(Photo: Action Images via Reuters)
With the 2017/18 Aviva Premiership season well underway, rugby fans are at last able to get their first glimpse of how all the comings and goings of the off-season are affecting their favourite teams.
The season got off to the most dramatic start imaginable with defending champions Exeter losing their opening game to Gloucester in the dying seconds of the match, courtesy of Jason Woodward’s last-minute try. Is this the signal for a season full of the unexpected, or will the usual suspects of Saracens and Wasps be fighting it out when we get to the sharp end in May?
Wasps for the title?
On paper, Wasps certainly look like the team to beat this year; but how many seasons have opened with experts saying just that? The truth is that it is ten years since they were crowned champions, when they beat Leicester Tigers 26-16 in front of a sell-out crowd at Twickenham in 2008.
However, many think that this is the year for them to make good on all their promise. South African centre Juan de Jongh could prove to be a very shrewd signing, particularly when the club falls prey to the inevitable international call-ups later in the year.
Two games in, they have certainly started as they mean to go on, with comfortable wins over Sale and Worcester to ease them into the season. Of course, the true challenges are yet to come.
The view from the bookies
If you want to get a good and unbiased idea of how things are likely to go in the world of sport, the best person to ask is a bookmaker. In the current age where online sports betting is such a popular pastime for everyone from professional gamblers to casual fans, it is always worth having a glance through some of the best UK betting sites to see which way they think the wind is blowing. What are their early thoughts on who will be fighting for the top spot by the end of the season?
The general consensus echoes what we said earlier about Wasps and Saracens being the teams to beat this year. However, the bookmakers are unanimous in making The Men in Black favourites to get back to winning ways. They have made the playoffs every year since the 2009/10 season, and those within the game see them as the team to beat – but are the bookmakers getting caught up in the hype?
Outside the top two, defending champions Exeter are being offered at 4/1 to retain the title, while many might see Leicester as a tempting outside shot, with some sites offering 16/1.
Are Saracens really that good?
With the top bookmakers offering even money or thereabouts on Saracens to lift the trophy, the question is whether they are really that good. They have the pedigree, and in Liam Williams, they have arguably the most feared player in world rugby. On the other hand, they will be hit by England call-ups, and last year, the strain of seeking glory in both the League and the Champions Cup took its toll.
That 31-21 defeat by Bath proved that they are not infallible, and all things considered, we stick by our contention that Wasps are the team to beat this year.
If Saracens and Wasps are seen by most as next to a foregone conclusion for the playoffs, the more intriguing question might be who will join them for the remaining playoff spots?
We have already mentioned Exeter and Leicester, and there is no doubt that they will be in the hunt, but don’t discount Bath. They narrowly missed out on a playoff berth last season, finishing “best of the rest” in fifth, and the addition of Freddie Burns from Leicester could make all the difference.
Harlequins are another team certain to be there or thereabouts, and they looked strong in their recent win against Gloucester. The problem with the Quins is the perennial issue of England call-ups. No team seems to suffer more, and they need to develop that strength in depth to be seen as genuine contenders.
Watch and win
There is no doubt that the season will go through many twists and turns before things come to a head in May. As the campaign progresses, keep an eye on those bookmakers’ odds. Who knows, if you decide to place a small wager yourself, you might end up a winner alongside your favourite team.
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