Too close to call
Bookies expect a wide open race for Premiership title
Last Updated: 29/08/12 4:31pm
Danny Cipriani: one of several new faces joining Sale Sharks
The battle for the Aviva Premiership title gets under way on Saturday in what is expected to be one of the most open races for years.
Four teams, Leicester Tigers, Harlequins, Saracens and Northampton Saints all have realistic chances of topping the pile this season.
Leicester have been installed as the bookies' 2/1 favourites but Sarries (3/1), defending champions Harlequins (4/1) and Northampton (6/1) all feature in a wide open book.
Sky Bet's head of rugby union trading Chris Smart agrees it could be the most competitive title races for many years prompting many punters to look for value outside the top two in the betting.
"I think that Leicester look a bit short this season," explained Smart.
"They have lost try-scoring machine Alesana Tuilagi to Japan and fellow winger Horacio Agulla to Bath, along with Billy Twelvetrees who has joined Gloucester.
"They have added Dan Bowden from London Irish but if he struggles with injury as he has in the past then a lot of responsibility could fall on George Ford's shoulders."
Instead Smart thinks defending champions Quins will be the side to beat. Conor O'Shea's side are 7/2 to win the regular season with the Tigers 9/4 favourites and Sarries 11/4.
Outside the big four Smart expects great things from Sale, who this season have added former England fly-half Danny Cipriani and Scotland forward Richie Gray to their ranks. The Sharks are 28/1 to win the regular season and 8/1 to make the Grand final.
"Sale look like the dark horses to me having had a major overhaul of their squad ahead of last season and they showed notable improvement, and with more time to blend this squad, and the arrival of several top class recruits they could be a force to be reckoned with this season if they can keep everyone fit," he said.
Smart also thinks Wasps will improve after their nightmare season last year when they nearly went out of business.
He added: "The return of Tom Palmer and James Haskell to Wasps along with the arrival of the dynamic Ashley Johnson from the Cheetahs could see them back up at the right end of the table this year with an outside chance of European qualification."
Newly-promoted London Welsh are favourites to take the plunge but Smart also thinks London Irish could find themselves in a scrap at the wrong end of the table.
"Irish have lost a number of high quality performers this year. They have been on a downward spiral from their heights of a few years ago, and with their coaching team leaving and various players being released from contracts they look a vulnerable team to me.
"Welsh have signed some good players in Nick Runciman and Daniel Brown, who will add solidarity. They will be reliant on Gavin Henson returning to fitness and if he shines this season he could keep them in the top flight."
One to watch: Sale
One to avoid: London Irish
Relegation: London Irish/London Welsh
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