With the final countdown to the Premiership season now blaring out like the 80's hip-thrusting classic, let's turn our attention to the prospects of three more sides who will be gunning for domestic glory this year in Part 2 of our Premiership Preview…
Coach: Conor O'Shea. Another one of the universally-liked and respected coaches, O'Shea is one of the sharpest minds in the game at the moment and is a refreshingly-honest interviewee post-match. His ability to bring on young players and get them playing high-risk but effective rugby has made Quins one of the most dominant and watchable teams over the last 3 seasons.
Captain: Joe Marler. In a surprising move, the inspirational Chris Robshaw has been stood aside for a man who, until recent times, could be described as "a bit of dunder-head." An obsession with getting involved in silly scraps and some frankly insulting haircuts threatened to put a stopper on Marler's undoubted talent, but last season saw the maturing of a fine front-row forward and a scrummaging technique developing as richly as his beard. This move could well be the making of him, whilst Robshaw gets to focus on his England skipper duties.
What happened last year? After a bit of middling around in the early part of the season (when they were blighted by injury), Quins eventually got their act together and scrapped into the playoffs once again, beating Bath in a winner-takes-all encounter in the last round of the season. They didn't have enough in the tank to derail Saracens in the semi-finals, but the West Londoners were still almost unplayable on their day, with Mike Brown and Danny Care in scintillating form.
How do they look this year? O'Shea hasn't been particularly active in the transfer market, but the players he has brought in can certainly turn a few heads, with Marlande Yarde increasingly looking like a real international-class wing and Asaeli Tikourotuma a box of tricks. But I still harbour some doubts over the reliability of their set piece and the effectiveness of their inside backs, especially when Nick Evans in injured or – dare I say it – slightly off key, which was a more common occurrence than usual last season.
Players out: Max Crumpton (Bristol), Maurie Fa'asavalu (Oyonnax), Tom Guest (London Irish), Nick Kennedy (retired), Nic Mayhew (North Harbour), Tim Molenaar (London Welsh), Sam Smith (Worcester),Paul Sackey (retired)
Players in: Asaeli Tikoirotuma (Chiefs), Marland Yarde (London Irish)
Key Player: Danny Care. The heartbeat of Quins' attacking game, the scrum half has become a leader in the squad and is a nightmare customer for any fringe defence. Care sets the pace of the game for the Londoners, so when he's firing on all cylinders, Quins are just simply too quick for other sides to live with. Still has a questionable haircut.
One to Watch: Charlie Walker. The arrival of Yarde will be worth a watch, but Walker is still a ludicrously exciting talent and the youngster will be hoping for opportunities to make his mark this year. With Tikourotuma joining, those chances may be hard to come by, but there are very few in the league who possess his pace off the mark or balance when at full speed. He needs to take every opportunity he gets with both hands.
Prediction: 5th. It's certainly not a case of Quins getting any worse, but I just don't think they have made as many improvements as the sides around them. They'll be a threat to any side and I can't wait to see them hit their straps, but do they have the depth to maintain that throughout the season, when hammered by international call-ups?
Coach: Richard Cockerill. Nobody likes him (except Leicester fans), and he doesn't care. And rightly so. I think he's brilliant – he calls a spade a spade, and avoids all that PR clap-trap like the plague. He's a hard-nosed individual, sure, but he's shown over the years that he knows how to put together sides that can play a bit of rugby and score some tries too. He'll be hoping to have his full arsenal available this year, though, after a year without some big name players.
Captain: Ed Slater. Leicester have a proud tradition of quality second rows, and Slater fits the mould perfectly. A quieter figure off the field, the big lock is a colossus on it – he's one of the best tight-five ball carriers in the league and has a surprising turn of pace considering he has inherited his jaw from Desperate Dan. He could be a fixture as captain for years to come.
What happened last year? Unacceptable by Leicester's standards – making the knockout stages of both the league and the Heineken Cup, but picking up no silverware. In fact, it was the first time a Premiership final had been contested without the Tigers for 10 years. Granted, they were always playing catch up after suffering the worst injury crisis in recent memory, but at times their game was stodgy and uncoordinated it was hard to believe that this was a side that topped the try scoring charts for three of the previous four years.
How do they look this year? A large number of established signings and the raiding of the Treviso side when it emerged they may leave the Pro 12 have ensured that Leicester have added phenomenal depth to their squad this season, with Ghiraldini and Barbieri both capable of forcing their way into the first team and Freddie Burns an eye-catching acquisition at fly-half. At full-strength, there don't seem to be many teams who can stand up to the East Midland outfit. The arrival of Australian coach Phil Blake is also a shrewd move as Cockerill attempts to plug what was an uncharacteristically leaky defence last season.
Players out: Dan Bowden (Japan/ Blues), Ryan Bower (Worcester Warriors), George Chuter (retired), Toby Flood (Toulouse), Rob Hawkins (Newcastle Falcons), Boris Stankovich (Newport-Gwent Dragons), Scott Steele (London Irish), Thomas Waldrom (Exeter Chiefs), Harry Wells (Bedford Blues).
Players in: Seremaia Bai (Castres), Robert Barbieri (Treviso), Freddie Burns (Gloucester), Leonardo Ghiraldini (Treviso), Christian Loamanu (Treviso), Laurence Pearce (Rotherham), Michele Rizzo (Treviso), Aniseko Sio, Brad Thorn (Highlanders).
Key Player: Tom Croft. He's barely played any rugby over the last two seasons due to neck and knee injuries – aside from a Lions tour, of course. But he should be fresh and ready to kick on now – he is a dominant force in the lineout and, despite the strong displays of Jamie Gibson, there are few players capable of ripping sides apart in the wider channels like Croft does. If he stays fit, it could be crucial to not just Leicester's aspirations, but his international career.
One to Watch: Freddie Burns. The new boy endured a torrid time at Gloucester last season as he let the off-field transfer circus get the better of him, but behind a usually-dominant pack and with some of the most dangerous runners in the league outside of him, there is every opportunity for Burns to fulfil his potential this year. That England 10 shirt is still reachable, but he needs to claim his spot at his new club first. Keep an eye out for this talented youngster, Brad Thorn, as well. Big things expected of him…
Prediction: 2nd (Runners Up). Tigers won't take too kindly to being shunted out of their annual Twickenham soiree, and so I expect to see a big backlash this year. Their squad looks well balanced and ridiculously well stocked – expect to see them challenging on centre stage again this year.
Coach: Brian Smith. The man worked wonders with a limited squad last year to make them both competitive and dangerous, but he'll be delighted he's been given a bit more ammunition this time around. He knows what it takes to get Irish to succeed, having been coaching in the 'glory days' when they reached the Premiership Final in 2009.
Captain: George Skivington. Any lock who's plied his trade at Wasps and Leicester is going to be worth reckoning with, and that's certainly the case with George Skivington. He's a mobile second row but he's also a grafter through and through, getting stuck into the unsexy stuff and earning the respect of his teammates and fans (who are used to watching a sexy brand of rugby) in the process.
What happened last year? It was safety for Irish, but it wasn't always comfortable, as they struggled to cope with a max exodus of players. However, Smith stripped the gameplan to its barebones and Irish became a physical and intelligent side, capable of giving anyone a game. I tipped them to go down but – all credit to them – they proved me wrong with some gutsy displays and some high-quality rugby to guarantee Premiership Rugby for another season.
How do they look this year? Smith has made the most of having a bit more cash to splash by making some quality signings that are sure to make a difference – especially to the pack, where talented and experienced individuals such as Tom Court, Danny Leo, Luke Narraway and Tom Guest will all add some serious grunt. They won't be challenging for the Top 6 just yet, but they'll certainly show some improvement.
Players out: Declan Danaher (retired), Bryn Evans (Biarritz), Ian Gough (Dragons), Chris Hala'ufia (Scarlets), Ian Humphreys (Ulster), James O'Connor (Toulon), Setaimata Sa (Hull FC), Sailosi Tagicakibau (London Wasps) Marland Yarde (Harlequins)
Players in: Tom Court (Ulster), Sean Cox (Edinburgh), Geoff Cross (Glasgow Warriors), Connor Gilsenan (Connacht), Eoin Griffin (Connacht), Tom Guest (Harlequins), Dan Leo (Perpignan), Luke Narraway (Perpignan), Chris Noakes (Blues), James Short (Saracens) Scott Steele (Leicester Tigers).
Key Player: Tom Guest. I was always a fan of Tom Guest, but he was a victim of his own versatility – fitting in at 6 or 8 – and the fact that Quins had the excellent Maurie Fa'asavalu and Nick Easter in both spots. But Guest is a true athlete who can run sides off the park – beating the opposition to the breakdown and running intelligent support lines. He's a talented footballer and he deserves to get a regular first team spot at Irish, where he could quickly become a leader within the pack.
One to Watch: Chris Noakes. He's no spring chicken, but he could well end up as the surprise package for Irish fans. He was a key player for the Blues in 2013, harnessing and unleashing a talented backline with relentless precision, before a long term injury cut his season short and impacted his chances in 2014. Now back at full fitness, Noakes can be a key figure for Irish as he balances a smart tactical game and an adventurous attacking mindset behind a solid pack.
Prediction: 8th. It won't be a miracle turnaround for Irish, but a decent season of mid-table obscurity. They will cause some upsets along the way, but they don't yet have the depth to be consistently challenging the top sides – but the Madejski Stadium will remain a tough place to travel to for visiting teams and a great place for beers and craic for the fans.