Stoop to conquer with Quins
Leicester will be looking to successfully defend their Aviva Premiership title this season but they will face some stiff competition.
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Looking at the 2013/14 betting, our expert George Primarolo feels Harlequins have been unfairly written off in some quarters, while he's also keen to get with Gloucester.
Here's his in-depth team-by-team betting guide to the new campaign.
It's not really gone to plan for Bath over the past few seasons and there is a real danger that they will become Premiership also-rans rather than the dominant side that they were in the 80s and 90s. The next two seasons will be crucial for Gary Gold's men and although the signs are promising on paper, they need to translate this promise for results on the pitch. London Irish's loss has been Bath's gain with four players making the trip down the M4 to the Rec while their squad looks stronger in other areas of the pitch than it has done in recent years. George Ford could prove to be a decent signing from Leicester, while Gavin Henson is surely on the last of his nine lives. As with Danny Cipriani at Sale last year, there is an air of expectation over Henson in the West Country but in reality, it's more likely to end in tears than cheers. Gold has assembled a fine squad of youngsters but the general feeling among the rugby community is that Bath will need a couple more years before they develop into serious title contenders.
Key man: Francois Louw
It's testament to everyone involved in the set-up down at Sandy Park that we no longer think of Exeter as relegation candidates but as serious contenders for a play-off spot. Rob Baxter and his men have worked wonders since being promoted in 2010 and have made Sandy Park a really difficult place to visit which has culminated in some impressive league finishing positions. Baxter hasn't got too involved in the transfer market over the summer and isn't trying to change what has proven to be a winning combination. They have an excellent academy at the Chiefs and they will continue to produce promising youngsters over the next few years. However, when you look at the firepower of the last year's top four and the way in which they have spent over the summer, it becomes very difficult to see how Exeter are going to break into the play-offs. They lack the strength in depth to mount campaigns both home and abroad and this could stretch their resources. The Chiefs will continue to win their fair share of games both home and away, but expect the top four to prove elusive once again.
Key man: Dean Mumm
One of the most exciting sides to watch at times last season, this year could be a big one for Gloucester. Nigel Davies promised exciting, running rugby when he arrived from the Scarlets and he didn't disappoint the Kingsholm faithful. However, it is now 12 seasons since they won the Premiership and it is fast becoming a fading memory for the majority of the Shed. The Cherry and Whites are packed with potential in the backs but will lose the likes of Freddie Burns, Billy Twelvetrees and Ben Morgan to England at crucial times. This may just stunt their progress but there's no denying they're one of the most exciting sides in the Premiership and a side that just could be overpriced in the betting. Had they not lost Jim Hamilton to Montpellier, I'd have been very keen on them but his departure could be crucial. Nevertheless, the likes of James Hudson arrive from Newcastle with a point to prove so I certainly wouldn't put you off them if you fancied them to lift some silverware this season. Top spot is probably beyond them but a top-three finish is definitely not out of the question which makes them of definite interest on the handicap market.
Key man: Freddie Burns
A lot of pundits are writing Harlequins off this season but I still fancy the men from the Stoop to challenge in a big way and they are the side to offer the most value in the outright market. While it is true to say they are weaker for the retirement of both Olly Kohn and Will Skinner, they are certainly stronger for the arrival of Nick Kennedy from Toulon. It could also be argued that Paul Sackey's best days are behind him but underestimate the winger at your peril and it would be no surprise to see him have a final season in the limelight. Skipper Chris Robshaw also has several points to prove having been ignored by the Lions and rested by England over the summer. This enforced period of absence should be to Quins' gain - he'll be eager to remind the rugby world just how good he is. Their main rivals have bought well over the summer while it's been fairly stagnant at the Stoop. However, this shouldn't be viewed as a bad thing and the consistency that Quins showed last season is likely to be their strong point yet again. I can see them having a very strong start to the season and while the top spot may just be beyond them, a top-two finish certainly isn't. The price of 9/4 about them doing so seems very fair indeed.
Key man: Chris Robshaw
There will be a few new names on the Leicester team sheet this season but the Tigers have bought well over the summer and should be there or thereabouts at the end of the season. However, despite finishing top in 2009/10 and 2010/11, they only did so by a couple of points and I'm not sure their current price is a giveaway. Richard Cockerill knows that it is their performance in the Grand Final by which he will be judged and they will also be keen on a strong Heineken Cup performance as well. All of this points to Leicester trying to juggle as many balls as they can throughout the season and I would be surprised if they were fighting tooth and nail to actually top the table at the end of the season if they are still in Europe. Having said this, they do look very strong on paper and are the most likely to finish at the summit of the Premiership. The loss of Martin Castrogiovanni and George Ford is a blow, while the retirement of Geordan Murphy will leave a big hole In the backs. However, the arrival of Gonzalo Camacho, David Mele and Ryan Lamb will fill even the most pessimistic Tigers fan with hope and there is a lot to look forward to at Welford Road this season. They are the most likely winners but their current price of 15/8 looks a little on the short side to me and I'm happy to pass them over, especially as Cockerill has a nine-game touchline ban to kick-off the season.
Key man: Geoff Parling
Plenty has been written about the demise of London Irish and if the Madejski Stadium faithful thought that last season was tough, then they could be watching this term through their fingers. The departure of Alex Corbisiero is huge and with the likes of Matt Garvey and Jamie Gibson also deserting Brian Smith's side, then the future looks pretty bleak. The one glimmer of hope is that Setaimata Sa will be back in action after missing the majority of last season. However, when you delve into their summer signings, all may not be lost. Blair Cowan is an exciting signing from Worcester while Jamie Hagan could easily be playing international rugby within the year having arrived from Leinster. It's going to be very tough this year for the Exiles but I've got a feeling they'll be able to do enough to stay up though this will be the most open relegation battle that the Premiership has ever seen.
Key man: Setaimata Sa
After their worst season for many a moon in 2011/12, Wasps' fans would have been encouraged by last season's performance but they are still some way from the heady days of 10 years ago. However, there is genuine reason for optimism this season and if they can get the ball to their flying wingers Tom Varndell and Christian Wade, then they can certainly do a lot better than their odds of 40/1 suggest. The problem will be getting the ball out there. They have bought in the wily Andy Goode at 10 to marshal the backs and while he's in the twilight of his career, he can still do a job for the Adams Park outfit. The major problem when assessing Wasps' chances is whether all their new players can gel together in time to put a serious title challenge together. Dai Young's squad has seen a huge turnover of players with 16 coming in and 11 going out. They are definitely going the right way but there's a sneaking suspicion that they are still going through a transitional period. They should be nowhere near the bottom but breaking into the top four is likely to prove to be beyond them - though I couldn't put anyone off backing them at that price as it looks a little too big.
Key man: Taione Vea
After a four-year absence from the top flight, Dean Richards returns to the Premiership with plenty to prove. Life's not been easy for the big man post-'Bloodgate' but he now has a second chance at the top level and it would be surprising if he failed to grab it with both hands. For me, Richards is the best coach in the country and would have been an absolute certainty to have coached England at some point. Whether or not this will happen will come down to politics within the RFU but I'd be staggered if Richards didn't manage to land another top job at some point. First and foremost, he will have to keep Newcastle in the Premiership this season which will be no mean feat. Current favourites with most firms to be relegated, the Falcons have recruited pretty well, with the likes of Mike Blair, Scott Lawson and Andy Saull coming in, though they have lost a very dependable kicker in the shape of Jimmy Gopperth. It's not easy for a side to stay up in their first season but Newcastle have plenty of Premiership experience within their ranks and Kingston Park is not an easy place to go on a Friday evening when the wind is blowing a gale. There's not much on paper between themselves and the other relegation candidates but it is Richards' presence at the helm that will keep them up somehow.
Key man: Andy Saull
Much is expected of Northampton this season and last year's Premiership finalists almost pulled off the shock of the season in the final as they had Leicester on the back foot for the majority of the 40 minutes until Dylan Hartley's foul mouth effectively ended the game as a contest. The signings of George North and Alex Corbisiero look all the more shrewd following the recent Lions tour and they have been joined by Kahn Fotuali'I who has come in from the Ospreys and Salesi Ma'afu who has joined from Western Force. These four signings mean that they have been well supported in the market so far after several pundits put them up not only to reach the top four again, but to lift the trophy at the end of the season. However, Corbisiero isn't the most robust and is susceptible to injury while it's not inconceivable that George North struggles from post-Lions blues. The battle for the top four spots will be very tough this year and it could just be that there is a surprise name missing from the play-offs. It could well be Northampton if everything doesn't go to plan.
Key man: Alex Corbisiero
Sale are a very lucky side and it's not inconceivable that they could have been starting this season in the Championship had London Welsh not been docked points for fielding an ineligible player. Last season was a disaster in every respect and they will be hoping for much better this time around. The move to Salford City Stadium seems to have coincided with a turn in fortunes for the Manchester club and Steve Diamond will be hoping his side can build on the form they showed in the last couple of months of the season. However, Rome wasn't built in a day and it is highly unlikely that Sale will be doing anything other than staving off the threat of relegation this season. They have lost the likes of Richie Gray and Kearnan Myall and their new signings from London Welsh are solid but hardly inspirational. They won't lose many players to international duty but this probably says more about their squad than being a real positive. All in all, it's going to be another long, hard season for the Sharks and I can't see anything beyond a tough relegation battle for them. And it's one they could easily lose.
Key man: Danny Cipriani
Saracens flew out of the blocks last season and they were rightly favourites to lift the Premiership trophy for more than three-quarters of the season but then the last few weeks will be a period that Sarries fans will want to forget in a hurry. They were dumped out of the Heineken Cup by Toulon and also went out at the semi-final stage of the play-offs when they came up against an inspired Northampton side at Allianz Park. They have strengthened yet again this season and the arrival of James Johnston and Billy Vunipola will add extra beef to an already strong physical outfit. They will struggle again with international call-ups and the likes of Vunipola could easily be involved in both the autumn internationals and the Six Nations but they should have enough firepower to get through this. Saracens' major obstacle to their domestic progression could well be their European ambitions and they will be keen to reach the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup again. It wouldn't be a surprise to see them take a leaf out of Leicester's book and try to ease into the play-offs rather than attempt to top the table for the entire season. With this in mind, I think that Sarries are a little short in the market and don't make too much appeal at the prices - though they are nailed on for a play-off place at least.
Key man: Billy Vunipola
Much like Newcastle, I think Worcester will avoid the drop this year not so much down to the strength of their squad but more to do with who is at the helm. Dean Ryan has joined the Warriors after doing some solid work with Scotland as their forwards coach and it is his job firstly to avoid relegation this year and then to build Worcester into a side capable of reaching the play-offs. They have signed some decent international players over the summer in the shape of Paul Warwick, Ignacio Mieres and Jonathan Thomas but they have also lost the likes of Matt Kvesic, Andy Goode and Matt Mullan. Hence, their squad looks a little stronger than last year but not that much and their fans can expect more of the same. They were a little unlucky to finish where they did last year and will win more than their fair share of games at Sixways as well, but the fact of the matter is that Ryan will be more than happy to keep them in the Premiership this year before trying to move on to bigger and better things.
Key man: Jonathan Thomas
A tough season to call both at the top and the bottom of the table.
The battle for relegation wil be the hottest we've seen for many a year and one of Worcester, Newcastle, London Irish or Sale could easily be in for the chop. It's very difficult to call though with any certainty and that market is best left well alone.
The top isn't that much easier to solve either. Given their European ambitions, I do think that both Leicester and Saracens are too short to top the table at the end of the regular season. As we have seen many a time, the side that lifts the Premiership trophy is often the side that comes into the play-offs in the best form and that's not usually the side that finishes on top.
Harlequins have unfairly been written off and I think that the 9/4 on offer with Sky Bet and Paddy Power is a very fair price indeed for Conor O'Shea's men to end the season either first or second.
The second side I can see performing well are Gloucester. I think they look certain to outperform their odds and hence the best way I can see to get with them is on the handicap market where they get a 11-point start from favourites Leicester at 10/1 with sportingbet. If they sneak a play-off spot (which I think they are capable of), then they should reward handicap backers.