A compelling battlefield blighted by familiar groans

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The Independent Online

New season, new row. Not specifically about Sir Clive Woodward or Lawrence Dallaglio or any of the major England issues that have been thrown up in the course of six extraordinary days leading into the Premiership campaign, but linked all the same. Almost to a man, the top-flight directors of rugby and head coaches are apoplectic, to put it mildly, at the restrictions imposed on their leading players in respect of this weekend's first round of matches. If they were any more angry, they would be in straitjackets.

Today, before an estimated 50,000 audience at Twickenham, the four London-based teams - Harlequins, Saracens, London Irish and the champions Wasps - will usher in nine months of thud and blunder with a couple of local derbies. Dallaglio plans to play the full 80 minutes for Wasps, but only because he is now an ex-international and not subject to the constraints of the Elite Player Scheme, which prevent those who toured the Antipodes last summer from putting in a proper day's work.

The likes of Joe Worsley, Josh Lewsey and Saracens' Richard Hill are restricted to 40 minutes of activity under the EPS agreement - the very agreement Woodward ripped into with such valedictory venom yesterday. The result? A dog's breakfast of a showpiece, complete with marrowbone jelly. It is perfectly reasonable to argue that the Worsleys and Lewseys cannot play every weekend, but there is something profoundly odd about a system that allows England personnel to cram in as many pre-season friendlies as they wish and commit themselves to a full-blooded Community Shield-type fixture against Llanelli at Stradey Park, but not give it the works in front of a big crowd paying top-dollar ticket prices.

London's finest are not alone in this. Bath do not like the fact that Olly Barkley, Mike Tindall and Steve Borthwick cannot make a full contribution at Northampton this afternoon, while Leicester are less than jubilant at having to manacle their iron prop, Julian White, to the bench. At least Jonny Wilkinson is around. Worcester, finally promoted last season after years of near-miss frustration, have reported a sell-out for the first Premiership match at Sixways, and Wilkinson's return to competitive activity after almost nine months of recuperation from neck surgery is one of the principal reasons.

English rugby remains a battlefield, with opposing forces pulling the poor bloody infantry - the top 60 or 70 players - this way and that. Yet the professional club game has never been healthier. Season ticket sales are up by 19 per cent across the board. Sale, bedevilled by their tiny support base for many years, are celebrating a 34 per cent rise; Leeds, playing their rugby in the union wasteland of Yorkshire, report an increase of 33 per cent. Wasps? Up by 31 per cent. Quins? Up by 29 per cent. Even Leicester, the best supported club in the country, have managed an increase - and they had more than 12,000 season ticket holders already.

If this weekend's games meet expectations, more season tickets will be sold in the next few days. Northampton-Bath is a beauty - Franklin's Gardens will be all but full to witness the unveiling of Alan Solomons' new-look, South African-dominated Saints side. There will be fun and games at Sale too, for Leicester are tomorrow's visitors. There is something dark and menacing in the relationship between the clubs - basically, they cannot stand the sight of each other - and now that Philippe Saint-Andre, the new director of rugby at Sale, has added some bulk to the pack in the shape of Trevor Woodman and the two French Sebastiens, Bruno and Chabal, they are equipped to go juggernaut to juggernaut with the Midlanders.

Leicester have injury problems, all of them concentrated in the back-row area. Lewis Moody has been hors de combat for months now, but the Tigers did not bargain for the rash of calamities affecting half a dozen more loose forwards. Martin Corry, Neil Back, Will Johnson, Henry Tuilagi, Brett Deacon and Will Skinner are all suffering in one way or another, and it is far from clear who will start at Edgeley Park.

Interestingly - and rather worryingly from the point of view of Andy Robinson, the acting head coach of the Test team - Sale are running Bruno at hooker ahead of Andy Titterrell, and keeping the occasionally electrifying and always combative Chris Jones among the replacements. Robinson is no stranger to the art of the public fume, and Titterrell's situation will have the smoke billowing from the West Countryman's ears. Not that Saint-Andre will care. During his previous life as head man at Gloucester, he made a point of picking on form rather than nationality.

Now that Worcester have finally made it into the big boys' playground, they will either learn fast or be bullied into oblivion. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that they will beat Newcastle tomorrow, not only because Premiership newcomers have a habit of making a decent fist of their first game, but because Rob Andrew is not quite sure of the Geordies' optimum starting line-up. The Tongan wing Epi Taione, the Samoan No 8 Semo Sititi, the former England hooker Andy Long and the gifted play-maker David Walder are all on the bench, and it is a fair bet that all four will feature in the run-on team by the time the Heineken Cup comes knocking in late October.

If Worcester do not hit the ground sprinting, they will be made to pay. In the first half-dozen matches, they host two sides who rarely travel well - Newcastle and Harlequins - and visit Saracens and Leeds, both of whom they must target if they are to remain in the Premiership for a second season. They have already shown a degree of intent by sacking Tom Bowman, the former Wallaby lock, for failing to meet conditioning standards. While it is always amusing to hear an English team tell a Wallaby that he is not fit enough, Bowman will have the last laugh if the so-called "Warriors" are bottom at Christmas.



Head coach John Connolly Captain Jonathan Humphreys

Few people saw Bath coming last season, despite the fact the West Countrymen were armed with a troll-like pack so ugly that they should have been spotted a mile off. The forwards, superb then and every bit as good now, will have the beating of most units, especially if Andy Beattie continues his rapid progress on the blindside flank. Now they have bought themselves a Super 12-style cutting edge by luring Joe Maddock and Frikkie Welsh across the equator, they should be better balanced. On the downside, the element of surprise has gone.

Warm welcomes Christian Loader (Rotherham), Joe Maddock (Canterbury, NZ), Nick Walshe (Sale), Frikkie Welsh (Blue Bulls, SA).

Fond farewells Iain Balshaw (Leeds), Mike Catt (London Irish), Scott Gray (Borders), Kevin Maggs (Ulster), Wylie Human (Northampton), Ross Blake (Bristol Shoguns), Joe Mbu (Harlequins).

Prospects A top-five finish.


Director of rugby Nigel Melville Captain Jake Boer

Traditionally, a chap knows what to expect from Gloucester - a good kicking. The Cherry and Whites have a mysterious air about them. Their front-row signings - or in the case of Olivier Azam, re-signing - suggest they have not abandoned their roots, but the big questions surround the glitterati in the backs. Mercurial? You could say. If McRae, Paul, Simpson-Daniel, Garvey and Goodridge have their buttons pressed, the result could be sensational. But again, they could flatter to deceive.

Warm welcomes Olivier Azam (Montferrand), Adam Balding (Leicester), Christo Bezuidenhout (Mpumalanga, SA), Nathan Mauger (Canterbury, NZ), Gary Powell (Leeds), James Parkes (Saracens), James Bailey (Bristol Shoguns), Terry Sigley (Pertemps Bees).

Fond farewells Andy Deacon (retired), Thinus Delport (Worcester), Junior Paramore (Bedford), Robert Todd (Sale), Trevor Woodman (Sale), Rodrigo Roncero (Stade Francais), Paul Johnstone (released), Steve Brotherstone (retired).

Prospects Top half for sure, and possibly top of the pile.


Director of rugby Mark Evans Captain Andre Vos

This season's Premiership is positively packed with dark horses, and Quins are darker than most. Mark Evans, a blue-collar Saracen by upbringing, has introduced a new set of values to this swankiest corner of the English top flight, and the Londoners now work as hard as anyone. They recruited intelligently, and if they get the best from Jeremy Staunton, Will Greenwood will have some company in the creativity department. People once laughed at the idea of Fortress Stoop, but they should not lose many at home this term.

Warm welcomes Maurice Fitzgerald (Biarritz), Dafydd James (Celtic Warriors), Maama Molitika (Celtic Warriors), Steven So'oialo (Orrell), Jeremy Staunton (Munster), Joe Mbu (Bath).

Fond farewells Chris Bell (Leeds), Scott Bemand (Leicester), Paul Burke (Munster), Bill Davison (retired), Jason Leonard (retired), Pat Sanderson (Worcester), Josh Taumalolo (Sale Sharks), Ben Willis (Beziers), Laurent Gomez (Lyon).

Prospects The very embodiment of the word "seventh".


Director of rugby Phil Davies Captain Tom Palmer

Theoretically, the close partnership with the Leeds Rhinos rugby league set-up should ensure Phil Davies's side are fitter and more bloody-minded than the majority of their rivals. Last season's miserable return of seven victories from 22 outings did not reflect their advantage in conditioning, but the arrivals of Richard Parks and Pierre Uys should lend some zip to their back row. Tim Stimpson's goal-kicking will be significant, but they look short of class at half-back.

Warm welcomes Iain Balshaw (Bath), Chris Bell (Harlequins), Richard Parks (Celtic Warriors), Tim Stimpson (Perpiignan), Pierre Uys (Western Province, SA), Jon Dunbar (Newcastle), Pierre Uys (Stormers, NZ), Rayno Gerber (Free State, SA), Chris Murphy (Pau), Mark McMillan (Glasgow).

Fond farewells Tristan Davies (Cardiff Blues), Aaron Persico (Agen), Gary Powell (Gloucester), Dan Scarbrough (Saracens), Clive Stuart-Smith (Worcester), Matt Salter (Bristol), Tristan Davies (Cardiff Blues).

Prospects Rather less than great, but probably not terminal.


Head coach John Wells Captain Martin Johnson

Stephen Jones, the Llanelli outside-half, would have been the making of the Tigers, but he chose Montferrand instead. With Jones on board, Leicester would have been cast-iron favourites for the title; without him, their Achilles' heel remains exposed. They played some high-class rugby towards the end of last season, when Jaco van der Westhuyzen boosted the efforts of Martin Johnson's forwards. Can they scale the same heights without a match-winner at No 10?

Warm welcomes Scott Bemand (Harlequins), Seru Rabeni (Otago, NZ), Ephraim Taukafa (Northern Suburbs, Aus).

Fond farewells Adam Balding (Gloucester), Glenn Gelderbloom (Plymouth Albion), Tom Tierney (Connacht), Fereti Tuilagi (Cardiff Blues), Jaco van der Westhuyzen (NEC, Japan), Richard Cockerill (Montferrand), James Richards (Newport Gwent Dragons), Ramiro Pez (released), Ricky Nebbett (released), Andrew Powell (released), Dorian West (retired), Jamie Hamilton (retired).

Prospects Certain top-enders, but one arrow short of a full quiver.


Head coach Gary Gold Captain Ryan Strudwick

London Irish know how to keep the ball - if they win possession from the kick-off at Twickenham this weekend, they may not relinquish it until mid-February. Their problem has been working out how to use what they have, which is where the likes of Mike Catt and Scott Staniforth come in. The Exiles have set themselves a minimum target of European qualification, which may be a little on the optimistic side. There again, their academy set-up is particularly strong and they are as likely as anyone to conjure a couple of bright young things from thin air.

Warm welcomes Mike Catt (Bath), Paul Hodgson (Bristol), Peter Poulos (NTT Docomo, Japan), Robbie Russell (Saracens), Scott Staniforth (NWS Waratahs, Aus), Tony Roques (Saracens), Rodd Penney (Orrell), Richard Skuse (Bristol).

Fond farewells Naka Drotske (Staines), Nick Greenstock (Staines), Rob Hoadley (Wasps), Chris Sheasby (Staines), Ed Thrower (Wasps).

Prospects The bottom end of the mid-table dogfight.


Director of rugby Rob Andrew Co-captains Ian Peel, Jonny Wilkinson

How's this for a shock? Jonny Wilkinson, seemingly credited by a clear majority of media outlets with inventing English rugby in the way William Webb Ellis invented the sport itself, has been joined at Newcastle by two players capable of wielding the same level of influence. Colin Charvis can be an awkward cuss, but at his best he plays some terrific stuff. Matthew Burke, not awkward at all, is even better, as befits a World Cup-winning Wallaby. Newcastle are patently under-powered in the front five, but the new signings have an inspirational look about them.

Warm welcomes Matthew Burke (NSW Waratahs, Aus), Colin Charvis (Tarbes), Andy Long (Rotherham), Semo Sititi (Borders), Mike McCarthy (Connacht), Luke Gross (Rotherham).

Fond farewells Mark Andrews (retired), Garath Archer (retired), Warren Britz (Natal, SA), Jon Dunbar (Leeds), Hugh Vyvyan (Saracens), Ben Gollings (Worcester), Phil Godman (Edinburgh).

Prospects A solid sixth, possibly better.


Head coach Alan Solomons Captain Corne Krige

Life in Little Johannesburg should be interesting, to say the least. Alan Solomons presided over some ruthless rugby during his time with Ulster, and by bringing in Robbie Kempson and Corne Krige, the South African coach has no intention of allowing Northampton to tip-toe through the tulips this term. The Saints played with precious little adventure under Wayne Smith, so they are unlikely to push back the boundaries under Solomons, but they will be physical.

Warm welcomes Selborne Boome (Western Province, SA), Robbie Kempson (Ulster), Corne Krige (Western Province, SA), Marc Stcherbina (Biarritz), John Rudd (Wasps), Wylie Human (Bath), Damien Browne (Connacht), Joe Ross (Bedford), Johan van Wyk (Border Bulldogs, South Africa), Ben Russell (Saracens).

Fond farewells Nick Beal (retired), Mark Connors (Sanyo, Japan), John Leslie (Otago, NZ), John Phillips (Bedford), Matthew Dawson (Wasps), James Brookes (Wasps), Tevita Taumoepeau (Bourgoin).

Prospects They will need time to settle. Anywhere between fifth and eighth.


Director of rugby Philippe Saint-Andre Captain Jason Robinson

Once upon a time, Sale was a local club. Now, the whole world comes knocking. The backbone of last season, from coach Jim Mallinder to half the pack and a third of the back-line, have disappeared; in their stead, we see Tongans and Argentinians and Frenchmen and the odd chunk of Cornish granite. The forward unit will be among the most powerful in the Premiership, the backs remain state-of-the-art. It could go belly-up, of course, Philippe Saint-Andre usually gets results.

Warm welcomes Sebastien Chabal (Bourgoin), Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe (Castres), Sililo Martens (Celtic Warriors), Trevor Woodman (Gloucester), Robert Todd (Gloucester), Sebastien Bruno (Beziers), Josh Taumalolo (Harlequins), John Payne (Tonga).

Fond farewells Iain Fullarton (Saracens), Dan Harris (Saracens), Nick Walshe (Bath), Kevin Yates (Saracens), Alex Sanderson (Saracens), Vaughan Going (Beziers).

Prospects If the lid stays on the saucepan, a serious third.


Head coach Rod Kafer Captain Hugh Vyvyan

All change at Vicarage Road? There's a shock. The official list shows 15 newcomers replacing 15 departees, more or less par for the course. But this season's signings feature plenty of hardened professionals - Hugh Vyvyan, Alex Sanderson, Dan Scarbrough - and fewer southern hemisphere pensioners than usual. Next year will be more productive.

Warm welcomes Dan Scarbrough (Leeds), Hugh Vyvyan (Newcastle), Mark Bartholomuesz (ACT Brumbies), Glen Jackson (Waikato Chiefs), Moses Rauluni (Brisbane Easts), Alex Sanderson, Iain Fullarton, Matt Cairns, Kevin Yates, Dan Harris, Andy Kyriacou, Joe Bedford (all Sale Sharks), Nick Lloyd (Rotherham), Pila Fifita (North Otago), Tevita Vaikona (Bradford Bulls RL).

Fond farewells Robbie Russell (London Irish), James Parkes (Gloucester), Steven Sparks (Worcester), Nathan McAvoy (Salford RL), Adryan Winnan (Tarbes), Ben Russell (Northampton), Tony Roques (London Irish), Darragh O'Mahony, Johnny Marsters, Ryan Peacey, Dan Kirton, Joe Ross, Daniel Legge (all released), Emiliano Bergamaschi (Rosario, Argentina), Craig Yandell (retired).

Prospects Tough for a while. Tenth sounds about right.


Director of rugby Warren Gatland Captain Lawrence Dallaglio

It beggars belief that Wasps will continue in the vein of last May, when their iron defence and priceless opportunism won them a European-domestic double in the space of six days. Yet their recruitment policy, based on quality rather than quantity, has served them well. With the brilliant Johnny O'Connor fit to resume in the back row and Joe Worsley on the edge of world class, they will be a handful. Expect them to win at least one trophy while engaging in their ritual slaughter of the innocents at the Causeway Stadium.

Warm welcomes James Brooks (Northampton), Matt Dawson (Northampton), Henry Nwume (Oxford Univ), Matt Priscott (Waikato, NZ), Rob Hoadley (London Irish), Ed Thrower (London Irish).

Fond farewells Mark Denney (Castres), Kenny Logan (Glasgow), John Rudd (Northampton), Paul Volley (Castres), Shane Roiser (released).

Prospects Obvious challengers on all fronts and potential Premiership finalists.


Director of rugby John Brain Captain Ben Hinshelwood

As Leeds discovered, promoted clubs need to hang on by the skin of their teeth before taking any significant step up the hillside. Worcester are well financed and cleverly coached - how good it is to see Andy Keast back in the Premiership mix - but their recruitment has yet to stop the world dead. Is Ben Gollings as quick as they say? Will Thomas Lombard rediscover the form that once made him the talk of Paris? Worcester need a resounding "yes" to both questions.

Warm welcomes Ben Gollings (Newcastle), Chris Horsman (Celtic Warriors), Thomas Lombard (Stade Francais), Clive Stuart-Smith (Leeds), Thinus Delport (Gloucester), Pat Sanderson (Harlequins), Tom Bowman (New South Wales), Leon Greef (Rotherham), Brad McLeod-Henderson (Rotherham), Steven Sparks (Saracens), Dale Rasmussen (Exeter), Siaosi Vaili (Exeter), Andre van Niekerk (Golden Lions).

Fond farewells Christian Evans (retired), David Officer (retired), Gavin Pfister (Birmingham/Solihull), Werner Swanepoel (retired).

Prospects Probably bottom