Finally, the opening weekend of the 2013/14 School Rugby season is upon us, and what a weekend it looks set to be!
There are eight fixtures between Fifteen Rugby featured teams, all of which will count towards the new Daily Mail Trophy. Additionally 23 other fixtures involving our featured teams will be played as well as several others with teams to be added in the coming weeks.
Predictions at this stage of the season are a tricky business given the vast and inevitable changes in personnel from last season, however we shall give it our best shot for our eight featured fixtures this weekend:
Both sides have lost some truly outstanding players from last season, not least their two captains, Charlie Esam for Bedford and Sam Olver for Oundle. In the reverse fixture last year Bedford just edged it, with the hard summer ground suiting their running game and use of the back row forwards out wide.
The loss of Olver at fly half could be decisive for Oundle though, the young fly half (now in the England U20 set up) was clearly integral to their plans last year and it could take a few games for them to get used to playing without him.
Prediction â€“ Bedford
Blundellâ€™s had an up and down year last year as they struggled for consistency, whilst Sherborne had an excellent year with a side that began with little fanfare but ended the year as one of the best in the country.
Despite the likes of the inspirational Tom Edwards having left, Sherborneâ€™s experiences last season should hold them in good stead this year. The rise off Matt Kvesic shows just how good Blundellâ€™s rugby pedigree is though, so it is best not to write them off!
Prediction â€“ Sherborne
Durham were outstanding last year and with the rise of Old Boy Geoff Parling from long term club servant to a key cog in the British and Irish Lions series victory it was a great year to be associated with Durham Rugby. Barnard Castle meanwhile, by their standards, suffered a bit of a disappointing season. Read nothing into that though, Barnard Castle are one of rugbyâ€™s greatest outposts and they will have been putting serious work in to make this a season to remember.
Durham are going to be a top quality side again this season though and with home advantage in the classic opening weekend encounter it is hard to see past them starting off with a win.
Prediction â€“ Durham
Our editor has been doing a spot of pre season training with one of the St Paulâ€™s coaching staff and word is that after an outstanding season last year, St Paulâ€™s are all set to continue that form this year. Haileybury by contrast had a season that was a little below their usual standards, despite the brilliance of fly half Ed Jinks at times.
Despite Haileyburyâ€™s determination to put in a strong performance in this opening game, it would be a real surprise to see this quality St Paulâ€™s side fall short this year and indeed this weekend.
Prediction â€“ St Paulâ€™s
This is a terrifically exciting fixture, the oldest in schoolboy rugby and one between two sides with the potential for excellence this season.
Both Cheltenham and Rugby looked on the cusp of being very good last season and a good start to this could really see either side go on a bit of a roll. Perhaps the key on Saturday will be how much of an influence Rugbyâ€™s fly half Harry Mallinder can have on the game â€“ if he can take control then it will put Cheltenham under considerable pressure, if not then it could easily swing the other way.
Prediction â€“ Rugby
Stowe goes into this fixture already in peak form after dominating the Tynedale Schools Festival at the weekend. If last year was one of the most dominant Stowe sides in recent memory then the early signs are that this could be an even better one.
Stamford though are no mugs, they have a simply outstanding home record and throughout last season they kept churning out victories against schools with an allegedly superior squad.
They will make it very tough for Stowe this weekend, tougher than most expect, however it would still be a surprise to see Stowe fail to register a victory in this first game of the season.
Prediction â€“ Stowe
Warwick surprised perhaps even themselves last year by going all the way to the Daily Mail Cup Semi Final (as it was then), however it should not really have been a surprise for what they might have lacked in outright quality they more than made up for in pure heart, determination and teamwork â€“ vital rugby qualities. They will undoubtedly have the same qualities this year, with the added experience of those L6th players who were in that Semi Final side last year.
Millfield, as ever were outstanding last year and it would be foolhardy to assume that they will be anything but that this season too. However it is worth adding a cautionary note, only three regular starters from the 2012/13 side remain so they will begin the season a little short on 1st XV experience. It should not make a difference, and they ought to win this weekend but it is worth watching how quickly the new boys get up to speed (of course they might well already be up to speed).
Prediction â€“ Millfield
Another bumper fixture in a weekend of bumper fixtures, this is potentially one of the most interesting fixtures of the opening weekend.
Wellington were brilliant last year but they have lost a lot of very talented players, several remain but how they cope with that loss will determine the success of their season.
RGS had a good season last year, not in the Wellington class but not a million miles away. This year there is much expected of them and with the added focus on the school following the emergence of their Old Boy Christian Wade last season, they will be keen to deliver on those expectations.
Wellington still have bags of talent though, and with a big opening weekend crowd expected on Bigside, they are bound to be in inspired form.
Prediction â€“ Wellington
As we have said though, at this stage of the season predictions are not an easy task â€“ hence the slightly abstract nature of our comments â€“ and the likelihood is that many will defy our predictions and the predictions of others.
Other fixtures involving our featured sides this weekend are:
Ampleforth v Bradford Grammar School
Kirkham Grammar School v Ellesmere College
RGS Newcastle v George Watsonâ€™s
Kingâ€™s Macclesfield v QEGS Wakefield (Daily Mail Trophy)
Bromsgrove v Denstone College (Daily Mail Trophy)
Magdalen College v Malvern College
Oakham v Loughborough Grammar School (Daily Mail Trophy)
Solihull v Old Swinford Hospital (Daily Mail Trophy)
Bloxham v St Edwardâ€™s Oxford
The Perse v Uppingham
Dulwich College v Langley Park
Eton College v Mill Hill
St Johnâ€™s Leatherhead v Hampton (Daily Mail Trophy)
Morgan Ward v Harrow
Hurstpierpoint v John Fisher (Daily Mail Trophy)
Kingâ€™s Canterbury v Caterham
Reedâ€™s v Glynn
Christâ€™s Hospital v Sevenoaks
Epsom College v Tonbridge (Daily Mail Trophy)
Pateâ€™s Grammar School v Clifton College (Daily Mail Trophy)
Prior Park v Colstonâ€™s
Marlborough v Monmouth (Daily Mail Trophy)
Brighton College v Cranleigh (Daily Mail Trophy)
Sedbergh v Myerscough
It certainly looks likely to be an exciting start to the season, one that ought to give us all a good many clues as to how the rest of the season will shape up.
Thereâ€™s also still time to enter our competition for the opening weekend of the season â€“ all you have to do is correctly predict the four fixtures in the competition, any entry that correctly predicts all four games will win a t-shirt.
Enjoy the opening weekend, and good luck!Â