The Rugby Tipster previews the Gallagher Premiership season, starting just one month after the previous season's final, and debates if anyone can topple champions Exeter.
Shocks do happen in rugby betting, not as regularly as in other sports, granted, but Exeter Chiefs’ Gallagher Premiership rivals can take a small crumb of comfort from Argentina’s 12/1 win over the All Blacks as they set out to prove the 2020/21 season isn’t a one-horse race.
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Most of the pre-season rhetoric centres around how the trophy might as well be handed to the Chiefs right now rather than next June, especially with fiercest rivals Saracens competing in the Championship following punishment for salary cap breaches.
The seasons have virtually merged into one, so would anyone even notice if Devon’s finest just kept hold of English rugby’s most coveted silverware?
The bookmakers certainly seem fairly laissez-faire about it all. Admittedly the extended international window has distracted attention away from the start of a new domestic season, which comes a mere 27 days after the Chiefs defeated Wasps at Twickenham to win their second league title.
It was Tuesday before the first outright betting odds were made available. When they did come out, three days before Harlequins play Exeter and Sale Sharks face Northampton in Friday’s opening fixtures, surprise, surprise, the defending champions were quoted at 6/5 (Paddy Power) to win the Grand Final. Miserly they may be, but that’s a true reflection of how dominant Rob Baxter’s side are.
The Chiefs have largely kept the same squad and coaching staff intact and they look the best-equipped of any of the 12 teams to cope with what should be a long, old slog of a season. If any team can grind out the hard yards, it’s the Chiefs.
Even in the areas where they have lost players, such as at full-back, where Phil Dollman has joined veteran fly-half Gareth Steenson in retiring, they have quality ready to step in. Expect Josh Hodge, a recent recruit from the Falcons, to take the Premiership by storm.
Where is the value?
We fully expect Sale Sharks - 5/1 to win the league outright - to confirm their place in the play-offs and get justice for missing out in the harshest of circumstances at the end of last season when their decisive game against Worcester, a five-point banker, was conceded due to a coronavirus outbreak.
The Sharks are only missing Tom Curry on international duty and will look to take advantage of this Autumn period, when others are much more depleted, Bath have nine stars away for example, and get points on the board early. That should set them up nicely for a top-four finish and a crack at their first title since their one and only success back in 2006.
Missing Lood de Jager and Maun Tuilagi to injury is obviously not ideal but the Sharks are almost in a position now where they have two equally good players in every position. Sharks, who are 5/1, were 6/1 last season and 60/1 for the title the season before that, which just goes to show their growing standing in the game.
Who else could shine?
Beaten finalists Wasps have a similarly settled feel to them with Lee Blackett and the rest of his coaching team having just signed extended new deals. But they do not possess the same deep pockets, or squad reserves, as the Chiefs or the Sharks and keeping what talent they have fit and well, for as much of the season as possible, will be key to them fulfilling their ambitions of going one better than last year.
Bath and Bristol will more than probably fight it out for the fourth play-off spot, but the performance of a couple of sides in the 2019/20 campaign does give hope that there may be some value to be had in backing one of the other to spring a surprise and make a charge for the top four.
Look at Wasps, they were languishing in 10th when Blackett took over and rallied magnificently under the former Rotherham boss to surge to second. Conversely, Northampton plummeted from top-four contenders before lockdown to a rudderless wreck after it. Fortunes, especially with points deductions for Covid-19 no-shows still a very real threat, can change very quickly.
Glos over the cracks?
Most people think Saints will enjoy a bounce-back season, but we’re not convinced. With a lot of their players looked upon fondly by England head coach Eddie Jones, they are set to be badly disrupted again.
For us, Gloucester -7/2 to make the play-offs with Paddy Power - have the most capacity to improve with the squad they have. Alphabetically, they are already in the top four!
A seventh-place finish in 2019/20 is not truly representative of the talent the Cherry & Whites possess, plus they have made some shred close-season acquisitions such as the ungainly but effective, Jamie Gibson. Shedheads will be hoping he can be another James Forrester.
Most of Gloucester’s international call-ups are in the back-three – England duo Jonny May and Ollie Thorley and Wales teen sensation Lousi Rees-Zammit – which is an area where they are well covered. Kyle Moyle has come up from deepest Cornwall and the on-loan Pirates player’s quick feet will take Premiership defences unawares if they underestimate him.
Tigers still not ready to prowl
While the only way appears to be up for Gloucester under George Skivington, Leicester fans are still left wondering when it’ll be their turn to feel good again.
Sporting Life's Premiership preview last season tipped Leicester to be relegated at 22/1 and that would have been the case had Saracens not suffered a huge points deduction for salary cap irregularities.
The abrupt departure of club legend Geordan Murphy on the eve of the season is a reminder of the cut-throat nature of professional rugby. Trouble is Leicester inflict most of the fatal wounds themselves nowadays.
Steve Borthwick needs some early results to get everyone on board, otherwise the 16/1 about them finishing bottom could look tasty. Two consecutive 11th place finishes points to a sad decline.
Newcastle, London Irish and Worcester are the obvious picks to prop up the table but another season of nervously looking over their shoulders looks to be in prospect for the Tigers faithful.
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