Friday 17 September 2021 8:00 am

Ollie Phillips' Premiership season preview: Harlequins vulnerable, Saracens favourites, and Leicester and Sale to join Exeter in play-offs

The new Premiership Rugby season has a lot to live up to after the fireworks of the last campaign but I think there’s reason to believe it will match or even better it.

Removing relegation last term allowed every team to play without fear and the result was enterprising, adventurous rugby and perhaps the most entertaining English season ever.

Once again, no team will drop into the Championship this season so the focus will be on winning, rather than not losing, and getting into the top six. That can only be good news.

Champions Harlequins epitomised the phenomenal rugby we saw in the Premiership last year but I think they will struggle to repeat their title-winning heroics.

If one of Marcus Smith, Alex Dombrandt, Danny Care or Joe Marler get injured, they look vulnerable.

Scotland centre Huw Jones is a good signing but Quins have lost a player instrumental to their success in Mike Brown.

New head coach Tabai Matson, meanwhile, faces a big step up from coaching at Under-20 level, as Paul Gustard found when he swapped an England backroom role for the Stoop hotseat.

The team to beat – and the storyline that is sure to dominate the 2021-22 Premiership – is, of course, Saracens.

After a year consigned to the Championship they are back to win the top flight and, honestly, I think they will.

Their list of world-class players, such as Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Jamie George and Elliot Daly, is unmatched and they have only got stronger as the likes of Max Malins and Ben Earl have returned from loan spells.

If there is a question mark over Saracens then perhaps it is how ready they’ll be for a tough opening clash at Bristol Bears, who Malins and Earl helped reach the play-offs last season.

They simply weren’t tested at all in the second tier, so that game could be a baptism of fire.

Premiership play-off contenders

Exeter Chiefs, who were denied consecutive Premiership titles by Quins, look the most likely team to challenge Sarries.

They are consistently good, even if they sometimes struggle to be excellent, and really missed Jack Nowell for large parts of the last campaign.

Dave Ewers, Jacques Vermeulen and Jonny Gray are all back to bolster a squad boasting the quality of Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Simmonds, Stuart Hogg and Henry Slade.

Exeter were also among the loudest to complain about Saracens’ salary cap breach, so the revisiting of that rivalry promises some monumental clashes.

I think Leicester Tigers could be one of the surprise packages of the new season.

Steve Borthwick has steadily restored their hard edge, typified by the appointment of Ellis Genge as captain.

There have been shrewd moves across the board at Leicester, from Kevin Sinfield and Richard Wigglesworth taking coaching roles to Freddie Burns joining as back-up to George Ford, and I can see them being a force to be reckoned with.

Sale showed in the latter part of last term that they are on the right track under director of rugby Alex Sanderson.

They have built momentum, can rely on big, important players like Faf de Klerk and Manu Tuilagi, and have made good signings such as Tommy Taylor from Wasps.

It’s no coincidence that Saracens did so well under Sanderson’s tutelage and I think Sale could too.

I see Saracens, Exeter, Leicester and Sale making the play-offs, but there are intriguing storylines all throughout the Premiership.

London Irish, in particular, are ones to watch. They started to show real promise in the back line last year and now they have strengthened up front.

At Wasps, it’ll be interesting to see the impact of John Mitchell, recruited from the England set-up. Bath have talent everywhere – can Danny Cipriani make the difference and wake that sleeping giant? I can’t wait to find out.

Former England Sevens captain Ollie Phillips is the founder of Optimist Performance, experts in leadership development and behavioural change. Follow Ollie on Twitter and on LinkedIn.

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