The last time George Ford played a serious game, the European Challenge Cup final in May, the young Bath outside-half performed beautifully in the first half before suffering an ugly slump in the second. It was precisely the kind of drop-off under pressure that has scarred his senior career to date and could undermine his claim on the England No 10 shirt.
Saturday afternoon’s contest with another Test contender, Danny Cipriani, will tell us much about the state of play on the red-rose playmaking front. Undeniably gifted, Ford has made a sorry habit of finishing second to his direct opponent at important moments. Both Cipriani and Freddie Burns lorded it over him last season and if something similar happens again today, questions will be asked.
Sale are capable of doing a job on the West Countrymen, but they will need their new signings – the Italian full-back Luke McLean, the Scotland scrum-half Chris Cusiter and the much-travelled Australian lock Nathan Hines – to hit the ground sprinting.
Saracens v Wasps (tomorrow 2pm)
Talking of England outside-halves, the current preferred option, Owen Farrell, must make do with replacement status at Twickenham tomorrow. Charlie Hodgson, the only man with more than 2,000 Premiership points to his name, has been handed the task of steering last season’s beaten finalists Saracens past opponents who, given the run of the field, have the pace to run riot.
Wasps introduce four new signings from the start – the full-back Rob Miller, the wing Sailosi Tagicakibau, the prop Lorenzo Cittadini and the lock James Gaskell – but most eyes will be fixed on winger Christian Wade. There are those who believe he is far too small at 5ft 8in to be considered for international rugby, but the England selectors keep talking him up. Fresh back from injury, he now has a chance to press his claim.
London Irish v Harlequins (tomorrow 4.30pm)
England wing contenders will be the talk of Twickenham today. Marland Yarde, a hot favourite for the autumn internationals, makes a competitive debut for Harlequins against his previous employers, who were not best pleased at losing him. Yarde said this week that it would feel “strange” playing against the only team he had ever known before moving across town; the Exiles will go out of their way to make him feel a lot worse.
Yarde is the one fresh face in a Quins side with a familiar look to them: the fly-by-nights of old are paragons of consistency these days. Irish, on the other hand, have a fistful of new signings, including the No 8 Tom Guest, who moved from Quins at the end of last season.
Leicester v Newcastle (tomorrow 3pm)
The very thought of one Tuilagi running into another is enough to put the health and safety mob on red alert, so things could be explosive at Welford Road. Manu starts for Leicester in midfield while big brother Alesana, the outsized wing who famously stomped around these parts like a rugby-playing mastodon between 2004 and 2012, has every chance of being introduced from the bench by Newcastle.
London Welsh v Exeter (Sunday 2pm)
Premiership newcomers Welsh look rather handy outside the scrum: Piri Weepu and Olly Barkley know their way around a rugby pitch, Tim Molenaar has bags of strength, Nick Scott has some gas. Add to this a little “first day frisson” and they could make life difficult for Exeter, especially as the Devonians travel without players as good as Dean Mumm, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jack Nowell.