Champions Exeter are feeling the love as they look forward to starting the defence of their crown at Gloucester. Rugby World gauges the mood at the fixtures launch
What’s it like to be a champion? Exeter Chiefs are finding it most agreeable. “Certainly around Exeter it’s really nice,” hooker Jack Yeandle told Rugby World at the Aviva Premiership 2017-18 season fixture launch at BT Tower. “People come up and talk to you, offer you this and that, congratulate you. And that’s a nice feeling.
“Rob Baxter was in Waitrose when someone came up to him and gave him a bottle of champagne. That’s lovely, that people are so happy and proud of what we’ve done.”
The Chiefs claimed their maiden English title after a gripping extra-time victory over Wasps in May, becoming the first West Country champions since Bath in 1996. And they did it the hard way, winning just two of their first seven Premiership matches. A 35-8 European trouncing by Clermont proved a watershed.
“The start of last season we weren’t anywhere near where we should have been. Subconsciously or not, we weren’t doing the things that made us good. We were just relying on the fact, ‘we got to the (2016) final, we’ll be okay’. After that Clermont match the players had a meeting.
“We were working hard but focusing in the wrong direction. We weren’t all striving to do the best for each other, which is what underpins what we’re about. We may have lost the next week (at Ulster) but our performance was way, way better. It was more what we were about.”
Exeter are now on a 17-match unbeaten run in the Premiership, unconquered since Bath prevailed at Sandy Park in round seven last October. They kick off next season at Kingsholm on Friday 1 September before hosting newly promoted London Irish in round two.
“We’ve not spoken yet about needing to make a better start. We’ve only had two weeks of pre-season training and one of them was a hot weather training camp in Portugal,” says Yeandle.
“But we’ve got to remember what we had to do to get that feeling around the city. We don’t want that to happen just once, we want to emulate it. It’s realising what we have to do to achieve success again.”
Wasps, so close to glory at Twickenham, embark on their 150th anniversary season with a home clash with Sale Sharks and will face the Chiefs as early as round four.
“Celebrating our 150th this season is very special and we’ll take that as a responsibility as well,” says director of rugby Dai Young. “Some great players have worn the Wasps shirt so we’ll feel we have a responsibility to back up last season and hopefully go one better.”
The Twickenham double header on 2 September pitches European champions Saracens against Northampton, and Harlequins against London Irish.
Saints may have lost the giant presence of France No 8 Louis Picamoles but fly-half Stephen Myler is quietly confident. “We needed to strengthen our squad and have recruited well in different positions. We’re a newish squad trying to grow together,” he says.
There’s a strong injection from Super Rugby, including international backs Rob Horne, Piers Francis and Cobus Reinach, and the hope is that some of the narrow setbacks of last season – which included one-score defeats by Wasps and Bath both home and away – can be turned into something more fruitful.
“Last season was frustrating but we weren’t a million miles away. There were at least five games that we lost by only three points or so. We seemed to be on the wrong side of those tight games and we need to work out how to get on the right side of them.
“It’s important to have the best pre-season we possibly can. We think there’s more in us and first and foremost we need to be competitive.”
Last season Bristol had to wait until Boxing Day for their first league victory. London Irish, who have replaced them in the top flight, are acutely aware that a fast start is imperative, particularly as some clubs may feed their international stars back into the team in a graduated manner.
“We learned from last time that if you get left behind early on then you’re chasing your tail for the rest of the season,” says wing Topsy Ojo.
Fijian wing Napolioni Nalaga, a consistently heavy scorer in the Top 14, is due to arrive next week but perhaps Irish’s most interesting ‘signing’ is data analyst Bill Gerrard, whose work at Saracens underpinned their successful kicking strategy.
“We’ve put a new game plan in place but we’re still a work in progress,” says DoR Nick Kennedy. “The Premiership has moved on since two years ago and when we were last there we were the worst team in it. So we need to hit the ground running and we’ll leave no stone unturned.”
Matt Garvey is the new Bath captain and takes his team to Leicester Tigers on the opening Sunday, a match that could see George Ford and Freddie Burns immediately front up against their previous clubs.
And Newcastle v Worcester completes the first weekend, one of a large number of Friday fixtures for Falcons as the club tries to limit the number of five-day turnarounds that Sunday matches often bring.
“Team performance has to come first,” says MD Mick Hogan, who nevertheless promised Newcastle fans that more Sunday fixtures will be added once the Challenge Cup and Anglo-Welsh competitions are added to the mix.
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Next season’s Premiership programme will include another USA-based match when Newcastle entertain Saracens at the 18,500-capacity Talen Energy Stadium in Philadelphia on 16 September.
Saracens played London Irish at New York’s Red Bull Stadium last year and the globetrotting European champions will also be breaking new ground when facing Harlequins at London Stadium in Stratford on 24 March – marking a departure from Wembley Stadium.
Another first is terrestrial coverage as Channel 5 will broadcast up to five live Premiership games next season, alongside the Sunday night highlights programme that has switched from ITV. BT Sport will remain the principal home of Premiership rugby, screening up to 80 live matches.
Pre-season training is barely underway but for what it’s worth, here are some early predictions…
Champions Exeter Chiefs. Their strength in depth is growing and they will be less affected by Test call-ups than their major rivals. Lions tourist Jack Nowell may delay his entrance next season but otherwise the Chiefs should be fully armed and ready to fly out the blocks.
Moving up Northampton Saints. Mitch Eadie and Jamal Ford-Robinson, two of Bristol’s better players last season, have joined the Super Rugby influx and an improvement on seventh place in 2016-17 looks on the cards.
On the slide Leicester. Yes, Ben Youngs withdrew but Dan Cole was the Tigers’ only Lion. And they provided just Ellis Genge to England’s Argentina tour and no one to the U20 World Cup squad, once Will Evans withdrew with illness. Where’s the supply line gone?
For the drop Sorry London Irish but the promoted club is always up against it. Injuries to Theo Brophy Clewes and Joe Cokanasiga don’t help their preparations. Now prove us wrong!
Aviva Premiership early fixtures
Fri 1 Sept
Gloucester v Exeter (7.45, BT Sport)
Newcastle v Worcester (7.45)
Sat 2 Sept
Saracens v Northampton (2, BT Sport)
Wasps v Sale (3)
London Irish v Harlequins (4.30, BT Sport)
Sun 3 Sept
Leicester v Bath (3, BT Sport)
Fri 8 Sept
Sale v Newcastle (7.45, BT Sport)
Sat 9 Sept
Bath v Saracens (2, BT Sport)
Exeter v London Irish (3)
Harlequins v Gloucester (3)
Northampton v Leicester (4.30, BT Sport)
Sun 10 Sept
Worcester v Wasps (3, BT Sport)
Fri 15 Sept
Northampton v Bath (7.45, BT Sport)
Worcester v Exeter (7.45)
Sale v London Irish (8)
Sat 16 Sept
Leicester v Gloucester (3, BT Sport)
Newcastle v Saracens (9.30, Philadelphia, BT Sport)
Sun 17 Sept
Wasps v Harlequins (3, BT Sport)