Aviva Premiership: Sky Sports analyses the key contenders as the English season gets underway

With the 2015 Rugby World Cup one season away, the return of domestic action offers an opportunity for players to stake international claims as clubs vie for Premiership bragging rights.

Last Updated: 05/09/14 7:24am

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The 2015 Rugby World Cup will dominate headlines throughout the coming season, with the Aviva Premiership providing one of the key battlegrounds leading up to the tournament.

England players freely admit that appearing in the sport's global showpiece on home soil is their ultimate ambition, but equally understand that a poor league campaign will jeopardise their chances of being involved at all.

A familiar mantra greets the arrival of every new season and it is one that has been heard in the build-up to 2014-15, with Harlequins openside and England captain Chris Robshaw among those outlining the increasing demands of the sport.

"The game has changed and it is getting more physical, quicker, faster and tougher every year," Robshaw said. "Guys are getting stronger and the academy players coming through now are the strongest."

Against this backdrop of ever-improving conditioning is the growing competition for a place in the top four, with the predictability of the play-offs set to be challenged like never before.

Leicester, Northampton, Saracens and Harlequins have monopolised the knockout section of the Premiership for the past three years, but only points difference separated Quins and Bath after 22 rounds of league combat last season.

Bath are well placed to renew their assault on the top four in 2014-15, with the arrival of rugby league superstar Sam Burgess around October raising expectations at the Recreation Ground.

Northampton were crowned Premiership champions last season, defeating Saracens 24-20 in extra-time at Twickenham, and were popular winners after enduring so many disappointing major finals but what chances do they have of defending their crown?

Bath

Mike Ford’s side flirted with the playoffs last term and you would expect a top-four finish will be a minimum requirement at the Recreation Ground this time around.  

All eyes on: Sam Burgess

Joins from NRL side South Sydney Rabbitohs and England coach Lancaster will be keeping a keen eye on his transition between codes.

Players in: Sam Burgess (South Sydney Rabbitohs RL), Henry Thomas (Sale Sharks), Grant Shiells (Newcastle), Luke Arscott (Exeter), Nick Auterac (Saracens)

Players out: Nick Abendanon (Clermont Auvergne), Anthony Perenise (Bristol), Tom Heathcote (Edinburgh), Ryan Caldwell (Exeter), Tom Biggs (Worcester), Martin Roberts (Ospreys), Charlie Beech (Yorkshire Carnegie), Eusebio Guinazu (released)

Exeter Chiefs

Despite claiming their first major piece of silverware in the Anglo-Welsh cup, Rob Baxter’s Chiefs tailed off towards the end of the season; expect consistency to be the buzzword in the Sandy Park dressing room.

All eyes on: Jack Nowell

After missing out on England’s tour to New Zealand through injury, Nowell will be desperate for an electrifying start to the Premiership season to earn an international recall.

Players in: Thomas Waldrom (Leicester), Moray Low (Glasgow), Ryan Caldwell (Bath), Chrysander Botha (Lions, South Africa), Adam Hughes (Newport Gwent Dragons), Mitch Lees (London Welsh), Tomas Francis (London Scottish), Elvis Taione (Jersey)

Players out: Craig Mitchell (Cardiff Blues), Luke Arscott (Bath), Hoani Tui (Lyon), James Phillips (London Scottish), Romana Graham (La Rochelle), Jason Shoemark (Hawke's Bay), Chris Whitehead, James Hanks (both retired)

Gloucester

After a wildly erratic season there have numerous changes at Kingsholm with former Ulster chief David Humphreys taking over as director of rugby, and following him through the entrance were a number of high-profile signings.

All eyes on: Richard Hibbard

Part of the Ospreys exodus during the close season; brings international class and experience to the Gloucester pack.

Players in: James Hook (Perpignan), Richard Hibbard (Ospreys), Greig Laidlaw, Aleki Lutui (both Edinburgh), John Afoa (Ulster), Tom Palmer (Wasps), Mariano Galarza (Worcester), Aled Thomas (Scarlets), Tom Isaacs (Ospreys), Jacob Rowan, Steve McColl (both Yorkshire Carnegie), Mark Atkinson (Bedford), Callum Braley (Bristol), Henry Purdy (Leicester)

Players out: Akapusi Qera (Toulouse), Jimmy Cowan (Tasman), Freddie Burns (Leicester), Tavis Knoyle (Cardiff Blues), Matt Cox, Ryan Mills, Dan George (all Worcester), Rupert Harden (Treviso), Lua Lokotui (Beziers), Koree Britton (London Welsh), Huia Edmonds (Narbonne), Jonny Bentley (Jersey), Thomas Young (Wasps), Martyn Thomas (released), Mike Tindall, James Simpson-Daniel, Andy Hazell, Will James, Tim Taylor (all retired)

Harlequins

Conor O’Shea masterminded a successful late surge for the play-offs last season and Quins can be considered credible contenders for a place at Twickenham this around.

All eyes on: Quins’ Quintet

Twickenham Stoop is home to the spine of English rugby with prop Joe Marler, flanker Chris Robshaw, scrum-half Danny Care and full-back Mike Brown now joined by winger Marland Yarde.

Players in: Marland Yarde (London Irish), Aseli Tikoirotuma (Waikato Chiefs)

Players out: Tom Guest (London Irish), Sam Smith (Worcester), Tim Molenaar (London Welsh), Maurie Fa'asavalu (Oyonnax), Nick Mayhew (North Harbour), Nick Kennedy, Paul Sackey (both retired)

Leicester Tigers

Will inevitably be around the play-off picture, even when are they not, but Richard Cockerill will be eager to return to winning ways after an injury-crippled 2013-14 campaign.

All eyes on: Freddie Burns

Following Toby Flood’s departure to France, Freddie Burns moves from Gloucester to Welford Road in a bid to pursue his international ambitions and become more than a mere understudy to Owen Farrell.

Players in: Freddie Burns (Gloucester), Brad Thorn (Highlanders), Robert Barbieri, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Michele Rizzo, Christian Loamanu (all Treviso), Aniseko Sio (Vaimoso, Samoa), Seremaia Bai (Castres)

Players out: Toby Flood (Toulouse), Thomas Waldrom (Exeter), Dan Bowden (Auckland Blues), Steve Mafi (Western Force), Ryan Lamb (Worcester), Rob Hawkins (Newcastle), Boris Stankovich (Newport Gwent Dragons), Jerome Schuster (Tarbes), George Chuter (retired)

London Irish

Will do well to achieve a top-eight finish following the loss of game changers Marland Yarde and James O’Connor to Harlequins and Toulon respectively.

All eyes on: Tom Homer

Showed glimmers of his elusive running power last season and will need to terrorise defences all year round if London Irish are to make progress.

Players in: Tom Court (Ulster), Geoff Cross, Sean Cox (both Edinburgh), Chris Noakes (Auckland Blues), Luke Narraway, Dan Leo (both Perpignan), Tom Guest (Harlequins), James Short (Saracens), Scott Steele (Leicester), Conor Gilsenan (Leinster)

Players out: Marland Yarde (Harlequins), James O'Connor (Toulon), Ian Humphreys (Ulster), Sailosi Tagicakibau (Wasps), C J van der Linde (Eastern Province Kings), Chris Hala'ufia (Scarlets), Bryn Evans (Biarritz), Ian Gough (Newport Gwent Dragons), Declan Danaher (retired)

London Welsh

After success over Bristol in the Championship play-off final, newly-promoted London Welsh went on a major summer recruitment drive with Justin Burnell bringing in no less than 23 players, who he hopes will keep the Exiles afloat.

All eyes on: Piri Weepu

The former All Black moves to the Premiership from Auckland Blues in a bid to rebuild his career after suffering a minor stroke.

Players in: Piri Weepu (Auckland Blues), Olly Barkley, Nick Reynolds (both Scarlets), Lachlan McCaffrey (Brumbies), Eddie Aholelei (Melbourne Rebels), Pablo Henn (Limoges), Tim Molenaar (Harlequins), James Down (Cardiff Blues), Tristan Roberts (Bristol), Dean Schofield, Cameron Goodhue (both Worcester), Koree Britton (Gloucester), Ben Cooper (Bedford), Chris Elder, Paul Rowley (both Plymouth), Taione Vea, Ricky Reeves (both Wasps), Jack Gilding (Viadana), James Sandford, Shane Cahill (both Cornish Pirates), Jesse Liston (Blackheath), Nathan Taylor, Jimmy Litchfield (both Hartpury College)

Players out: Mitch Lees (Exeter), Cai Griffiths (Ospreys), Billy Moss (Bedford), Peter Edwards (Scarlets), James Tideswell (Yorkshire Carnegie), Joe Ajuwa, Mike Denbee, Tyson Keats, Ian Nimmo, Hudson Tonga'uiha (all released), Sonny Parker, Andy Titterrell, Ollie Frost (all retired)

Newcastle Falcons

After narrowly avoiding the drop last season, Dean Richards’ side look set for another relegation scrap and, given the strength of the opposition, they may be lucky to survive again.

All eyes on: Josh Furno

The Italian international flanker will add much-needed firepower to the Falcons scrum.

Players in: Josh Furno (Biarritz), Alesana Tuilagi (NTT Shining Arcs, Japan), Kane Thompson (Chiefs, New Zealand), Lee Smith (Wakefield Wildcats RL), Rob Hawkins (Leicester), Uili Kolo'ofai (Colomiers), Semesi Taulava (Worcester), Andy Tuilagi (Newport Gwent Dragons), Juan Pablo Socino (Rotherham), Ruki Tipuna (Bristol), Calum Green (Leeds Carnegie), Eric Fry (London Scottish)

Players out: Grant Shiells (Bath), Joel Hodgson (Northampton), James Fitzpatrick, Chris Pilgrim (both Yorkshire Carnegie), Fraser McKenzie, Michael Tait (Edinburgh), Franck Montanella (Biarritz), Carlo del Fava, Alex Crockett (both retired)

Northampton Saints

The reigning champions set the bar unequivocally high last season and are a shoe-in for the play-offs – at least.

All eyes on: Samu Manoa

The American lock proved to be the driving force of Jim Mallinder’s pack last term and will again be out to stamp his authority on the competition.

Player in: Joel Hodgson (Newcastle)

Players out: Gerrit-Jan van Velze (Worcester), Paul Diggin (retired)

Sale Sharks

Underwent a major rejuvenation under the tutelage of Steve Diamond last term and with the director of rugby’s astute leadership skills Sale, they look set to ruffle feathers once more.

All eyes on: Danny Cipriani

England’s prodigal son stole the headlines last year to earn an international recall and will again play a crucial role pulling the strings for the Sharks.

Players in: Nathan Hines (Clermont Auvergne), Chris Cusiter (Glasgow), Luke McLean, Alberto de Marchi (both Treviso), Magnus Lund (Biarritz), Shalva Mamukashvili (Tblisi), Darren Fearn (Bedford)

Players out: Dwayne Peel (Bristol), Henry Thomas (Bath), James Gaskell, Rob Miller (both Wasps), Kirill Kulemin (Perpignan), Tony Buckley (retired)

Saracens

Topped the Aviva Premiership table at the end of the regular season last term and arguably boast the strongest squad of all. Play-off certainties. Champions elect? 

All eyes on: Billy Vunipola

England’s uncompromising, human wrecking ball No. 8 destroyed defences on domestic and European soil last term and is set for another stellar season.

Players in: Jim Hamilton, Juan Figallo (both Montpellier), Kieran Longbottom (Western Force), Mike Ellery (England Sevens)

Players out: Joel Tomkins (Wigan Warrioras RL), Matt Stevens (Sharks, South Africa), James Short (London Irish), Nick Auterac (Bath), Michael Tagicakibau (Scarlets), Steve Borthwick (retired)

Wasps

Dai Young’s side have dropped their London tag to return to traditional roots and there is no doubting Wasps can challenge on their day, but how often will they turn up?

All eyes on: James Haskell

Earned a recall to the England setup last term and remains as hungry as ever to assert his physicality on the competition.

Players in: Bradley Davies (Cardiff Blues), Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow), Sailosi Tagicakibau (London Irish), Alapati Leiua (Hurricanes), James Gaskell, Rob Miller (both Sale Sharks), Lorenzo Cittadini (Treviso), John Yapp (Edinburgh), Ed Shervington (Worcester), Buster Lawrence (Moseley), Thomas Young (Gloucester), Alex Lozowski (Yorkshire Carnegie)

Players out: Tom Palmer (Gloucester), Joe Carlisle (Treviso), Taione Vea, Ricky Reeves (both London Welsh), Tommy Bell (Jersey), Rory Pitman (Scarlets), Andrew Suniula (released), Hugo Southwell (retired) 

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