After all of the talking it is now, finally, time for the 2013/14 Aviva Premiership to begin. Much has changed since the end of last season but one thing remains the same â€“ the excitement ahead of the first game of your clubs season.
With the new scrummaging laws & the enforcing of the old scrum laws there are bound to be a few talking points in that area in the opening weekend. One of the greatest worries is that with referees under instruction to be hot on infringements, they may take a lot of criticism and soon back off. We must not allow this to happen â€“ it is only through being rigorous in their punishment of infringements at the scrum that these infringements will begin to subside.
New signings will of course be a huge talking point, George North at Northampton Saints perhaps more than anyone. It will certainly be a joy to witness the Lions hero in action every week.
There is also the possible emergence of Englandâ€™s victorious JWC squad; there has been a lot of clamour of the summer for them to see some game time in the Premiership this season. It looks as though some of those wishes may come true; young Anthony Watson starts at full back for Bath tomorrow.
There is also the return of Dean Richards to Premiership rugby, after moving to Newcastle last year, following his ban for his role in the Bloodgate scandal, Richards led the Falcons to promotion. Having done the same with Harlequins after their relegation a few years ago, many are predicting a successful season for Newcastle this season; fans of rugby in the North East will certainly hope so.
So to our predictions for the opening weekend of the season â€“ a notoriously unpredictable week!
Friday, 19.45 â€“ Newcastle Falcons v Bath
There is a huge amount of optimism in the North East about Newcastleâ€™s chances this year. They have recruited well, though the loss of Jimmy Gopperth is a blow, and in Dean Richards they have one of the best Directorâ€™s of Rugby in the business.
Bath has also recruited well and is another side whose chances have been talked up in the off-season. They certainly have one of the youngest and most exciting backlineâ€™s in the Aviva Premiership, the question of course is how the youth copes when the pressure comes on.
This is a fixture that could come down to conditions, on a dry pitch in still conditions you would expect the Bath backline to run riot, however a wet and wild Kingston Park against what is almost certainly going to be a very tough Newcastle side (this is no stereotype, Dean Richards is their coach!) could be a very different prospect. Assuming a relatively normal conditions though a bath win is the most likely result, provided their pack can get on top of the Falcons forwards.
Prediction â€“ Bath
Saturday, 14.00 â€“ London Irish v Saracens (Double Header Part One)
This was a disaster fixture last year for London Irish, a rampant Saracens side waltzed past them 40-3.
Whilst a scoreline of that sort seems unlikely this year, the end product is likely to be the same â€“ a Saracens win.
Saracens again look to be one of the strongest sides in the league, and with the addition of Billy Vunipola and James Johnstone they appear to have fixed their biggest weakness last year, physicality. Irish meanwhile have lost a lot of talented players and while they may have a more settled staff and committed group of players this looks like it could be a very long and very difficult season for the Exiles.
Prediction â€“ Saracens
Saturday, 15.00 â€“ Gloucester v Sale Sharks
Hard to look beyond Gloucester for this one, the Cherry & Whites have one of the most exciting sets of backs in the league and the addition of Matt Kvesic in the back row adds another considerable string to their bow. Suspicions of a slight weakness up front still linger though.
Sale endured a torrid time last year but from the outside at least, they do appear to be quite settled this year â€“ not something that could have been said at any point last year. Gloucester away is a pretty tough way to start the season though and a Sale victory would be a surprise.
Prediction â€“ Gloucester
Saturday, 15.00 â€“ Northampton Saints v Exeter Chiefs
Two of the sides we are most excited about seeing this season. The signing of George North by Northampton is one of the most exciting in recent Premiership history, while for Exeter it is surely just a matter of time before they unleash their group of talented youngsters.
The worry for Saints is the loss of Soane Tongaâ€™uiha and Brian Mujati, they were the basis of almost everything that was good about the Northampton game in the past couple of years and how they cope without hem will be key to whether Saints are a top four team or European and Premiership title challengers. Signing Alex Corbisiero will help, but an opening game against this tough Exeter side is not the fixture one would chose to find out if he is enough.
Prediction â€“ Northampton Saints
Saturday, 16.00 â€“ London Wasps v Harlequins (Double Header Part Two)
This was perhaps the game of the season last year, with Harlequins just nicking a dramatic game 42-40. A repeat of that match seems highly unlikely but it does have all of the ingredients for another exciting one, both sides like to play as much rugby as possible and on a warm day that could spell plenty of tries.
Quins have received a lot of negative predictions in the post season, some justified and some less so, but what really needs work is the implementation of a plan B. Their offloading and quick handling Plan A is brilliant when it works but when defences shut out that option they can struggle to find another way to win.
Wasps are still steadily building after their massive post Dallaglio era slump, they still have a bit of a soft spot up front and are inconsistent but the shoots of recovery are definitely evident. The loss of Billy Vunipola is less than ideal, however they still possess plenty of talent across the park.
On the early season grounds though Harlequins Plan A should be at its most effective and it would be a surprise to see them falter against Wasps. It is by no means a forgone conclusion though, and in Christian Wade and Tom Varndell Wasps have two of the most potent finishers in the league, either could turn the game in an instant.
Prediction â€“ Harlequins
Sunday, 15.00 â€“ Leicester Tigers v Worcester Warriors
In many ways it might be best if Leicester dominate the scrum on Sunday, it would certainly stop Richard Cockerill from moaning about referees enforcing the laws properly this season and allow everyone else to focus on supporting what are clearly sensible and well-intentioned initiatives.
Scrummaging aside though, Tigers once again look like a very strong side and will almost certainly be challenging at the top of the league again this season. Worcester by contrast have lost key players in Kvesic and Andy Goode, however Dean Ryan will certainly inject some steel into the side so they will be no pushovers.
That said, Tigers ought to win this one without too much bother, Matt Tait will be worth keeping an eye on too, his performances last year earned him a place in the Saxons squad and having made the full back position at Leicester his own he may go from strength to strength.
Â Prediction â€“ Leicester Tigers
It ought to be an exciting start to the season, with the Double Header in particular an event that always produces thrilling games and excitable crowds. Perhaps the most exciting fixture though, in our opinion, is Newcastle v Bath. There are relatively high expectations of both sides this season, particularly given their positions last year, so it will be interesting to see how they perform tomorrow.
What do you think of our predictions, who do you see winning this weekend and who are you most looking forward to watching?