SunSport’s rugby union expert Jonny Fordham assesses every team and explains how the Chiefs hope to reach new heights
EXETER will “throw some punches” as the champions of England look to transform themselves into world-beaters.
Ambitious Chiefs launch their maiden Premiership title defence at Gloucester tonight.
And boss Rob Baxter is busy pushing his Sandy Park heroes to new levels in a bid to become one of the top club sides in world rugby.
Bullish Baxter said: “The biggest thing we’ve tried to challenge the guys on is a change of intensity during sessions.
“That’s more to try and push our game on in a global sense, rather than making any major technical changes.
“Our main focus has been more on building on our strengths and turning them into super-strengths because the truth is we won a lot of games last season, particularly when we really concentrated on ourselves and what we do well.
“We want to be playing at the top end of our capabilities.
“And the guys I will feel most comfortable with heading into the new season will be the guys who are ready to play at the high end of both their physical and mental capabilities.
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“We are not going to be a team that’s scared of losing a game or scared of what people will say if we don’t win just because we were the champions last year. That’s not what it’s about for me.
“Instead, I want us to go up to Gloucester, throw some punches, get ourselves into the game and see what playing in the Premiership is like when you are currently the top team in England.”
Baxter has kept most of the side that topped the pile by beating Wasps 23-20 in a thrilling extra-time final at Twickenham in May.
The majority will start at Kingsholm, though Jack Nowell will be on the bench after starring on the Lions tour.
Gloucester have a point to prove after another poor campaign, which ended with a ninth-place finish.
If they can stop the defending champs tonight then it will be a huge boost after the shock of losing star man Jonny May to Leicester Tigers this summer.
But while the Chiefs have largely the same line-up and retain the great advantage of not being decimated by call-ups when the internationals come round, they are still only third-favourites to win the title behind Saracens and Wasps.
European champs Sarries remain the side to beat.
DIRECTOR of RUGBY: Todd BlackadderCAPTAIN: Matt Garvey STAR MAN: Toby Faletau. Lions No 8 has to recapture the same form he showed in New Zealand for his club.BIG SIGNING: Freddie Burns. Played his best rugby to date last term.
LAST SEASON: 5th PREDICTION: 4th
FORDHAM’S VERDICT: Spine of the squad looks strong. No excuses for not making the play-offs this time.
DIRECTOR of RUGBY: Rob Baxter CAPTAIN: Jack Yeandle STAR MAN: Jack Nowell. Personifies the spirit at Sandy Park.BIG SIGNING: Matt Kvesic. Hoping move from Gloucester gets him back on England radar.
LAST SEASON: 1st PREDICTION: 2nd
FORDHAM’S VERDICT: Will be tough to emulate last season’s heroics – but squad is largely the same.
DIRECTOR of RUGBY: David Humphreys CAPTAIN: Willi Heinz STAR MAN: Ross Moriarty. Injured early on Lions tour but back-row has the strength to bounce back.BIG SIGNING: Jason Woodward. Full-back adds some X-factor.
LAST SEASON: 9th PREDICTION: 10th FORDHAM’S VERDICT: New coach Johan Ackermann will crack the whip — and it’s needed.
DIRECTOR of RUGBY: John Kingston CAPTAIN: James Horwill STAR MAN: Kyle Sinckler. Fresh off an outstanding Lions tour.BIG SIGNING: Demetri Catrakilis. The man who can step into Nick Evans’ boots at fly half.
LAST SEASON: 6th PREDICTION: 7th FORDHAM’S VERDICT: Need their big-name players to finally deliver after years in mid-table.
DIRECTOR of RUGBY: Matt O’Connor CAPTAIN: Tom Youngs STAR MAN: Matt Toomua. Aussie will be a menace outside George Ford.BIG SIGNING: George Ford. Back at Welford Road from Bath. England No 10 will sort this side out.
LAST SEASON: 4th PREDICTION: 5th FORDHAM’S VERDICT: Pack looks lightweight and will lose backs when the internationals are on.
DIRECTOR of RUGBY: Nick Kennedy CAPTAIN: Topsy Ojo STAR MAN: Ben Franks. World Cup winner with the All Blacks and a man who will steady the scrum.BIG SIGNING: Napolioni Nalaga. Fijian flier joined from French side Lyon.
LAST SEASON: 1st in Championship PREDICTION: 12th FORDHAM’S VERDICT: Good coaches but lack the players to stay up.
DIRECTOR of RUGBY: Dean Richards CAPTAIN: Will Welch STAR MAN: Toby Flood. Back at Kingston Park with a big fanfare. BIG SIGNING: Maxime Mermoz. France centre adds more flair through the middle for the Falcons.
LAST SEASON: 8th PREDICTION: 8th FORDHAM’S VERDICT: Richards will hope his side can close out games they should have won last year.
DIRECTOR of RUGBY: Jim MallinderCAPTAIN: Dylan Hartley STAR MAN: Courtney Lawes. Can kick on again after best season to date.BIG SIGNING: Piers Francis. Fresh from Super Rugby, England man will pull the strings at No 10.
LAST SEASON: 7th Prediction: 6th FORDHAM’S VERDICT: No Picamoles, no party. Saints backline needs to click early.
DIRECTOR of RUGBY: Steve Diamond CAPTAIN: Will Addison STAR MAN: Denny Solomona. A try machine but could miss chunk of the year with England.BIG SIGNING: James O’Connor. Aussie back signed to play atr fly-half.
LAST SEASON: 10th PREDICTION: 9th FORDHAM’S VERDICT: Looking to be boom or bust at Sale this year. It won’t be dull following them.
DIRECTOR of RUGBY: Mark McCall CAPTAIN: Brad Barritt STAR MAN: Owen Farrell. Fresh from signing new five-year deal. Drives this team and kicks the points.BIG SIGNING: Liam Williams. Wales ace makes up for losing Chris Ashton.
LAST SEASON: 3rd PREDICTION: 1st FORDHAM’S VERDICT: Even the tea lady is world-class. No one comes close to them.
DIRECTOR OF RUGBY: Dai Young CAPTAIN: Joe Launchbury STAR MAN: Elliot Daly. England wing will shine in No 13 spot.BIG SIGNING: Juan de Jongh. Centre joins fellow Springbok Willie Le Roux at the Ricoh.
LAST SEASON: 2nd PREDICTION: 3rd FORDHAM’S VERDICT: Kurtley Beale is a huge loss. But don’t lose many during internationals.
DIRECTOR of RUGBY: Gary Gold CAPTAIN: Donncha O’Callaghan STAR MAN: Ben Te’o. Warriors will do all they can to keep their centre.BIG SIGNING: Peter Stringer. At 40, Irish scrum-half adds experience and game-winning nous.
LAST SEASON: 11th PREDICTION: 11th FORDHAM’S VERDICT: Don’t expect anything but a relegation scrap down at Sixways.
Boss Mark McCall will have SIX Lions stars out of action at the start of the season but they look strong enough to steamroller Northampton at Twickenham tomorrow.
Dai Young’s Wasps were record try-scorers last term and even without Kurtley Beale, who is back Down Under, have enough firepower to light up the league again.
The old guard of Bath, Leicester, Harlequins and Northampton have all underachieved in recent seasons.
A Champions Cup spot is the target for the likes of Newcastle Falcons and Sale — with Worcester and relegation candidates London Irish still a way off the rest of the pack in terms of quality.
The Falcons are missing Toby Flood for their first game at home to Worcester tonight, but boss Dean Richards insists his boys are ready to fire up the engines.
The ex-England man said: “We’re going out there to score tries.
“We’ve put together a squad capable of doing that and there’s a huge amount of excitement around the club.
“The season lasts for nearly 40 weeks so we’re not going to get overly emotional about the first few games. But I’ve missed it, I really have.
“All the boys in the coaching office, all the club’s staff and all the playing squad are absolutely up for the season — and I don’t think there’s a better crowd in rugby than Kingston Park on a Friday night.”
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