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Jeremy Guscott's Premiership preview

Northampton backs Chris Ashton and Ben Foden celebrate a try for Saints last season
Are Northampton the coming men of English rugby?

Jeremy Guscott
By Jeremy Guscott
Former Lions and England star

The Premiership ended with a bang last season - let's hope the rugby continues in the same fashion this term.

What a final that was back in May. Not many finals live up to their billing but Leicester's 33-27 victory over Saracens was a fantastic match.

The law interpretations that set the game free midway through the last campaign have been confirmed, so there is no excuse for teams not to carry on playing positive rugby this term.

I think the top four from last season - Leicester, Northampton, Saracens and Bath - will be there or thereabouts again this time.

With the emphasis on attacking rugby one team which should be ideally placed to profit is free-running Northampton - I just hope they don't go the way of London Irish.

After getting through to the final in 2009 and only just being beaten by Leicester, I thought the Exiles would really step up to the plate last season but they didn't. In fact they fell short by some distance after starting the season well but then fading away.

However, I expect Northampton, with their resources, strong playing roster and fine support, to be in the mix come the end of the season again this year.

Bath have got the bonus of 'Bruce's bounty'. New owner Bruce Craig has plenty of money to spend and signing the likes of Lewis Moody, Simon Taylor and Sam Vesty shows their intentions.

The only thing I think Bath lack, Danny Grewcock aside, is some really in-your-face, horrible, annoying, powerful forwards.

Very few sides can match their fluid attacking game - their high-tempo style, with forwards passing out of the tackle, can be lethal on its day.

Saracens' Steve Borthwick and Petrus Du Plessis
Saracens came within three minutes of winning the title last season

Sometimes, though, it comes down to the sort of game where hard grunt is the key - half the season is played in rain and heavy mud and Bath maybe just lack a little bit of dog.

I still see Bath finishing in the top four and competing for the title but the mid-season period, when the weather is at its worst, will be crucial for them.

They cannot afford to lose too much ground because having a home semi-final will be crucial.

Beaten finalists Saracens face second-season syndrome - they've produced the goods once, can they back it up this time round?

A lot of their momentum came from livewire hooker Schalk Brits and if I was them I'd be a little bit concerned that they are so reliant on one player. What if he gets injured?

And then, of course, there's champions Leicester. They can live with the tag of being favourites; they always have done and always will.

Will Moody be a big loss? Only time will tell, but they've got the strength in depth, the experience and the winning habit, so they'll be there or thereabouts.

There are three teams who I expect to push the top four - London Irish, London Wasps and Harlequins.

You've got to be wary of London Irish. They started off well last season but didn't produce the goods in the end, but there'll be a little less pressure on them this year.

Wasps will also be dark horses but they can't suffer too many injuries because they haven't got a lot of strength in depth.

England flanker Tom Rees's return to fitness is a big boost and they need him to stay in one piece, while the return of England centre Riki Flutey will also be a big bonus for them.

The way Saracens and Bath played at the back end of last season is the way most sides should aspire to play

If he continues where he left off before he went to France then people should watch out.

Harlequins have got a very solid side and they've got no excuses this season, now 'Bloodgate' is finally done and dusted. They've got the money and resources and should do well.

While the race for the title looks likely to be well contested, it is a different case at the other end of the table, where survival would be a huge achievement for promoted Exeter.

Having said that, last season nobody thought Leeds would survive but they managed it, so Exeter have some hope.

Leeds fought for every scrap from the first whistle of the season and Exeter have to do the same.

Exeter need to make every home game really tough and make sure they really have a go at sides when the internationals are on and the opposition's star players are away.

If Exeter's forwards perform all season like they did against Bristol in the Championship play-off games then they're going to give people a tough time - it's not going to be an easy trip for teams down to Sandy Park.

Leeds now have plenty of experience and they won't expect to go down this year.

Along with Leeds, both Newcastle and Sale also struggled last season, but new Sharks boss Mike Brewer obviously has expectations for this campaign.

They've been training hard using a GPS system, so there's no hiding place for anybody; he's going to be a really hard taskmaster.

606: DEBATE

Sale have got to rediscover themselves. When they had all their superstars it didn't quite click and Brewer is taking it right back to basics.

Newcastle look set to have a fight on their hands once again but they've got some good young players who will have gained a lot from surviving last year.

As for Gloucester, they are the great underachievers at the moment, and their fans deserve better - Bryan Redpath is under pressure to get his players to perform.

We had got used to big-name foreign stars arriving at the start of each season but this year has been incredibly quiet on that front and the global economic situation means there haven't been any 'Galactico' signings.

The biggest signing is the capture of England captain Moody by Bath.

Even though he's not going to be around that much this season because of international duty he is a good signing but Bath's key man will be their captain, South African number eight Luke Watson.

I'm also really interested to see how Simon Taylor goes, the Scottish back-rower has had a lot of trouble with injuries but he is a real talent and I hope Bath can get the best out of him.

Steve Thompson's come back to England to try to nail down the England hooker's jersey for the World Cup ahead of Dylan Hartley.

Lewis Moody
Moody has taken his brand of creative destruction to Bath

He has signed up to some hard work under Neil Back at Leeds because their forwards must have been the hardest working in the league last season.

Wales number eight Andy Powell signing for Wasps was a strange one - nobody expected that - but Shaun Edwards knows him really well from the Wales set-up and Powell will certainly know what he's signed up to.

At his best he's a very destructive forward, and if Flutey finds some of the form he showed for Wasps in his previous spell then they'll be there or thereabouts, but I don't think it's going to be an easy season for them.

There is uncertainty behind the scenes and it takes a tough squad to perform despite the off-field distractions.

The way Saracens and Bath played at the back end of last season is the way most sides should aspire to play.

You can only play with what you've got, and not all sides have that attacking capability, but referees will show more leniency to the attacking side this season and I hope sides respond accordingly.

The good thing is that if you kick, then the opposition can now run it back in the knowledge that if you're going forward then you'll keep the ball.

The All Blacks have shown the possibilities during this summer's Tri-Nations and I just hope teams embrace the possibilities, because if they do we're in for a fantastic Premiership season.

Jerry was talking to BBC Sport's James Standley



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see also
Guscott's predictions
05 Sep 10 |  English
Premiership club-by-club guide
31 Aug 10 |  Rugby Union
Aviva Premiership Ins and Outs
08 Aug 10 |  English
Twickenham epic is greatest final
30 May 10 |  English
Leicester 33-27 Saracens
29 May 10 |  English
Jeremy Guscott Q&A
01 Jun 10 |  Rugby Union


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