‘Some will love being champions, some may struggle’

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Jack Nowell scored Exeter’s first try in their 23-20 Premiership final win over Wasps
Aviva Premiership
Dates: 1 September – 26 May Coverage: Commentary on BBC Radio 5 live, sports extra and local radio on BBC Sport website, mobile, tablet and app. Reports on all matches and live text commentary on selected games.

It only seems like a matter of minutes since Exeter Chiefs were picking up their first Premiership crown at Twickenham.

But on Friday, after a wait of 97 days, England’s top domestic competition begins once again.

BBC Sport takes a closer look at how the 2017-18 season might unfold.

Chiefs ‘are not afraid’

Champions Exeter get their campaign under way with a trip to Gloucester on Friday.

May’s epic final saw Chiefs beat Wasps in extra-time and director of rugby Rob Baxter says it will be interesting to see how his players cope as champions.

“Some guys, I have no doubt, will love being champions and will deal with it really well, other guys may struggle, some guys will evolve with it – it’s us managing that balance that will be the most interesting thing this season,” Baxter told BBC Radio Devon.

“I think some guys have probably had their toughest, and most physical, pre-season – they’ve pushed themselves to new physical limits and I’m really pleased with that.

“Now we have to convert that into the performance on a matchday – that is then largely mental.

“We’re certainly not afraid about talking about staying as the champions and trying to do the double, but I think what we learnt last season is there’s a way you do it, and actually that’s the day-by-day grind, taking it into your own hands and making it about you.”

Exeter’s Gareth Steenson kicked the winning penalty in last season’s Premiership final

Fly-half Gareth Steenson, who kicked the winning penalty at Twickenham, added: “We’re very aware now that we’re not going to be everyone’s second favourite team all of a sudden.

“It has been a nice mantle to have for the past seven years – but it’s great for us as a group.”

Exeter’s preparation for the new campaign saw them lose a tight game at Cardiff Blues, but Steenson, 33, said it had helped to re-focus the players.

“It’s probably the best thing that ever happened, because I’d say the past three or four seasons we’ve won every pre-season game and we’ve sort of rolled into seasons – I know last season it was really quite evident that it ended up not being a good thing for us,” he said.

“It sharpens the mind, gets your focus a bit more – maybe gives you that little incentive to say maybe we’re not the finished article, which is a really good thing because no team is the finished article.”

The title challengers

It is hard to look beyond the usual suspects when it comes to Exeter’s main contenders for the title.

European champions Saracens go into the 2017-18 campaign as favourites and it is easy to see why.

Their squad oozes international class – with a core of England players including Maro Itoje, the Vunipola brothers, George Kruis and Owen Farrell – and they will surely be desperate to claim back the title they won in 2015 and 2016.

Leicester are searching for their first Premiership title since 2012-13

Wasps, so cruelly defeated in the closing stages of last season’s final, have lost Australia centre Kurtley Beale, but still have try-scorers all over the pitch.

Their superb form at the Ricoh Arena, which saw them go unbeaten at home in the league last season, will again make them odds-on to finish in the top four.

“There’s a bit of hurt from last year, but I don’t listen to too much exterior noise,” Wasps director or rugby Dai Young told BBC Coventry & Warwickshire.

“Obviously I expect us to be competing again this season. We’ve just got to be a little more accurate.”

Ten-time champions Leicester have recruited well during the summer and will have new head coach Matt O’Connor at the helm for a full season, following his return to Welford Road in March.

Tigers will be seeking a ninth successive season in the top four.

The outsiders

Can anyone else sneak past the top four for the past two seasons – Exeter, Sarries, Wasps and Tigers – and make the semi-finals?

The recent formbook suggests Leicester and Saracens are unlikely to be ousted – the pair have been in the top four for the past eight seasons.

Northampton Saints, title winners in 2013-14, are without world-class France number eight Louis Picamoles, who left after just a season at Franklin’s Gardens, but have enough quality with players including England captain Dylan Hartley and Wales wing George North to mount a challenge.

Bath, runners up three seasons ago, will be desperate to make a return to Twickenham after finishing fifth last year, but they have lost England fly-half George Ford to Leicester.

Sale, Gloucester and Harlequins are once again outsiders, although Steve Diamond’s Sharks have been busy in the transfer market – including the signing of South Africa scrum-half Faf de Klerk.

“We’re excited. We’ve got half a dozen new signings and internationals from around the world and hopefully they can gel with our young lads,” Diamond told BBC North West Tonight.

“As most people know, we’ve got a good stable of lads coming through the academy.

“Faf brings a wealth of experience even though he’s only 25 and we sold him the dream of how we want to play and what we want to do over the next five to 10 years and he’s bought in 100%.”

Jonny May spent eight years at Gloucester

The big summer moves

  • Jonny May (Gloucester – Leicester) – Tigers paid a fee to buy the 27-year-old England wing out of the final year of his deal at Kingsholm.
  • Toby Flood (Toulouse – Newcastle) – Falcons re-signed the fly-half, 31, who has won 60 caps for England.
  • George Ford (Bath – Leicester) – England fly-half, 24, rejoined the club with which he started his career. Freddie Burns has moved in the opposite direction.
  • Liam Williams (Scarlets – Saracens) – Wales and British and Irish Lions back has agreed a three-year deal at Allianz Park.
  • James O’Connor (Toulon – Sale) – The utility-back, 27, described as “world class” by Sale boss Steve Diamond, has won 44 caps for Australia.

The relegation scrap

There is no such thing as a certainty in sport – although Worcester Warriors being involved in a relegation battle in recent years has come close.

Warriors have failed to finish higher than 10th in their past nine Premiership campaigns and have been relegated twice since 2010.

The omens for London Irish supporters are also slightly concerning. In the past five seasons, promoted sides Bristol and London Welsh (twice) have been relegated back to the Championship after only one season in the top flight.

“I’ve had a look at what a few of the pundits have had to say about our chances this season,” Irish director of rugby Nick Kennedy told BBC Radio Berkshire. “I haven’t seen anyone who’s actually given us a chance, everyone I’ve seen has said we’re going to finish 12th.

“The fact is the team that comes up from the Championship usually does struggle, so they’re going on history and also because of the fact we were the worst team in the league last time we were there.

“I understand their point of view and we’re doing everything we can to be a better team than we were last time and doing everything that we can to prove them wrong.”

Newcastle Falcons were seen by many to have overachieved in 2016-17, ending up eighth in the table. An 11th-placed finish or relegation has been the norm for the north-east side in recent years.

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