Premiership: Saracens & Exeter Chiefs lead contenders for 2019-20 crown
|Gallagher Premiership 2019-20 season|
|Dates: Friday, 18 October - Saturday, 20 June 2020 Coverage: Commentary and updates on BBC local radio, with live text, scores and reports on the BBC Sport website|
While England remain in contention to win the World Cup in Japan, almost 6,000 miles closer to home 12 clubs are about to embark on another Premiership season.
Before Eddie Jones' side renew their rivalry with Australia in their quarter-final in Oita on Saturday, a West Country derby will provide the curtain-raiser to the domestic campaign when Bristol Bears host Bath on Friday (19:45 BST).
Saracens are bidding for a third successive crown but the champions are lacking several of their big names, who are in the Far East.
Closest challengers Exeter Chiefs have lost to the north Londoners in the past two Premiership finals, after director of rugby Rob Baxter had plotted a way to their maiden title in 2016-17.
Behind the top two, competition for the play-offs is as fierce as ever, with just five points separating fourth from ninth in the table last season.
With four rounds of the Premiership Cup played before the start of the regular campaign, clubs will be eager to get the ball rolling following an extended pre-season.
Sarries dominance to continue?
There is no denying that Saracens have begun to dominate the English domestic scene, while also establishing themselves as a major force in Europe.
The Allianz Park outfit have won four of the past five Premiership titles and three of the past four European Champions Cups.
The club's management of the salary cap remains under scrutiny by Premiership Rugby but, on the pitch, their players are determined to stay ahead of the competition.
"We talk a lot about being humble," full-back Alex Goode told BBC Sport.
"What that transcends into is a group who are constantly looking to get better, and never happy with resting on our laurels.
"Even when we win by a big margin the coach is always pushing to how we can improve. You have got to keep adding layers to your game."
Director of rugby Mark McCall is unable to call on 11 senior stars, who are still on international duty, for their first game against Northampton Saints.
However, Goode is backing Saracens' young players to step up and make the most of starting opportunities.
"The club backs those young guys," he said. "The boys at the World Cup will be naturally tired, and will have given a lot to the World Cup and that training.
"Ultimately those young guys are going to play a lot. It is not going to be one-off games - they are going to play throughout the season."
Chiefs to mount another challenge
Exeter have finished the past two campaigns at the top of the table but have eventually fallen at the final hurdle at Twickenham.
The Chiefs let an 11-point lead slip during June's Premiership final as Saracens pulled off the biggest comeback in the history of the season-ending showpiece game.
Director of rugby Baxter admitted their 37-34 defeat "took a bit of getting over".
"I like to think the indicator of a strong side is not necessarily what you do after winning, but what you do after losing," added the 48-year-old.
"We have often shown that brings the best out of us and that is what we have to show again. We can only do one thing, which is use it as motivation."
With England backs Jack Nowell and Henry Slade among five Chiefs players still in Japan, Baxter is not overly concerned about the impact the World Cup will have on Saracens or any of the chasing pack.
"The reality is the final gets played at the end of the season," he said. "We have got players away as well and need to re-bed players just the same as Saracens have.
"I don't ever really go into a season [thinking] about it being about us and Saracens.
"The reality is there are 10 other really good sides there, and it's actually how you perform against those guys that defines where you end up and if you get involved in the big games at the end of the season."
Leicester start comeback trail
Last season proved to be an annus horribilis for Leicester Tigers, as the 10-times English champions found themselves in a relegation scrap.
They parted company with Matt O'Connor in September 2018, but club legend Geordan Murphy endured a tough time as he attempted to turn the club's fortunes around.
They ended 11th - their first-ever bottom-half finish in the Premiership - and appear to be at the start of a long road back as they aim to recover their glory days.
"Everyone has made themselves accountable to why it hasn't been going right," said captain Tom Youngs.
"The likes of Saracens and Exeter have really set the bar and pushed on forward, and now it is about us playing catch-up and then pushing on past if we can.
"It is not going to happen in one season. It is a two, three or five-year plan for that to be executed."
Leicester finished 15 points off the top four last season, but may take solace from the fact the middle of the Premiership concertinaed - with one bonus-point win effectively separating six clubs in the final standings.
"We know how close the top four was contested last year," said Northampton forward Tom Wood.
"There were about eight teams who could have made it until the last week or so - and we are taking nothing for granted in that respect. We will need to go up another level."
Hooker Youngs, who is entering his 15th season with Leicester, can see the shoots of recovery at Welford Road.
"It feels like a new environment, which has been needed after what happened last season," said the 32-year-old. "We are moving on from that and changing a few things.
"I feel like we are in a good spot and feel far more confident in the foundations we have built this pre-season compared to what we had in previous pre-seasons."
London Irish are back - again
Relegated from the Premiership in 2016 and 2018, London Irish have twice bounced back from relegation at the first time of asking.
The Exiles have lost to Harlequins, Bristol and Sale in the Premiership Cup before their first league game at Wasps, but director of rugby Declan Kidney has seen the benefits of those contests.
"This competition has been brilliant for us as the promoted side," the former Ireland coach told BBC Radio Berkshire.
"There is a difference between the style of play in the Championship and the style in the Premiership. The ball is in play for a little bit longer and there are fewer set-pieces.
"It has been disappointing for results and our supporters but, for us developing as a side, it has been nothing but a positive for us.
"Getting these four games and the friendly against Munster under our belts was a great learning experience for our lads who haven't experienced this level before.
"We will be everybody's favourites to go back down again but that is going to be the fun in it for us."
Irish are entering their final season at Reading's Madejski Stadium, with the club set to return to London for the 2020-21 campaign after agreeing a groundshare at Championship football club Brentford's new stadium.