This weekend sees the return of the Aviva Premiership with six intriguing matches. Harlequins won their first Premiership crown in May this year, beating Leicester in an absorbing final just across the road from their normal stadium at a packed Twickenham.
It was the culmination of a remarkable journey for Harlequins, having been through relegation and the blood gate saga that rocked the club on the pitch as well as off, in the last eight years. Harlequins were worthy winners, and after finishing the regular season on top, they fully deserved their victory in the final.
The question is will Harlequins be able to repeat their success of last year, as the chasing pack of Saracens, Leicester, Northampton looked to have all strengthen their squads over the summer?
Wasps v Harlequins
Bet365 Odds: 4/9 Harlequins, 9/5 Wasps, 20/1 Draw.
The defending champions take on Wasps in the first of the traditional season opening Twickenham double header. Wasps will be hoping for a far better season, after only missing out on relegation on the last day of last season. They do at least have former players James Haskell and Tom Palmer back, as well as new aditions, Ashley Johnson and Andrea Masi. Harlequins have opted for consistency and have an almost an unchanchanged squad and who would blame them.
They won both fixtures last season against their London rivals and once again they should be too strong with Nick Evans pulling the strings at fly-half.
Verdict: Quins by 8
Saracens v London Irish
Bet365 Odds: 2/7 Saracens, 11/4 London Irish, 22/1 Draw.
The second instalment of the London double header sees Saracens, who are in the process of moving ground, take on a new look London Irish. Saracens will be at their new ground Allianz Park by early 2013, and with Chris Ashton and South Africa’s Hargreaves and Fenton-Wells in their squad, they may well go one better than their semi-final finish last season. The key for Sarries will be how Owen Farell is able to develop, especially as he may well be given more and more game time by the national side.
London Irish have replaced coach Toby Booth with former England attack coach Brian Smith, in what has been a big off season for the Reading-based club. They have lost notable players such as Delon Armitage, Adam Thompstone, Daniel Bowden, Paul Hodgson, Nick Kennedy and Shontayne Hape. To lose this many key players in one off season is huge for any club, and they will certainly take time to recover. Irish have however brought in Shane Geraghty, Tomas O’Leary and George Skivington. In the last few days their preparations have taken a huge blow as Joe Ansbro suffered a broken neck in their last pre-season match.
Saracens will be far more efficient and fluid as Irish have so many new faces, and will surely not be mentally at 100% after the awful news about Ansbro.
Verdict: Saracens to win by 12
Gloucester v Northampton
Bet365 Odds: 8/15 Gloucester, 6/4 Northampton, 18/1 Draw.
Northampton were dreadfully unlucky not to make the final last year, as they imploded in the last five minutes of their semi-final against eventual champions Quins. Gloucester on the other hand had so much promise and talent and yet ultimately delivered nothing.
Gloucester have probably made the best signings out of any club in the Premiership over the summer by bringing in Jimmy Cowan, Ben Morgan and Billy Twelvetrees. Under new coach Nigel Davies the Shed may finally have a season to make some noise about, and this first round encounter is vitally important for them to establish themselves.
Northampton have lost Chris Ashton and both their centres Downey and Clarke from last season, and have also terminated hooker Brett Sharman’s contract over an alleged racist Tweet. They have brought in Dom Waldouck, Kevin Pisi and Luther Burell, but after the achivements of recent years, this year may not quite be the same for Saints.
Verdict: Gloucester to win by 4
Exeter v Sale
Bet365 Odds: 8/13 Exeter, 13/10 Sharks, 18/1 Draw.
Exeter, who were the surprise package of last season start their new campaign against over- achieving Sale. Exeter proved last year that they are no flukes, and with Heineken Cup rugby now guaranteed they can concentrate on trying to break into the top four. Top six may be more realistic. Exeter have however bought in Australian Dean Mumm, but he is the only notable signing, and one imagines that he may not be enough.
Sale have had a complete re-shuffle over the summer, they have moved to a new stadium, appointed a new coach in former player Bryan Redpath and signed a host of new players. Richie Gray, Danny Cipriani and Cameron Shepheard have been brought in and their only notable departure was England prop Andrew Sheridan. Sale are most definitely on the up, and with significant work going on behind the scenes, the players need to guarantee Heineken Cup rugby every season.
Exeter have a very proud home record at Sandy Park, and against a new look Sale outfit, they should be too strong.
Verdict: Exeter to win by 8
Worcester v Bath
Bet365 Odds: 8/15 Bath, 6/4 Worcester, 18/1 Draw.
Worcester and Bath were both major disappointments last season after finishing in the bottom half. Worcester may have been content with avoiding relegation after coming up the season before, but with the strength of squad they possess they should be more ambitious. They have improved their backline with the additions of David Lemi, Nikki Walker, Paul Hodgson and Josh Matavesi but in truth they are likely to improve on their tenth place finish from last season.
Bath are seeing this season as a new beginning as the club’s coaching department has been revamped. Sir Ian McGeechen has left after a poor two years and in has come Gary Gold, Toby Booth and Mike Ford – what a combination that is. Bath have added Rod Webber, Dom Day, Paul James and Horacio Agulla to their squad in an attempt to beef up a sometimes mundane looking pack. They need to start well this year, and with so much happening off the field, the players need to give their rich owner, Bruce Craig reason to think their state of the art Farleigh House training centre is worth it.
Bath have looked exceptional in pre-season and look far too good for Worcester on paper as well.
Verdict: Bath to win by 9
London Welsh v Leicester
Bet365 Odds: 1/9 Leicester, 11/2 London Welsh, 33/1 Draw.
Newly promoted London Welsh have the unenviable task of starting their Premiership campaign against the most experienced side in English rugby, and last season’s beaten finalists.
Despite reaching the final last year, second place is not good enough for Leicester, who have added Adam Thompstone, Dan Bowden, Miles Benjamin and Verenki Goneva to an already impressive looking squad. Without a world cup this year to disrupt their preparations Leicester should be the team to beat.
London Welsh only found out that they had reached the Premiership over a month ago, after a number of court cases. If they are to survive more than one season in the top flight they will do amazingly well, and should take heart from Exeter. Welsh have added experienced players Dan Browne, Sonny Parker, Neil Briggs and Tom Arscott, but fellow new signing Gavin Henson looks like to be out for the first month at least with a head injury.
Despite wanting to show their worth in the Premiership, they are up against the favourites in a hugely tough encounter. London Welsh should just be happy to put in a performance, and the key will be not to be overawed by their illustrious opponents.
Verdict: Leicester to win by 14