’. In the past two seasons their record has been the same: won five, drawn one and lost sixteen. However last season they recorded seven fewer points, showing an inability to pick up both try- and losing-bonus points that will worry Director of Rugby Dean Richards. The battle next season could come down to the odd point and they will not have the ageless boot of Andy Goode to bail them out again. Signings like Niki Goneva suggest they are looking to break this mould but losing players like George McGuigan and Josh Furno may have a bigger impact.
Not since Northampton Saints in 2006/2007 has there been a genuine shock relegation. If any of the clubs mentioned get off to a shocker they may find it difficult to survive, as happened to London Irish this season. Instinct says that it is Newcastle Falcons who have the most to fear because they seem to lack the ambition of the other clubs around them and survival still appears to be the main goal. Dean Richards may need to pull out his contact book again next season, as it is set to be one almighty battle from day one.