Steve Kendall assesses the chances of the four West Country teams as the Premiership season approaches.
As we near the start of the 2016/2017 Aviva Premiership season, one thing we can look forward to is a full selection of west country participants and the inevitable ‘tasty’ local derbies that result.
It is the first time Bristol, Bath, Gloucester and Exeter have all been in the top flight together and so here are my thoughts on how they will fare in the coming season.
Exeter will be favourites to finish highest out of the four teams based on their improving journey over the last six years.
That journey culminated in narrowly losing to the almighty Saracens in last season’s Premiership final. In fairness, Saracens just had ‘one of those seasons’ which saw them do the domestic and European double but the fact that Exeter took them to the final whistle of that match symbolised a real coming of age for the men from Sandy Park.
The tricky part now will be replicating or bettering that achievement.
They have released a number of players in the off-season but have bolstered their squad with some quality signings such as Lachie Turner from Toulon and Ollie Devoto over from rivals Bath. May be difficult though for them to repeat such a great year.
Season prediction: 3rd
There has been a clear-out at the Rec (no pun intended) that sees the likes of Rob Webber, Max Northcote-Green and Kyle Eastmond depart. Luke Arscott returns to Bristol and the staunchly honest and hard-working playing career of club captain Stuart Hooper comes to an end.
On the flip-side, major names like Luke Charteris, Taulupe Faletau & Kahn Fotuali’I arrive to provide some much needed experience and coolness under pressure to help turn this undoubtedly talented Bath side into winners again.
They now have the makings of a formidable pack with the likes of Henry Thomas, Ross Batty and David Denton as well as the thunderous Francois Louw causing havoc wherever he goes.
Season Prediction: 5th
Gloucester unveiled the plans for a new fan zone experience this week at Kingsholm. The new facility which features activity areas for passing and kicking games, will be open in time for the Round 4 clash with Newcastle Falcons and by then, shed supporters will hope they will have made a good start to the season.
This, you fee, is a pivotal year for Gloucester to try and raise themselves from their more recent mid-table past back to the loftier heights of the play-offs and European Champions’ Cup.
I’m not convinced they have the fire power to compete with the very top clubs but this could be a year to steady the ship and make small amounts of progress.
You can at least rely on the fact that the shed will be rammed to bursting point when they open the season against old rivals Leicester and the cherry and whites won’t be satisfied with anything but a win.
Season Prediction: 8th
Back in the top flight again but this time at a new ground and with a fresh injection of funds, lots of new personnel and a real sense of ‘this time there’s no going back down’.
Dwayne Peel retires from playing and becomes part of the coaching staff alongside former Welsh International Jonathan Thomas. Ellis Genge is a big loss, moving to the Tigers, but the likes of Rhodri Williams, Jordan Crane & Soane Tonga’uiha should help to compensate.
A new stand at Ashton Gate will increase attendances and help to pull fans in from further afield and this can only help in the long run.
Top 4? I don’t think so but could be a mid-table surprise.
Season Prediction: 7th