Premiership 2013-14: Team-by-team guide
Little more than 100 days have passed since Leicester lifted the Premiership trophy at Twickenham - but on Friday newly promoted Newcastle take on Bath in the 2013-14 curtain-raiser at Kingston Park.
It kicks off what promises to be an exciting opening weekend, which sees last year's table-toppers Saracens lock horns with London Irish before London Wasps do battle with Harlequins in the Twickenham double header.
Elsewhere, Gloucester face Sale at Kingsholm, while last year's losing finalists Northampton host Exeter.
Tigers - without suspended director of rugby Richard Cockerill - will be made to wait until Sunday to begin their title defence, when they welcome Worcester to Welford Road.
BBC Sport has teamed up with BBC local radio to garner the thoughts of the commentators and experts who follow their teams throughout the season for an at-a-glance guide to the campaign ahead.
BBC local radio will be providing live commentary of matches throughout the Premiership season, which you can access through the rugby union commentaries page.
|Position last season: Seventh|
|Director of rugby: Gary Gold|
|Players in: Juan Pablo Orlandi (Racing Metro), Leroy Houston (Colomiers), George Ford, Micky Young (both Leicester), Matt Garvey, Jonathan Joseph, David Sisi, Anthony Watson (all London Irish), Gavin Henson (London Welsh), Martin Roberts (Northampton), Alafoti Fa'osiliva.|
|Players out: Michael Claassens (Toulon), Stephen Donald (Mitsubishi Dynaboars, Japan), Ben Skirving (Bristol), Jack Cuthbert (Edinburgh), Lee Mears, Dan Hipkiss (both retired), Simon Taylor, Mark McMillan, Sam Vesty.|
BBC Points West's Damian Derrick:
"With the coaching setup, led by Gary Gold, now having had 12 months to bed in, the expectations inside and outside the club will be for a big improvement on last season's seventh-place finish in the Premiership.
"Gold did a lot to harden the soft underbelly of the Bath pack from the previous year, added to an impressive defence which was the second best in the league. Now the focus will be on developing the attacking play to allow them to compete with the top four sides.
"On paper, the back division looks as good as any - raiding London Irish for Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson - to add to existing talents, such as Kyle Eastmond, who ended his season on a high in an England shirt in Argentina.
"How Bath strike a balance with that array of talent and who out of Tom Heathcote, George Ford and Gavin Henson steps up to claim the number 10 shirt could determine where they finish.
"Bath fans are denied Heineken Cup rugby for a second successive season but are well within their rights to expect an end to a six-year wait for some silverware in either the Amlin or LV= Cups."
|Position last season: Sixth|
|Head coach: Rob Baxter|
|Players in: Greg Bateman (London Welsh), Don Armand (Stormers, South Africa), Dave Lewis (Gloucester), Ceri Sweeney, Tom James (both Cardiff Blues), Fetu'u Vainikolo (Connacht), Romana Graham (Waikato).|
|Players out: Neil Clark (Oyonnax), Aly Muldowney (Connacht), Myles Dorrian (London Irish), Gonzalo Camacho (Leicester), Ignacio Mieres (Worcester), Mark Foster (Jersey), Josh Tatupu (Carcassonne), Chris Budgen, Simon Alcott, Richard Baxter, Kevin Barrett, Junior Polu (all retired), Nic Sestaret.|
BBC Radio Devon's Nigel Walrond:
"Since arriving in the Premiership for the first time in 2010, Exeter have more than held their own in each of the past three seasons, with eighth place their worst finish.
"Last season's sixth position secured them Heineken Cup rugby for a second year running, and they will now want to push on for a top-four place and earn themselves a spot in the end-of-season play-offs.
"Stalwarts of their promotion-winning season in 2010, such as Richie Baxter, Neil Clark and Chris Budgen, have either retired or moved on, but head coach Rob Baxter appears to have made some shrewd signings over the summer.
"Wingers Tom James and Fetu'u Vainikolo have arrived, with former Welsh international James looking particularly impressive in pre-season.
"Baxter has also bolstered his pack with the acquisition of back-five forward Don Armand and lock Romana Graham from Super 15 rugby, while four members of England's Under-20 Junior World Championship-winning squad - Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Henry Slade and Sam Hill - should figure quite prominently this season.
"Top four might just be beyond Exeter's reach, but it would be a surprise to see them finishing outside the top half of the table."
|Position last season: Fifth|
|Director of rugby: Nigel Davies|
|Players in: Matt Kvesic (Worcester), Tavis Knoyle (Scarlets), James Hudson (Newcastle), Dan George (London Welsh), Tom Hicks (Northampton), Jonny Bentley (Cornish Pirates).|
|Players out: Dario Chistolini (Zebre), Jim Hamilton (Montpellier), Dave Lewis (Exeter), Alex Brown, Peter Buxton (both retired), Tommaso D'Apice.|
BBC Radio Gloucestershire's Paul Furley:
"Gloucester will look to build on last season's never-say-die attitude, which helped them finish in fifth place in the Premiership, but being back in the Heineken Cup will add to the difficulty of breaking into the top four.
"Jim Hamilton's exit means the Cherry and Whites have to replace a leader and a big physical lock - the latter may prove trickier than the former.
"Tom Savage is the new club captain, an old-school character in a young body, and has shown not only the determination to become a professional but also that he can skipper the side, whether it be from the second row or back row.
"James Hudson is a more obvious replacement for Alex Brown, which leaves the veteran Will James as the go-to option when Gloucester want bulk at the heart of the pack.
"The new scrum laws will be a challenge for all teams and in Nick Wood Gloucester have one of the most cerebral loose-heads in the game. Tactically, he should adjust quickly, but they need fewer injuries on the tight-head side, where Rupert Harden and Shaun Knight both had spells out last season.
"If Gloucester can win enough quality possession up front, then their backs - without Jonny May through injury at the start of the season, but boosted by the return of James Simpson-Daniel - have the talent in Freddie Burns, Billy Twelvetrees and Henry Trinder and the pace in Charlie Sharples to unlock any defence."
|Position last season: Third (play-off semi-final losers)|
|Director of rugby: Conor O'Shea|
|Players in: Paul Doran-Jones (Northampton), Nick Kennedy (Toulon), Paul Sackey (Stade Francais).|
|Players out: James Johnston (Saracens), Chris Brooker (Worcester), Peter Browne, Seb Stegmann (both London Welsh), Rory Clegg (Newcastle), Olly Kohn, Will Skinner (both retired), Tim Fairbrother.|
BBC London 94.9's Sara Orchard:
"A major trophy every year for the last three seasons gives Harlequins the tag of 'title contenders' once again.
"The Londoners lost their way in the Premiership last March but still managed to lift the LV= Cup with bright, young open-side Luke Wallace as captain and arguably find-of-the-season Ben Bottica at number 10.
"Director of rugby Conor O'Shea likes a steady ship and as a result only one Premiership side - Saracens - has seen less player movement over the summer, with two of the new signings likely to have been enforced on O'Shea.
"Ex-London Irish and England lock Nick Kennedy has arrived from Toulon following the retirement of club stalwart Olly Kohn, while former Wasps and England wing Paul Sackey has joined from Stade Francais following injuries to backs Ross Chisolm and Ollie Lindsay-Hague.
"In Europe, the depth of the squad still might not be strong enough to make further dents on the Heineken Cup - especially after being drawn in a group with Clermont, Racing Metro and Scarlets. However, with no Harlequins players selected for the successful summer British & Irish Lions tour to Australia, you feel their senior players will have a point to prove.
"Led once again by England captain Chris Robshaw, their consistency and enjoyable style of play make them a team not to be ignored or taken lightly."
|Position last season: Second (play-off winners)|
|Director of rugby: Richard Cockerill|
|Players in: David Mele, Jerome Schuster (both Perpignan), Jamie Gibson (London Irish), Ryan Lamb (Northampton), Neil Briggs, Tim Bristow (both London Welsh), Owen Williams (Scarlets), Sebastian de Chaves (Stade Montois), Gonzalo Camacho (Exeter).|
|Players out: Martin Castrogiovanni (Toulon), George Ford, Micky Young (both Bath), Kieran Brookes (Newcastle), Pat Phibbs, Jimmy Stevens, Johnny Harris (all London Irish), Richard Thorpe (London Welsh), Matt Cornwell (Mogliano), Andy Forsyth (Sale Sharks), Geordan Murphy, Ben Woods (both retired).|
BBC Radio Leicester's Martin Ballard:
"Leicester Tigers have recruited well during the summer break to fill the gaps left by 15 departures, including George Ford to Bath and Martin Castrogiovanni to Toulon.
"There is real depth to the squad this season, packed with internationals and the five returning British & Irish Lions.
"David Mele can cover at scrum or fly-half and he is also a goal-kicker. So, the Frenchman, Ryan Lamb or Owen Williams can all provide cover for Toby Flood, who looks likely to miss the season opener after picking up a head injury in the pre-season game against Ulster.
"When he returns, Flood will take over the club captaincy following Geordan Murphy's retirement and the Irishman will now add his considerable experience to the coaching team, supporting Paul Burke as assistant backs coach.
"Director of rugby Richard Cockerill, however, will sit out the first seven games of the season after picking up an RFU ban because of his conduct at last season's Premiership Final."
|Position last season: Ninth|
|Director of rugby: Brian Smith|
|Players in: Jamie Hagan (Leinster), Pat Phibbs, Johnny Harris, Jimmy Stevens (all Leicester), Matt Parr, Nic Rouse (both Nottingham), Andrew Fenby (Scarlets), Michael Mayhew (Newcastle), Blair Cowan (Worcester), Myles Dorrian (Exeter), Eamonn Sheridan, Fergus Mulchrone (both Rotherham).|
|Players out: Alex Corbisiero (Northampton), Max Lahiff (Melbourne Rebels), Jonathan Joseph, Matt Garvey, Jamie Gibson, David Sisi, Anthony Watson (all Bath), Jack Moates (Wasps), Jerry Yanuyanutawa (Glasgow), James Buckland (London Scottish), Scott Lawson (Newcastle), Steven Shingler (Scarlets), James Sandford (Cornish Pirates), Joe Ansbro (retired).|
BBC Berkshire's Tim Dellor:
"After last season's relegation battle, Exiles fans were calling for reinforcements. Whether the most eye-catching additions of Andy Fenby, Blair Cowan and Myles Dorrian will be enough to secure a more comfortable Premiership ride this season should soon be apparent.
"The quality of the players to have left the club over the last few months may alarm some fans. Jonathan Joseph, Matt Garvey and Anthony Watson have all moved west down the M4 to Bath, while Lions star Alex Corbisiero and youngster Jamie Gibson have also departed.
"The captaincy is a complex business at Irish. The popular club stalwart Declan Danaher, who is entering his 15th season at Irish, is the club captain. On match days, however, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of George Skivington.
"Irish relied on good post-Christmas home form to bail themselves out of trouble last campaign, but this time the objective will be to tuck themselves into mid-table with some more impressive early season results and then reassess. A mid-table finish is not beyond them, but many fans are bracing themselves for another bumpy ride."
|Position last season: Eighth|
|Director of rugby: Dai Young|
|Players in: Matt Mullan, Joe Carlisle, Andy Goode (all Worcester), Ben Jacobs (Western Force), Taione Vea (North Harbour), Nathan Hughes (Auckland), Esteban Lozada (Agen), William Helu (Roma), Kearnan Myall (Sale Sharks), Ed Jackson (London Welsh), Jack Moates (London Irish), Guy Thompson (Jersey), Ricky Reeves, Josh Bassett, Neil Cochrane (all Bedford), Rory Pitman (Rotherham), Carlo Festuccia (Zebre).|
|Players out: Billy Vunipola (Saracens), Nicky Robinson, Jack Wallace (both Bristol), Zak Taulafo (Stade Francais), Rhys Thomas (Newport Gwent Dragons), Tim Payne, Stephen Jones, Lee Thomas, Nic Berry (all retired), Marco Wentzel, Fabio Staibano.|
BBC London 94.9's Sara Orchard:
"Last season London Wasps sparked backed into life and by February they'd broken into the top four. Although they didn't sustain their league position, by the end of the season they'd re-established themselves as one of the league's best attacks, with wings Tom Varndell and Christian Wade topping the try-scoring charts with 13 each.
"Wasps should now have ambitions of a top-six finish with their already established back line. The weight of expectation will be on the forwards, and their success could shape the club's season. Wasps fans will be disappointed with the nature of the loss of Billy Vunipola to Saracens, while Marco Wentzel's decision to return to South Africa is another forward blow.
"Prop Matt Mullen has joined from Worcester and much is expected of back-rower Guy Thompson from Jersey. Director of rugby Dai Young also saw former Welsh international Stephen Jones retire but he joins the Wasps coaching staff with the fly-half role being filled by Andy Goode, also arriving from Worcester. Centre Chris Bell will step in to captain the side, replacing Hugo Southwell.
"With the club continuing to rebuild following financial unrest off the field, this season they'll be one of the most exciting but still unknown prospects."
|Position last season: Championship winners|
|Director of rugby: Dean Richards|
|Players in: Scott Lawson (London Irish), Kieran Brookes (Leicester), Mike Blair (Brive), Rory Clegg (Harlequins), Phil Godman (London Scottish), Andy Saull (Saracens), Fraser McKenzie (Sale Sharks), Noah Cato (Northampton), Danny Barnes (Munster), Dominic Barrow (Leeds Carnegie).|
|Players out: Jimmy Gopperth (Leinster), James Hudson (Gloucester), James Hall (Bristol), Michael Mayhew (London Irish), Taiasina Tui'fua (Bordeaux Begles), Jordi Pasqualin (London Scottish), Rory Lawson, Jon Golding (both retired).|
BBC North East and Cumbria Sport's Matt Newsum:
"There was no chance of Newcastle Falcons slipping under the radar on their return to the Premiership - the presence of director of rugby Dean Richards was always going to raise interest in this most northerly of professional clubs.
"The former Harlequins boss ends a four-year absence from the top tier - three of which were part of a suspension for involvement in fake blood injury incidents - having led the Falcons to a convincing Championship promotion campaign that saw just two defeats in league and play-off games.
"Despite the uncertainty and delay to their planning brought about by the play-offs (of which Richards is a critic), Falcons have recruited well with 10 new arrivals, most of whom have international and top-level experience both in England and abroad.
"Most important was to fill the gaps left by the departure of points-machine Jimmy Gopperth to Leinster and the retirement of Rory Lawson. Rory Clegg, Phil Godman and Mike Blair have come in to bring creativity to the halves, while in the pack there is mobility and ballast in arrivals such as Andy Saull, Franck Montanella and Fraser McKenzie.
"Key to their success this season will be maintaining the winning mentality nurtured throughout the squad last season, and making Kingston Park a fortress - which will no doubt be aided by big, noisy crowds keen to witness the continuing Richards revolution on Tyneside."
|Position last season: Fourth (play-off final losers)|
|Director of rugby: Jim Mallinder|
|Players in: George North (Scarlets), Alex Corbisiero (London Irish), Kahn Fotuali'i (Ospreys), Salesi Ma'afu (Western Force), Rob Verbakel, Glenn Dickson (both Otago), Gareth Denman (Rotherham).|
|Players out: : Brian Mujati, Soane Tonga'uiha (both Racing Metro), Paul Doran-Jones (Harlequins), Ryan Lamb (Leicester), Martin Roberts (Bath), Tom May (London Welsh), Tom Hicks (Gloucester), Mark Sorenson (Bristol), Noah Cato (Newcastle), Rhys Oakley (Plymouth Albion).|
BBC Radio Northampton's Graham McKechnie:
"To say expectation levels are high for the season ahead for Northampton is almost an understatement. The signings that Saints have made are the envy of any club, while the core of the team that reached last season's Premiership final remains intact.
"The appearance of Lions George North and Alex Corbisiero has already caused a stir at the Gardens - but it's not just their arrivals which should push this team on. Kahn Fotuali'i should provide more than a spark of creativity at scrum-half and they've also added Glenn Dickson from Otago to the backs and Wallabies prop Salesi Ma'afu, Gareth Denman and Rob Verbakel to the pack.
"But the addition of Clermont Auvergne backs coach Alex King to the coaching staff may be most significant.
"Saints showed in the latter stages of last season that not only could they beat top Premiership teams, they could play the attacking brand of rugby which their critics said was beyond them. With King concentrating on attack, Saints fans will hope to see more of the same, particularly given the talent they have running through the backs.
"In addition to new signings, it should be a big season for James Wilson and Luther Burrell, who finished the last campaign so strongly. And, having been kept on as captain, you might sense that Dylan Hartley has a few points to prove too.
"Saints will be targeting a top-four finish as the minimum. Having experienced Twickenham in May, they will be desperate to go back there again this season and there's every reason to think that they might."
|Position last season: 10th|
|Director of rugby: Steve Diamond|
|Players in: Michael Paterson (Cardiff Blues), Joe Ford (Leeds Carnegie), Kirill Kulemin, Jonathan Mills, Phil Mackenzie, Tom Arscott (all London Welsh), Daniel Baines (Rotherham), Andy Forsyth (Leicester), Charlie Walker-Blair (Jersey).|
|Players out: Richie Gray (Castres), Andy Powell (Wigan Warriors RL), Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh), Richie Vernon (Glasgow), Jordan Davies (Salford City Reds RL), Charlie Amesbury (Bristol), Lee Imiolek (Leeds Carnegie).|
BBC Radio Manchester's Nathan Middleton:
"After a season of turbulence, which included three different men holding the position of director of rugby and a narrow escape from relegation, there seems to be a much calmer feel about Sale going into the new season.
"Director of rugby Steve Diamond remains in charge after stepping down from the boardroom last January to oversee what matters most - the rugby - and his drive and passion are vital in what the Sharks are about.
"His vision for a 'northern super club' maybe on hold as shown by the signings - there have been no stand-out, marquee arrivals this summer, with Diamond focusing his recruitment on players who will buy into the hard-working ethos he's trying to instil.
"One of the most significant additions could be former rugby league player Mike Forshaw from Connacht as defensive coach, given the Sharks have leaked tries regularly over the past couple of years despite impressing going forward.
"After his bus troubles at the end of last season and tabloid column inches over the summer this is a big season for Danny Cipriani - he's the one game changer in the squad and will be expected to lead from the front.
"With some talented youngsters coming through, and the form shown at the back end of last season, there's an outside chance of sneaking sixth place, but staying away from the bottom teams would be progress."
|Position last season: First (play-off semi-final losers)|
|Director of rugby: Mark McCall|
|Players in: James Johnston (Harlequins), Billy Vunipola (Wasps), Richard Barrington (Jersey), Tim Streather (Nottingham).|
|Players out: Andy Saull (Newcastle), John Smit, Carlos Nieto, Joe Maddock (all retired), Kameli Ratuvou.|
BBC London 94.9's Andrew Rowley:
"It would be difficult to argue that any club has done better business than Saracens ahead of this campaign - their first full season in their new home at Allianz Park.
"Mako Vunipola had a breakthrough season last term, which culminated in a starring role on tour with the British & Irish Lions, and now Saracens and England hope that his brother Billy Vunipola can have a similar impact after his move from Wasps. The powerful and ebullient number eight will give Saracens another formidable ball carrier.
"Every club craves a dominant tight-head and Saracens can claim to have two of the best from last season in Matt Stevens and new signing James Johnston. Harlequins did all they could to keep the colossal prop but, like Wasps with Vunipola, had to concede that the lure of Saracens had proven too much for their player.
"Meanwhile, Brad Barritt, Alex Goode, Charlie Hodgson and Chris Wyles are four of the most reliable operators in the Premiership, and Owen Farrell will be all the better for the experience gained on a Lions tour. David Strettle is a natural finisher, and I expect Joel Tomkins to continue his improvement and Chris Ashton to return to his best form.
"With this firepower to add to the gigantic pack you begin to see why they will be the team to beat, despite falling at the semi-final stage last season.
"Saracens topped the table at the end of the regular season in 2012-13 with the fewest defeats and least tries conceded, and with their new recruits it would be hard to bet against them topping the pile once again come May."
|Position last season: 11th|
|Director of rugby: Dean Ryan|
|Players in: Jonathan Thomas (Ospreys), Jeremy Becasseau, Paul Warwick (both Stade Francais), Agustin Creevy (Montpellier), Cameron Goodhue (Auckland), Michael Williams (Blue Bulls), Jeremy Su'a (Crusaders), Ofa Fainga'anuku (Glasgow), Ignacio Mieres (Exeter), Leonardo Senatore (Pampas), Chris Brooker (Harlequins), Paul Andrew (Cornish Pirates), James Stephenson (Bedford).|
|Players out: Matt Kvesic (Gloucester), Matt Mullan, Andy Goode, Joe Carlisle (all Wasps), Aleki Lutui, Nikki Walker (both Edinburgh), Neil Best (London Scottish), Blair Cowan (London Irish), Errie Claassens, Ollie Hayes, Andy Short (all Bristol), Craig Gillies, Shaun Perry (both retired), Tevita Taumoepeau.|
BBC Hereford & Worcester's Dave Bradley:
"Dean Ryan is the latest incumbent in the Warriors hot-seat and, having been promised much but achieved little in the Premiership, a lot of fans will be waiting to see if he can deliver. Ryan has told them it will not be instant success, and says it will take three to four years for him to achieve anything at Sixways. The last three predecessors never got beyond the three years.
"He knows he has a small squad of experienced players and the vast majority were not signed by him, and there is not too much depth beyond his best 20-odd players.
"He will not suffer fools gladly and appears to have created a good spirit among them, as shown in the pre-season game at Ospreys, when they were determined to play despite their team coach setting on fire and some of the kit being destroyed.
"The selection of Jonathan Thomas as captain appears a wise one, as he will give everything on the pitch, will lead from the front, and has a vast amount of international experience.
"While they may be thin on the ground in one or two places, and the pack may not be as strong as in the past, particularly at the start of the season, there is competition for places at nine and 10.
"Ryan may have to turn to some of his youngsters - Ben Howard in particular looks the part - but one thing is for sure, they will not be 'leaving anything on the park', and the split squad of last season appears to be a thing of the past."