Aviva Premiership power now based in the South West

The Aviva Premiership has seen a number of shifts in power this season. Recent champions Northampton Saints and Harlequins finished in the bottom four, whilst Leicester Tigers missed the play-offs for the first time in 14 seasons. There seems to be an ‘Aviva Premiership power shift’ in motion.

Since the introduction of the play-offs in 2003, only two champions have come from outside the East Midlands or London. But from 2017, the traditional landscape is changing; Exeter Chiefs’ win last season threatens to be the start, of ‘an Aviva Premiership power shift’ to the South West.

Exeter Chiefs the New Premiership ‘Heavyweight’

The Devonians have proved that their Grand Final victory last season was no one-off.

They comfortably topped the league and sealed a home semi-final with two games to spare. The Chiefs have finally shrugged off their ‘plucky underdog’ tag and are now rightly expected to win almost every week. They are renowned for having a keep-ball, pick-and-go game but they very frequently notch up try bonus points, so are by no means a boring side to watch.

The reigning champs have scored as many tries (79) as Wasps, a side better known for exciting attacking rugby. The Chiefs have also only conceded four points more than defensively-reputable Saracens.

In short, they are evolving into the complete package.

Gloucester and Bath scrape into Champions Cup 

Gloucester and Bath finished the season in seventh and sixth places respectively. Both sides claiming their Champions Cup spots via an unexpected ‘backdoor’ route. The Cherry and Whites qualified by being European Challenge Cup finalists, whereas Bath claimed sixth place on points difference.

In the West Country derby at Kingsholm in Round 21 of the Premiership, Bath produced a stunning performance to win 43-20 and opened the door to Champions Cup rugby. It was quite possible that this late surge saved Todd Blackadder his job for next season.

In contrast, Gloucester are only a season into Johan Ackermann’s reign, and will have a full pre-season with their Head Coach this year for him to further stamp his mark on the squad. The signing this week of Danny Cipriani on a two year deal, is a further stamp of ambition, and was probably only possible with the offer of Champions Cup rugby.

It is likely that a number of South Africans will follow Ackermann to England; strong rumours suggest Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Franco Mostert are on their way to Kingsholm.

Momentum is building at Kingsholm, and Gloucester could return to the top of the table in the coming years.

Despite their late surge, Bath would feel disappointed with their season, as well as defeat in the Anglo Welsh Cup final. They have also missed out on the play-offs for the third successive season. This is not the sort of return on investment owner Bruce Craig was expecting, but clearly the squad has talent that could propel them back to the Premiership as in 2015. Needless to say, Bath have the cash to do it, and with the ‘Stadium for Bath’ proposals moving forward, the club could have the infrastructure in place to support a successful side again, as they stride towards a new era.

Bristol Bears hoping to follow South-West Success

The newly-promoted and newly-branded Bristol Bears have grand aspirations and they now seem capable of achieving them.

They were clearly under-prepared after promotion in 2016/17, but under Pat Lam in 2018/19, they don’t look like repeating the same errors again. Bristol have cantered to promotion, losing only one league game all season.  And to maximize on that momentum, have 18 new players coming in, including marquee former-All Black signings Charles Piutau and John Afoa.

Despite owner Steve Lansdown’s millions, it is not just big names arriving with the Bears brand. A number of the other new names come from the Championship level – which may concern some fans, that they may not be able to adapt to the Premiership standard.

Like near neighbours Bath, Bristol also have plenty of cash. In contrast to Bath, they have invested in infrastructure first with Ashton Gate mostly redeveloped. A coveted two-tier main stand, that towers over the surrounding areas of South Bristol. Over 12,000 fans attended their promotion party match against the Doncaster Knights, and the club has ambitions to eventually fill all 27,000 seats for a rugby game.

Aviva Premiership power now based in the South West

For the second time, the Premiership will contain four South West teams, making up a third of the league. For a region with such rich Rugby Union heritage, this strong representation is no shock phenomenon.

A glance at the lower end of the league structure reinforces this heritage. From the fifth tier down, when leagues are arranged regionally, the South-West leagues continue to tier 11. There is a single tier 12 league in the London and South East region, but the South West category boasts multiple leagues; even into the lowest tiers. Such base of clubs, players and stakeholders, is one many admirer.

And in 2018/19, the region will have a strong light shone upon it.

Over time, it is perhaps surprising that it has only traditionally been Bath waving the South West flag during the professional era (and just before). But that is changing…..and quickly.

If Gloucester, Bath, Exeter and Bristol all reach their full potential over the Premiership 2018/19 season, it is not inconceivable that they could all fill all the play-off places one day.

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