Slap in the middle of the table, the play-offs are five points one way and Leicester (or relegation any other year) 10 points the other. The arrival of Ben Spencer is the most notable boost since the suspension of play, the retirement of Francois Louw the most significant loss. But Taulupe Faletau has signed a long-term contract and – with Sam Underhill, Zac Mercer et al chomping at the bit – back-row is not an obvious problem area.
The new hawks. Where once Leicester, Saracens and the like used to complain about the constraints of any salary cap at all, now it is Steve Lansdown, Bristol’s billionaire owner, who has resisted the new calls for a tightening of it. Easy to see why. Bristol, nestled in the top four, now unveil Semi Radradra and Kyle Sinckler to their increasingly adoring fans. They reckon Bristol is the biggest rugby city in the world. After 25 years of turbulence in the professional era, it is time to make that count.
All eyes, or perhaps ears, will be on Sandy Park when humans are eventually allowed into the stadium – and how fans will respond to the controversy over the Tomahawk Chop and other Native American themes. For now, the Chiefs remain defiant over their branding but BT will not be including the chant in their “fake” crowd noise. On the field, Exeter continue to set the pace. Johnny Gray is the next big signing but his fellow Scot Sam Hidalgo-Clyne could be the most interesting as he tries to resurrect his international career.
It may technically be round 14 of the old season, but at Kingsholm it feels very much like August and a whole new start. The previous regime has walked out, despite flirting at times with consistency more closely than their most recent predecessors. Still, ninth is ninth, however quickly a couple of wins might fix that. George Skivington and Alex King, of Wasps fame, lead the new team. How the latter dovetails with his old protege, Danny Cipriani, will be pivotal. The return of Jonny May should do more again to revitalise the club.
Another side who know all about the fine line between play-offs and relegation, there is a feeling of the fresh about Harlequins this mid-season too. Chris Robshaw has agreed to tarry until the official end of this season, but Kyle Sinckler has led quite the exodus of squad players. Three big South African signings mitigate that, as does the return from New Zealand of Joe Marchant and from injury of Nathan Earle. Chris Ashton, signed from Sale just before lockdown, is another ingredient. As ever with Quins, if the chemistry fizzes they will play a part, possibly even in the play-offs.
The good news is, they are safe from relegation. And, in Steve Borthwick, they have a new head coach. But they’ve had loads of those recently and it never seems to make much difference. The bad news is, they handled the Covid “realignment” of wages as awkwardly as anyone, eliciting resentment among many of their players, five of whom upped and left, to join 20-plus others leaving anyway. The Tuilagi era is over, with Manu’s departure for Sale, but the Nadolo era begins, as Nemani, even bigger of stature, strides in. The rest of this season is for little more than experimentation.
The Exiles return to London. They will ground-share with Harlequins for the rest of this season, before moving into their new home in Brentford at the start of next. They are very much in the running for a place in Europe next season, whatever that may look like. They will incorporate into their campaign Rob Simmons, the Wallabies centurion who should team up well with his compatriot Adam Coleman. Sean O’Brien will lend added international class now that his injury problems have cleared up.
Whatever Leicester didn’t do, Northampton, their perennial Midlands rivals, managed with some style. All of their post-Covid negotiations were completed with an aplomb that has become their hallmark on the field. The transformation of the Saints from the dysfunctional end of the Jim Mallinder era has been swift under Chris Boyd. He is a man of class, and his team are similarly impressive. They occupy the fourth of the play-off spots and should be disappointed if they don’t finish at least as high as that.
What salary crisis? Sale had already, in the space of barely an off-season, shot from some way beneath the cap to wedged up tightly against its underside. Now they have signed Manu Tuilagi, who presumably came at a discount but can’t have been cheap. It seems to be working. They haven’t threatened the top end of the table like this since the days of that other expensively assembled squad of theirs, the one that became English champions in 2006. Not even that vintage could unleash anything like Tuilagi and RJ van Rensburg at humble domestic midfields. Ouch.
Talk about nothing to play for. Under normal circumstances Saracens would be three points off Exeter in second place; as it is, they are 83 points adrift at the bottom. Their season amounts to a Champions Cup quarter-final against Leinster in Dublin and any progress they can make beyond that. There is a certain irony that their squad is remaining largely intact, bar the odd loan for their season away, despite its apparent violation of every norm known to society. Otherwise, their next 12 months will prove a test case for the ideal management of international rugby players.
Life after Dai Young continues with Wasps handily placed just outside the top four. There has been noticeably little movement in or out, despite the loss of their director of rugby just before lockdown. Ryan Mills is an excellent signing, but no one’s idea of a marquee. He is the most high-profile arrival, with a couple more rumoured. Few have been out the door either, but the loss of the Springbok back-row forwards Nizaam Carr and Ashley Johnson might hurt. They resume at Franklin’s Gardens against Northampton, in fourth.
Realistically there is not much on offer this season to the Warriors, but there is a sense of future planning and the securing of some roots at Sixways. Jonathan Thomas has returned to his former club, in whose environs he and his family have continued to live, from Bristol and will become the forwards coach. Ted Hill, the highly promising back-row forward, has been appointed club captain at the age of 21. Matt Kvesic is back, too. And should further inspiration be required, the return to mobility of Michael Fatialofa following his neck injury will supply it.