Premiership: Champions Saracens to make winning start at Newcastle
Simon Mail previews the opening weekend of the Premiership season and expects champions Saracens to make a positive start...
"The return of winger David Strettle will only add to Saracens' depth and the Men in Black are worthy favourites to win the Grand Final."
Champions Saracens worthy favourites to defend title
The new Premiership season gets underway this weekend and champions Saracens again look the team to beat. Mark McCall's side defeated Exeter in May's final at Twickenham and have resisted the urge to make major changes to their squad. The return of winger David Strettle will only add to their depth and the Men in Black are worthy favourites to win the Grand Final at 13/8.
Exeter, title winners in the previous campaign, are expected to again provide the closest challenge to Sarries with Rob Baxter's side topping the regular season. The best of the rest should feature Dai Young's Wasps while Gloucester will have high hopes of breaking into the top four after ambitious signings including Danny Cipriani.
Newcastle were the surprise package last season with the Falcons upsetting the odds to finish fourth but it could be a tough ask for Dean Richards' team to repeat the feat. Leicester missed out on the semi-finals for the first time in 13 years and the Tigers will be desperate to avoid the ignominy of another failure this season. Ultimately Saracens and Exeter still look some way ahead of the rest and should duel for the title again.
Worcester could struggle to avoid relegation
Bristol are among the favourites for relegation this season following their promotion but the club have made significant additions and their ambition could help them retain their status. The signing of Ulster full-back Charles Piutau is a major statement of intent and the Bears may have enough quality in their team to make life difficult for some of their rivals.
If Bristol avoid the drop, Worcester could be the team to suffer. The Warriors finished second bottom last season but were fortunate to have a woeful London Irish beneath them. Bristol look equipped to make a better fight of it and Worcester may have it all to do to stay up. The squad does not have the star power of the Bears and Worcester look set to face a major struggle to avoid relegation.
Bristol v Bath
Live on BT Sport 1
Newcomers could trouble Bath
Bristol are without Piutau after he injured his shoulder in a friendly against Connacht but the hosts should still make it an awkward opener for Bath. Bristol only lost one league game last season and head into this campaign with plenty of momentum. Bath finished sixth last season and were dogged by inconsistency.
Their away form was particularly poor and the visitors are unconvincing favourites for this clash. Bristol defeated Bath at home two seasons ago and another repeat is far from out of the question. With the passionate support of their fans behind them, Bristol can keep it close and are well worth backing with a six-point handicap advantage.
Gloucester v Northampton
Live on BT Sport 2
All change at Northampton
Gloucester come into the new season with expectations rising over a potential top-four challenge. The Cherry and Whites brought in England back Danny Cipriani this summer and Johann Ackermann's side are capable of pushing for a semi-final spot. After a miserable season for Northampton, the Saints have appointed Chris Boyd as director of rugby and the New Zealander has a strong track record after his Super Rugby triumph with the Hurricanes in 2016.
It could take both teams time to hit the ground running this season but Northampton may be able to catch out their opponents with their players keen to make an impact for Boyd. The Saints also have a strong record against Gloucester with just one defeat in the last 11 clashes. Even if the hosts sneak it, the value could lie with backing Northampton after being given a seven-point head start.
Exeter v Leicester
Live on BT Sport 2
Chiefs should prove too strong for Tigers
Exeter put up an excellent title defence last season which took them all the way to Twickenham where they were beaten by Saracens. The Chiefs have been exceptionally consistent over the last couple of seasons and will be one of the teams to beat again this year. Leicester face a big challenge to halt their decline which saw Matt O'Connor's side finish fifth last season.
The Chiefs have an outstanding record at Sandy Park having lost there just once in the league since October 2016. Exeter have also beaten Leicester in four of their last six meetings and it is difficult to see past a home win. The Tigers could keep it competitive but Exeter should prevail and backing a win by up to 12 points could pay off.
Newcastle v Saracens
Live on BT Sport 1
Champions backed to see off Falcons
Saracens ended last season in relentless form as they reeled off seven consecutive Premiership wins on their way to a 27-10 win over Exeter for their fourth domestic title. Newcastle punched above their weight last season by finishing in the top four but the Falcons could struggle to match this achievement again.
Sarries have completely dominated their clashes with Newcastle having won their last 19 games against them stretching back to 2009. Whether the champions will be in top gear at the start of this season is questionable though and the home side can stay in touch with them. Saracens are expected to win but Newcastle could keep within 12 points of their opponents at Kingston Park.
Follow Simon's bets on Twitter @watfordtipster
Back Bristol +6 to win @ 10/11 (Sportsbook)
Back Northampton +7 to win @ 10/11 (Sportsbook)
Back Exeter to win by 1-12 points @ around 2/1 (Sportsbook)
Back Saracens to win by 1-12 points @ around 15/8 (Sportsbook)