Gallagher Premiership 2018/19: who are the contenders for the European spots?

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LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 23: (Back Row (L-R) Danny Care of Harlequins, George Smith of Bristol Bears, Jaco Kriel of Gloucester Rugby, Toby Flood of Newcastle Falcons, Jack Nowell of Exeter Chiefs, Ben Youngs of Leicester Tigers, Christian Wade of Wasps. (Front Row (L-R) Jonno Ross of Sale Sharks, Tom Wood of Northampton Saints, Owen Farrell of Saracens, Ben Te'o of Worcester Warriors, Taulupe Faletau of Bath Rugby pose for a photo during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby 2018-19 Season Launch at Twickenham Stadium on August 23, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images for Gallagher)

This season of the Gallagher Premiership is looking pretty tasty: a genuine relegation battle, plenty of academy prospects, and maybe some new contenders for the European spots. Plus, of course, the Rugby World Cup is now only a year away, so there’s an added layer of competition. Who will be the contenders for the European spots? We take a look.

Gallagher Premiership 2018/19: who are the contenders for the European spots?

The odds on Exeter and Saracens not making the top four, never mind the top six, have got to be pretty long; Even longer than Japan beating South Africa in the last World Cup (remember that?). They both have outstanding squads, great academy players coming through, and two of the best coaches in the English game. Exeter might have more players called up for England this time round but they’ll cope. These two teams are not contenders for the European spots – they’re almost nailed on.

Chance of being contenders for the European spots: 10/10

Until a week ago, Wasps looked pretty nailed on as well. They might not be able to break the duopoly Exeter and Saracens seem to be setting up at the very top but they’re a cut above the chasing pack. Limo Sopoaga and Brad Shields are top notch additions and Nizaam Carr is back as well.

But the injury to Jimmy Gopperth feels big. He could easily be out all season and he’s but such a big part of everything Wasps have done lately. He’s more than the kicker and steady hand – along with Joe Launchbury, he’s the glue that holds them together. They’ll finish strong and it would be a surprise if they weren’t contenders for the European spots but you never know.

Chance of being contenders for the European spots: 8/10

The chasing pack

Speaking of “you never know”, could it be Gloucester‘s year? Finally? Well… Matt Banahan, Danny Cipriani, and Jaco Kriel are serious additions and Cipriani, in particular, has a point to prove. Johan Ackermann’s Lions made a big jump under him in his second year coaching so it could finally be Gloucester’s time. They’re playing Champions Cup rugby with the big boys this season and that could wear out the squad. It could also inspire them.

Players like Gerbrandt Grobler, Owen Williams, and Jason Woodward all need big seasons, while Jake Polledri and Henry Trinder could make a serious impact. It really could be Gloucester’s year.

Chance of being contenders for the European spots: 7/10

Last season, Leicester Tigers finally broke their 13-year streak of finishing in the Premiership’s top four. Will that galvanise them or will it only be the start of the tailspin? Kyle Eastmond and George Ford could be the pairing that the Tigers need to revitalise them, maybe with a splash of Jordan Olowofela. The U20s star could be a perfect candidate for a breakthrough season, having dazzled in the Junior World Championship this summer. Add Jonny May and Telusa Veainu to the mix and Leicester look a tidy bet. 

Chance of being contenders for the European spots: 7/10

The dog fight

This is where things could get really interesting. Normally, Bath would be contenders but their injury list (Beno Obano, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson) and recent form make them questionable. They snuck into the European spots last time around and their reward is the tough pool of Leinster, Toulouse, and Wasps. This year might be too much, even with additions like Jamie Roberts, Jackson Willison, and Joe Cokanasiga.

Chance of being contenders for the European spots: 5/10

Newcastle Falcons had a stellar campaign last time round. Their budget, the lower interest in rugby union in the north east, and their smaller squad all make their performance even more impressive. They have an excellent back row and the seemingly timeless Vereniki Goneva. Moreover, you write Dean Richards off at your peril. But it feels like the Champions Cup could strain their squad too much.

Chance of being contenders for the European spots: 5/10

Sale Sharks are one of the best clubs in the Premiership for producing homegrown players. Like Falcons, they operate in an area where love for union isn’t strong. A successful Sale team would be good for the game and for England. But depth might be an issue again this season. If they do sneak into the European spots, expect it to be on the backs of Faf de Klerk and Chris Ashton.

Chance of being contenders for the European spots: 5/10

The outside bet

This one might be a rogue call, granted. But has there ever been a promoted team that look as promising as Bristol Bears? Harlequins or Northampton Saints were strong teams when they came back up but there’s something about Pat Lam’s side.

He showed what he can do at Connacht, who played some breathtaking rugby on their way to a Pro12 title nobody saw coming in 2016. He managed to whip the BaaBaas into their biggest victory at Twickenham in three coaching sessions (and a lot of socialising!). Lam is aiming for a European spot and he might just manage it. Charles Piutau, Jon Afoa, and George Smith are additions to take seriously and Ian Madigan has a lot of big game experience. They’re an outside bet but one worth watching – if only to see them put Lam’s dazzling style of play into action.

Chance of being contenders for the European spots: 4/10

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