Thursday 19 November 2020 5:09 pm

Video: Premiership rugby 2020-21 season preview: Wasps, Bristol and Sale best placed to topple Exeter

It’s surreal that Premiership rugby returns this weekend, just 27 days after Exeter lifted the trophy. But in 2020, everything is out of the ordinary.

With Exeter also winning the European Champions Cup and Bristol the Challenge Cup, the English game is in a good place.  

The absence of Saracens, however, has completely changed the dynamic. There’s so much to play for this season that everyone should be pretty pumped. 

Read more: Rhino boss Reg Clark on why rugby brand remains a good bet despite warehouse blaze and pandemic sales dip

Exeter have shown themselves to be head and shoulders above the rest. 

But so soon after doing the double, it’s going to be hard to maintain momentum into the new season. Away at Harlequins on Friday night is a tough first game.

But one thing we should expect from Exeter is that they surprise us. They’ve got a brilliant team spirit. They are resolute and determined. Rob Baxter and his troops will relish the challenge.

What will hurt them is that a few of their squad are away at the Autumn Nations Cup. But they are not unique in that respect.

Why Wasps, Bristol and Sale excite me

It’s up to the rest to catch Exeter. And the two sides who, for me, grabbed the bull by the horns after the lockdown break clash on Sunday. 

What Lee Blackett at Wasps and Pat Lam at Bristol have done is nothing short of extraordinary, particularly Blackett. 

Wasps were absolutely nowhere when Dai Young left them in February. Yet, there they were in the Premiership final, running Exeter quite close. And all despite a Covid outbreak in the squad.

The beauty of the Premiership last year is that it was closer than many people anticipated. 

One side who’ll be desperately disappointed to have missed out on the play-offs is Sale Sharks. 

Undone by Covid right at the end, Steve Diamond and those guys will really want to prove a point. And they are a team who have been slowly but surely building. 

For the last three years I’ve been excited about Bath. It’s a rugby hotbed, they’ve got some amazing players and I think under Stuart Hooper they are starting to turn a corner. They are just  lacking that consistency. 

Leicester fans should worry 

I think the bottom of the table will be a dogfight. Newcastle, London Irish, Worcester, Leicester are all sides who don’t play particularly great rugby and are struggling to find their groove. 

I think Newcastle will have learned from their last stint in the Premiership, when they made it into Europe only to be relegated. They won’t want to mess that up again. 

The team that must be most nervous, even though they’ve got Steve Borthwick as head coach, is Leicester. 

They have got rid of director of rugby Geordan Murphy just at the start of their season. And although they are a massive club, they feel like one that hasn’t found its identity. If I was a Tigers fan I’d be pretty worried. 

Bailout is a boost for Premiership

Premiership clubs learned on the eve of this new season that they will receive £59m in government funding to ease financial worries. I’m sure they’d have been asking for more but it’s still something. 

Sport in general and rugby specifically has suffered immensely from having no fans and a hugely interrupted season. This is a lifeline to help them stay afloat. 

The medium to long term effects of the pandemic are yet to be felt. But the vaccine news means there is potential for sport with fans to return. That’s what drives these clubs and the quicker that happens the better. 

You have to take your hat off to the government. I don’t know where they’re finding the money from but they’re finding it from somewhere and they’re pumping it into organisations that are important to communities.

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

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