As soon as the fixtures were announced in July, fans have eagerly awaited the beginning of September for the season kick-off. The newly-named English Club rugby competition starts on Friday, and the 2018/19 Gallagher Premiership relegation battle will be centre-stage from game one.
Many eyes will be fixed on Ashton Gate, as Bristol Bears take on local rivals Bath.
With the promotion of Bristol; who replaced London Irish, we are set to see a ‘proper fight’ at the lower end of the Premiership, that hasn’t been seen for several years. As some have mooted, a fourth rotation of these teams in the relegation-promotion cycle would have to lead to serious questions about whether ring-fencing is needed.
Last Word on Rugby is counting down to the start of the season [as all English club rugby fans are]; here is a look at the relegation contenders for 2018/19.
All Change for Bristol [Bears] in 2018/19
For the newly promoted side, there is a new name, a new brand, a new league and ‘virtually’ a whole new team. The Bristol Bears will hope they can also change the established pattern of the promoted side being immediately relegated again.
They certainly look the most prepared any promoted side has been, and have some names that most other teams would be envious of. Whilst the likes of Charles Piutau, John Afoa and George Smith will each grab the headlines, it will be the steady hands of Jordan Crane and Ian Madigan who could ultimately steer the Bears to safety.
— The Rugby Network (@therugbynetwork) August 26, 2018
The other key for Bristol will be head coach Pat Lam, who has defied the odds before at Connacht. It was clear that Andy Robinson was the wrong man for the job in 2016/17 in trying to keep Bristol up above the waterline, as the club finally realised by October. His replacement Lam, has brought a modern rigour to Bristol, and has only lost one league game so far at the club.
A strong start is key for Bristol and a win against their closest rivals [Bath] in front of a record crowd this Friday, would be the perfect way to start the season. However, consecutive home matches against last season’s surprise strugglers Northampton Saints and Harlequins could be more indicative fixtures, of how the Gallagher Premiership relegation battle will shape up.
A Battle too far for Worcester Warriors?
If Bristol can hit the ground running then, it is the Worcester Warriors who need to be the most concerned. They perennially find themselves around the bottom of the table and have only finished above 10th twice in any Premiership season. Last season it was another 11th placed finish – albeit level on points with Harlequins, but well clear of the demoted London Irish.
Unfortunately one has to wonder how long the Warriors can continue to tread water. With Bristol’s recruitment looking stronger than that of Worcester, the signs point to ‘hard times’ ahead at Sixways.
They had a disastrous start to last season, losing their first seven matches, which must not be repeated. At that time, they had experienced heads like Donncha O’Callaghan and Peter Stringer to calm the nerves, who have now both retired. So the onus is on performance, over tradition or external marketing.
Coaching Inconsistency and Direction
Worcester also give the impression that they are a club without a vision. Certainly when compared to Bristol, or more successful teams; like Saracens and Exeter Chiefs.
The constant turnover of coaches at Sixways – normally short-term fixes rather than strategic appointments – do nothing to help their position. The current Director of Rugby Alan Solomons was a caretaker last season and although Rory Duncan has come in as head coach, this is another change of direction that will take time to adjust to.
Do the Warriors have time? and how long will they show a continuity, are questions over this sides chances looking down the barrel of another tough season.
Other candidates for the Gallagher Premiership Relegation Battle
Two other sides who need to adapt to new coaches are Harlequins and Northampton Saints. That is due to the tough nature of the 12 team Premiership, not entirely focused on history or fan favouritism.
In the East Midlands, Chris Boyd has joined the Saints from the Hurricanes and will need to acclimatise the northern hemisphere rugby fast. As such, it feels like the start of a new era at Northampton, with a number of the league-winning old guard having left.
Stalwarts such as Steven Myler and Christian Day are no longer around, who could be relied upon to impress ‘the Northampton way’. Fans will need to adapt to the changes in personnel – as well as culture and the hopes of 2018/19.
On the positive hand, International proven experience is on the way in. From the signings of Ben Franks and James Haskell, alongside the Saints marquee signing Dan Biggar.
… just ‘bigging up’ #DanBiggar an @ospreys a great servant of @WelshRugbyUnion a British and Irish Lion legend ? @lionsofficial and now a true Saint !???@SaintsRugby welcome to the black, green and gold @SaintsFansOnlin @therugbydebate #SlightlyInAwe .. #COYS ! ?? pic.twitter.com/MU4oLlFMZB
— Chris Davison (@chris_davison1) August 23, 2018
Whilst Jim Mallinder’s dismissal during the middle of the season seemed harsh, it has set Northampton up better than their London-based rivals, Harlequins. That club held onto John Kingston right to the end, and it could have been a Groundhog season if things had not changed.
Harlequins include new Head of Rugby in 2018/19
Quins have secured a coup by bringing in Paul Gustard from England as new head of rugby. Although, to be honest he is an untried number one coach, and has inherited a squad and new signings very, very late. This consideration in 2018/19, he has essentially had ‘no say’ on any of the players he will be working with.
Harlequins fans will hope he can use his strong international relationships within the England-contingent in the squad, to the benefit of the club. But, it is hard to see how the squad is much stronger than last season. Specifically, huge experience has been lost via Jamie Roberts and Adam Jones. So now, Nathan Earle is virtually the only major star signing.
It is hard to see how they can improve barring a ‘Gustard miracle’.
‘One from Three’ for Prem Rugby relegation battle
Looking further up the table, it is really inconceivable that any other team will be sucked into this season’s Gallagher Premiership relegation battle. Not to say that a surge, or a plummet in standings cannot occur – but the general view is, the above sides will likely struggle.
Of the four teams covered, Northampton Saints could have the least to worry about. If the new coaching team can settle-in quickly, they can hope to join the mid-table…. looking upwards.
Another point to clarify is that both Bristol and Harlequins have clear aims and fresh coaching regimes in place, to build long-term success. One aim would be to stave off relegation. It will be a contest, but most would imagine that the Bears and Quins have a better expectation in 2018/19.
Therefore it seems probable that Worcester are the most vulnerable in the relegation fight. A fight for “who wants it more” rather than ‘who is traditionally in the Premiership’. It all leads to an interesting, and finely balanced Gallagher Premiership competition.
The 2018/19 Gallagher Premiership begins on Friday, September 1.
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