New-season changes aim to improve finances, skill, discipline and speed

Leicester set the Premiership benchmark while London Welsh will try to avoid finishing bottom

Twenty-five seasons of league rugby in England have passed, and what are the headlines as the Aviva Premiership gets ready for the 26th kick-off with London Welsh and their lawyers muscling in, and Newcastle Falcons the first former champions to have plummeted through the relegation trap door? Players are getting too many bangs on the head and the referee needs eyes in the back of his. Hardly the most inspirational way for a rugby public who doubtless cheered the summer's gold-medal battalions to pick up the Olympic baton.

Rugby in its sevens form will return to the Olympics in Rio in 2016; a year earlier England will host the Rugby World Cup, mostly in football stadiums as the organisers follow the theory that flogging hundreds of thousands of tickets and making millions of pounds adds up to the best legacy for the sport.

The Premiership, too, appears to be booming to judge by the record number of spectators attracted to last May's final – a thrilling match won by first-time champions Harlequins over perennial contenders Leicester Tigers – and one-off occasions during the season at Twickenham and Wembley. Which is all fine as long as today's cauliflower-eared players are not turning into tomorrow's consumers and couch potatoes. Someone still needs to be playing the game.

An unchanged itinerary of 22 matches in the league, six in Europe and four in the LV Cup, plus several more in knockout rounds if a club do well, is bound to promote endurance over flair. Players staggering to the touchline after one hit too many will be given a few minutes and cognitive-test treatment before being allowed to continue.

More prosaically, yet alarmingly, the Premiership shed 132 players in the summer, including those in the older bracket who slipped away unwanted as younger, cheaper academy players took their places. No wonder depression is said to be the silent epidemic of the changing rooms.

A punch-up 16 months ago between England internationals Chris Ashton (now a big-name transfer to Saracens) and Manu Tuilagi was the spark to the Premiership trialling an extension of the television match official's remit this season. Tuilagi's escape from an obvious red card has led to the referee being able to be pulled back by the TMO if he has missed an incident of foul play. Additionally, the referee can ask to rewind TV replays as far back as the previous set-piece to check whether any misdemeanour has been overlooked in the build-up to a try. This all assumes that a faceless man in a TV truck outside the stadium has everything he needs to substitute for the extra pair of eyes the referee has supposedly been lacking. That truck may need a firm lock on it to repel the disgruntled while the TMO sits and sweats over whether Player A clocked Player B while Player C was holding back Player D.

From excuses to exclusions: each Premiership team now have an "excluded player" whose pay no longer counts towards the salary cap – a "marquee player" or, alternatively, the man of mystery, since no club have yet broken the bond of confidentiality to reveal who theirs is. One small-print rule is that the player must be in at least his third season with the same club, so for instance Nick Evans, the high-quality New Zealand fly-half reportedly on £330,000 a year, would qualify as Harlequins' "excluded player"; Gavin Henson, the high-maintenance Wales fly-half who has joined London Welsh after infamously short spells with Saracens, Toulon and Cardiff Blues, would not. This, of course, is a moot point for the Welsh, who are a good few bankers' bonuses short of the cap of £4.26 million (topped up to a maximum £4.5m with academy credits).

The RFU, on the advice of the Premiership auditors, originally denied Welsh's promotion from the Championship, only for the Exiles' QCs to successfully challenge that, insisting that the so-called primacy of tenure at a home stadium was a bit rich – or anti-competitive, to use the vernacular – considering four or five clubs in the Premiership did not have it. So Welsh's small but happy band of followers will be in the big time, at the cost of relocating from beautiful Old Deer Park in Richmond to the functional Kassam Stadium in Oxford.

They seem ill-equipped to finish anywhere other than bottom – and though many of us said the same about Exeter two years ago, there were a few who had watched the Devonians' rise closely and had faith in the coaches, players and infrastructure at Sandy Park. The Chiefs have survived and thrived, with a fifth-placed finish last season leading to Heineken Cup qualification in a giddying group with Leinster, Clermont Auvergne and the Scarlets.

Europe comes along in October; until then the last days of summer will see Leicester begin their pursuit of a ninth straight Premiership final, after three wins in the previous eight. They are predicted by the London Wasps coach, Dai Young, to be in a group of four clubs nailed on for the top six, and probably higher, along with Harlequins, Saracens and Northampton. The Tigers have played 176 league matches in the last eight seasons, and lost 48. Never unbeatable, but certainly the benchmark. Ambitious Bath – who have mustered a stellar coaching panel of Toby Booth (attack), Mike Ford (defence), Neal Hatley (scrum and line-out) and Brad Davis (backs) around new head honcho Gary Gold – feel it is high time they climbed up to it. Gloucester, Sale and London Irish will harbour similar hopes.

London Wasps have some quality players and are relieved to have new owners, but despite their name they will – like London Welsh and London Irish – play a long way from London. And though Harlequins have branded themselves the Heart of London, the only club with a capital postcode will be Saracens – that is, when they move into the rebuilt Copthall stadium in Hendon NW4.

This is set for February, when Sarries will pioneer playing Premiership matches on artificial grass, with the enthusiastic and, indeed, radical backing of the RFU and International Board, who have also removed the "pause" from the scrum engagement sequence and given scrum-halves only five seconds to clear the ball from the ruck, both in the name of speeding up the game.

The outcomes of all these experiments should sustain the bar-room chat in the nine months through to the Lions tour of Australia.

Pro 12 preview: Leinster looking to gain revenge over Ospreys

When Ospreys' peerless pixie of try-poaching, Shane Williams, dabbed the ball over a Dublin goalline to win the RaboDirect Pro 12 final for his side last May, it pricked the bubble of the three-time European champions Leinster. It gave Wales the domestic title to go with the Grand Slam, but the Irish will fancy themselves for revenge this season.

Under the praiseworthy coaching of the 32-year-old Steve Tandy, Ospreys won the league when Dan Biggar converted the try by Williams in a dramatic 31-30 victory over Leinster, who had won the Heineken Cup the previous weekend. Williams is now twinkling his toes in Tokyo, and other Wales stars have left for French clubs. Tandy admitted: "It is disappointing to lose high-profile players but it's challenging to find the next Shane Williams."

Jealous clubs in England and France want the Heineken Cup re-ordered to reflect their commercial clout and more arduous qualifying route. The Pro 12 may be fitful in its consistency but its best teams at their best are outdoing the English. The Scottish sides Edinburgh and Glasgow are growing in belief, and Ulster have adjusted their reliance on South Africans by bringing home the Ospreys wing Tommy Bowe and Northampton No 8 Roger Wilson. The Italians have shuffled their resources, ditching Aironi for the Parma-based Zebre.

Hugh Godwin

News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Sport
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
football
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments