With the Aviva Premiership set to kick-off this Friday here are the 10 things to expect this season.
The word of bod
From rugby legend to television pundit in a single summer: will the recently retired Brian O’Driscoll’s dry wit translate into listenable opinion? The great Irish centre begins co-presenting BT Sport’s European coverage with Leinster v Wasps in October. And if you liked Rugby Tonight on Wednesday nights, take note that it is now scheduled on Monday nights.
Welsh All Black
Former All Black scrum-half Piri Weepu is one of 26 signings at newly promoted London Welsh. A cult figure at home, Weepu has recovered from a minor stroke earlier this year. “A funny little fella,” is how the Exiles’ coach, Justin Burnell, describes him.
All change on TV
New batteries may be needed in your remote control. The Pro 12 lays claim to “the broadest range of broadcast options in the world” but the headline act is Sky showing the Celtic/Italian league for the first time – including, praise be, Saturday-afternoon kick-offs.
Missing in action
Among a few top faces missing on day one, Munster captain Peter O’Mahony and Edinburgh’s outstanding centre Matt Scott are both recovering from shoulder surgery. England’s Owen Farrell, Dan Cole and Mako Vunipola are others in the recovery room, while the retirement of Jonny Wilkinson, Mike Tindall and Iain Balshaw has severed the last playing link with England’s 2003 World Cup team.
On paper, Adam Jones’s transfer from Ospreys to Cardiff Blues will give the Blues a mighty front row, including Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees. The worry is they are all the wrong side of 30 and it is more than five years since they toured together for the Lions.
All quiet on the political front? Doubt it. There’s peace in Wales, possibly, but European club rugby is still settling into its new governance set-up, at the same time as England’s clubs are tip-toeing towards a new long-term contract for Test-player release.
It’s a long time since Newcastle’s 1998 Premiership title, but opponents rarely relish a trip to wet and windyKingston Park. Maybe that will change now the Falcons have ripped up their grass pitch for an artificial surface. It should be quicker and more predictable.
Strengths and weaknesses
Talking up the Premiership’s competitive nature, league chairman Quentin Smith promised: “No team can risk putting out a weakened team.” A brave pledge in a long season.
Step forward please
Test rugby will return with a bang in November when England host the All Blacks and Wales face Australia. Now is the time for Freddie Burns and Marland Yarde, newly arrived at Leicester and Harlequins respectively, to show their class. Wasps wing Christian Wade has a chance too, if he hits top form quickly.
My top tips
Tips for the top: in the Pro 12, Glasgow have finished successively fourth, third and second in the past three seasons but Munster may be resurgent. The Premiership champions, Northampton, have kept a settled squad, while Saracens’ strength in depth is daunting. Bath, with a young squad, and Gloucester, with a huge coaching overhaul, crave an overdue revival.