The Aviva Premiership: Centre stage for top of the bill acts
The new Premiership season starts today and high quality is guaranteed as all the leading lights will be in action
Even in this anxious age of mega-gazillion government bail-outs, the currency of the Aviva Premiership is holding firm: the privilege of catching pneumonia in the lethally exposed back row of the temporary stand at Bath will set you back the best part of £40, which does not obviously come under the heading of "bargain". Yet in one very important respect, the supporters who make the professional club game what it is are not being short-changed. When the league campaign begins this afternoon, virtually all the top-of-the-bill acts will be there on centre stage, where they should be.
Of the 15 England players who took the field for the drawn Test with the Springboks in Port Elizabeth some two and a half months ago, 14 will start for their clubs in the opening round of bread-and-butter fixtures. Chris Ashton, Ben Foden, Danny Care, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, James Haskell? All present and correct. The single exception, Tom Palmer, has been named on the Wasps bench – no great surprise, given that the lock has only just returned to Blighty from a lengthy Parisian sojourn with Stade Français.
Compare and contrast this with the situation in the Celtic lands, where those paying their money at the Pro12 turnstiles cannot expect to see the best Irish practitioners any time soon, thanks to the strictures imposed under the national team's "player management" arrangement. Even the Welsh regions, desperate for crowds and the business they generate, are going in light. This weekend's Scarlets-Leinster game should be a belter. In reality, it has all the appeal of a squib so damp it might have spent an afternoon drowning in that notorious stand at Bath.
Here we have one of the defining themes of this season's Premiership. The people who run it begin the season at loggerheads with their opposite numbers in the Pro12 over the vexed question of the Heineken Cup and its future post-2014, when the current participation agreement ends. Sick and tired of seeing the Irish – unthreatened by relegation and therefore able to prioritise European rugby without a care in the world – walk away with the glittering prizes, the English clubs are demanding a new qualification format that will hurt the Celts a lot more than it hurts them. The problem? Scottish rugby would not be hurt, as much as buried. The club game in Italy, those honorary Celts, would almost certainly go the same way and send the pan-European ideal down the pan, so to speak.
On the basis that the very worst time to moan and groan about something is when you're rubbish at it – and the European performance of the red-rose contingent in recent seasons has had very little to recommend it – the English need to rediscover some mojo. If the Premiership clubs can somehow jettison the angst and the attrition in favour of some very different A-words – "ambition", for example, or "adventure" – and demolish the Pro12's argument that a closed shop system necessarily produces better rugby, they will find themselves pontificating from a much stronger base.
Pie in the sky? Perhaps. If Saracens continue to kick the ball in the air as a first option, the Leicester forwards start tucking it up their collective jumper and both win the lion's share of their games, this season will seem like any other season: the same old same old. But it is worth remembering that neither Saracens nor Leicester won the title last May. The winners were Harlequins, and they won by playing rugby in the grand style – or at least, a grander style than we have seen for some time. Can the Londoners pull the same trick this term? Put it this way: they will not die wondering.
They may not be alone in upping both the tempo and the ante. Gloucester, armed with a back division fairly bristling with brilliance, are similarly equipped to deliver some thrill-a-minute performances, although they will take a month or two to settle. Sale? If they get it right with Danny Cipriani, and Cipriani gets it right on the field, they will be worth watching. London Irish? You have to like the look of that super-quick threequarter line of theirs.
This, lest we forget, is a Lions year and, given the current state of the Wallabies, those selected for the trip to Australia next summer will have a precious – nay, priceless – opportunity to achieve something truly memorable by winning a series in the red shirt of their dreams. As things stand, there is not one Englishman nailed on for Test duty, although Cole, the Leicester tight-head prop, must be within touching distance. This will change over the coming eight months, but not necessarily for the better. If the Premiership is to win important arguments in the boardroom and the selection room, it must get up to speed where it counts: between the goal-lines.
Famous five: Premiership players to watch
The other side of the No 10 coin. The teenager has barely put a foot wrong or uttered a word out of place since illuminating Welford Road in eye-catching fashion last term. Held back from summer touring on conditioning grounds, he has the game awareness to make a significant impact.
The new Guscott? How England would celebrate if it turns out to be the case. The centre positions have given the national selectors unmitigated grief for almost a decade now and if Joseph can add a little know-how to his undoubted athletic prowess, he might be quite something.
It is no small thing for a young prop to make a Test debut against the Springboks and come up smelling of red roses. Marler's hairstyle may be marginally more conservative (not that he will ever be a favourite with the moral majority) but his rugby is resolutely cutting edge.
The flanker has some catching up to do, thanks to the injury that messed up his last club campaign in the way Martin Johnson and company messed with his World Cup ambitions. Tough, ruthless, deadly serious – he has his mind set on a Test return and will take some stopping.
After experiencing a modern form of exile in Australia – all ball, no chain – the errant outside-half has negotiated himself an intriguing shot at redemption in Greater Manchester. Undeniably brilliant on a now-and-again basis, he knows what he must do to resuscitate his international career: be brilliant more often. Simple, really.
Will Addison (Sale) A bright-spark centre blessed with an eye for the main chance.
Ed Jackson (London Welsh) Dean Richards thinks the young No 8 can play. Enough said.
Sione Kalamafoni (Gloucester) The latest Pacific islander to pulverise opponents at pace, with passion.
Matt Kvesic (Worcester) The breakaway has been the talk of the coaching community for months.
Jonny May (Gloucester) The quickest outside back around? Probably. The most exciting? Perhaps.
Where will your club finish? Chris Hewett’s team-by-team guide
Director of rugby Gary Gold
The West Countrymen had almost rid themselves of the superiority complex they developed during their "golden decade" when Bruce Craig appeared with his millions and sent expectation and assumption soaring anew. Since when, the club have made a hash of it by sacking the wrong coach (Steve Meehan) and playing the wrong rugby (deadly dull). There is talk of Kyle Eastmond tripping the light fantastic, but it will take more than one rugby league refugee to re-electrify the place. Gary Gold and his fellow strategists – Toby Booth, Mike Ford – have much on their plates.
Warm welcomes Horacio Agulla (Leicester), Dominic Day (Scarlets), Paul James (Ospreys), Rob Webber (Wasps).
Fond farewells Matt Carraro (Montpellier), Andy Beattie, David Flatman, Lewis Moody (all retired).
The tea leaves say Eighth
Director of rugby Rob Baxter
Unlike Bath, the Devonians know precisely who they are, even if many of them would struggle for recognition at their own kitchen tables. But the men who run things at Sandy Park are less interested in big names than in big hearts. The problem will be the savage demands of a Heineken Cup debut guaranteed to stretch them to the very limit.
Warm welcomes Kai Horstmann (Worcester), Dean Mumm (Waratahs, Aus), Damian Welch (Scarlets), Ian Whitten (Ulster).
Fond farewells John Andress (Worcester), Bryan Rennie (Bristol), Chad Slade (Oyonnax, Fr), Peter Short (retired).
The tea leaves say Ninth
Director of rugby Nigel Davies
Gloucester should be on the side of the angels. The All Black scrum-half Jimmy Cowan and the multifaceted midfielder Billy Twelvetrees should ensure that Castle Grim is bathed in heavenly light – especially as backs as bright as Burns, Trinder, Simpson-Daniel, Sharples and May are already in place. In Nigel Davies, they have a new boss steeped in Llanelli rugby; in Ben Morgan, they have a No 8 blessed with the hands of Luke Narraway and the body of an ox. If the tight forwards stack up…
Warm welcomes Jimmy Cowan (Otago, NZ), Sione Kalamafoni (Nottingham), Ben Morgan (Scarlets), Martyn Thomas (Newport-Gwent Dragons).
Fond farewells Rory Lawson (Newcastle), Scott Lawson (London Irish), Luke Narraway, Alasdair Strokosch (both Perpignan).
The tea leaves say Fourth
Director of rugby Conor O'Shea
Continuity is one of rugby's principal virtues: when Jack Rowell was guiding Bath to titles galore, the annual turnover of players could be counted on the exposed fingers of a Churchillian hand. The current champions, blessed with a thriving academy, have made minimal changes: same back-room staff, same captain, pretty much the same squad. They will play a fast, challenging game. International calls will hurt them, but if Nick Evans and Nick Easter stay fit, the pain should be bearable.
Warm welcomes Ben Botica (North Harbour, NZ), Darryl Marfo, Joe Trayfoot (both academy), Dave Ward (Cornish Pirates).
Fond farewells Matt Cairns (retired), Benjamin Urdapilleta (Oyonnax, Fr), Tomas Vallejos (Scarlets), Chris York (Newcastle).
The tea leaves say Second
Director of rugby Richard Cockerill
It has become de rigueur to spend the summer predicting the Midlanders' downfall, but come spring it is always the same: there they are, entrenched in the top four and making life a misery for anyone daring to cross the threshold of Welford Road, the Bates Motel of the English game. The loss of Alesana Tuilagi is balanced by the arrival of a finisher in Miles Benjamin.
Warm welcomes Miles Benjamin (Worcester), Brett Deacon (Gloucester), Daniel Bowden, Richard Thorpe (both London Irish).
Fond farewells James Grindal (Bristol), Alesana Tuilagi (NTT Shining Arcs, Jap), Billy Twelvetrees (Gloucester), Julian White (retired).
The tea leaves say Third
Director of rugby Brian Smith
Along with Sale, the Exiles are this season's unfathomables. Brian Smith's return as top dog caused its share of collateral damage, with coaches and players disappearing through the out door in significant numbers. The Australian can, however, claim a solid track record of achievement at Premiership level and the list of those joining him at the Madejski is impressive: Shaun Edwards knows a thing or two while Shane Geraghty, Scott Lawson, George Skivington and Tomas O'Leary can play a bit.
Warm welcomes Shane Geraghty (Brive), Setamaita Sa (Catalan Dragons), Tomas O'Leary (Munster), George Skivington (Leicester).
Fond farewells Bob Casey (retired), Shontayne Hape (Montpellier), Delon Armitage, Nick Kennedy (both Toulon).
The tea leaves say Sixth
Head coach Lyn Jones
The Premiership fraternity, tight-knit and mutually supportive as they are, ask an awful lot of newcomers who have the temerity to join them. The Exiles have been granted a criminally short amount of time to build a squad capable of chiselling out the half-dozen victories that might, with the grace of God and a following wind, stave off relegation. Good judges think the strapping No 8 Ed Jackson might have what it takes but, ultimately, the punt on Gavin Henson will have to pay mighty big dividends if they are to survive.
Warm welcomes Neil Briggs (Sale), Daniel Browne (Grenoble, Fr), Gavin Henson (unatt), Paulica Ion (London Irish).
Fond farewells Will Hurrell (Rotherham), Gary Johnson (Cornish Pirates), Rob Lewis (Cardiff Blues), Mike Powell (Moseley).
The tea leaves say 12th
Director of rugby Jim Mallinder
The Saints have the look of a club arriving at a critical point. A number of influential players have moved on: not just Chris Ashton, but hard-nosed characters like Roger Wilson and James Downey, who were at the heart of the punishingly direct strategy favoured by Mallinder. The signing of Dominic Waldouck from Wasps suggests a fresh approach in midfield – one that might suit a bag of tricks like Ryan Lamb.
Warm welcomes Luther Burrell (Sale), Ken Pisi (North Harbour, NZ), Gerrit-Jan van Velze (Blue Bulls, SA), Dominic Waldouck (Wasps).
Fond farewells Jon Clarke (Worcester), James Downey (Munster), Andy Long (retired), Roger Wilson (Ulster).
The tea leaves say Fifth
Director of rugby Bryan Redpath
Anything could happen, and probably will. The bums-on-seats signings, Danny Cipriani and Richie Gray, routinely explore possibilities far beyond the imaginings of their peers. The Northerners also boast a group of home-grown forwards, most notably prop Henry Thomas and lock James Gaskell, who have a whiff of X-factor about them, and if we combine all this with the move to spanking new surroundings in Salford, what's not to like?
Warm welcomes Danny Cipriani (Melbourne Rebels, Aus), Richie Gray (Glasgow), Cameron Shepherd (Western Force, Aus), Corne Uys (Newcastle).
Fond farewells Tommy Bell (Wasps), Wame Lewaravu (Mont-de-Marsan, Fr), Andrew Higgins (Newcastle), Andrew Sheridan (Toulon).
The tea leaves say Seventh
Director of rugby Mark McCall
An important campaign for the Saracens "project". It is a measure of the former champions' ambition that the semi-final exit in May still rankles: they see themselves as a side capable of titles year on year, and the new signings will reinforce that. The international retirees Charlie Hodgson and Matt Stevens will be available throughout the season, and Sarries will take some stopping.
Warm welcomes Chris Ashton (Northampton), Nick Fenton-Wells (Western Province, SA), Alistair Hargreaves (KwaZulu-Natal, SA), Lorenzo Romano (Aironi, It).
Fond farewells Deon Carstens (Western Province, SA), Hayden Smith (New York Jets NFL), Michael Tagicakibau (Bristol), Hugh Vyvyan (retired).
The tea leaves say First
Director of rugby David Young
If recent history has taught us anything, it is that things need to be right off the field before they can be right on it. In management terms, the freefalling Londoners have been as wrong as it is possible to be. Still, there are some excellent signings and if the long-suffering Dai Young can integrate the newcomers without betraying the brilliant academy products – Sam Jones, Billy Vunipola, Elliot Daly – they should be spared the worst agonies.
Warm welcomes James Haskell (Otago), Andrea Masi (Aironi, It), Stephen Jones (Scarlets), Tom Palmer (Stade Français).
Fond farewells Riki Flutey (Ricoh Black Rams, Jap), John Hart (retired), Richard Haughton (Jersey), Tom Rees (retired).
The tea leaves say 10th
Director of rugby Richard Hill
Who? Exactly. Worcester's challenge this season is to shed the cloak of anonymity. They have done many things well under Hill's leadership but, after a while, mere consolidation bores the pants off people. Right now, the Sixways crowd are crying out for a little pizzazz. They may have to cry a little longer, for the new coaching staff are Nigel Redman and Phil Vickery – two pug-ugly England tight forwards of yore.
Warm welcomes Paul Hodgson (London Irish), David Lemi (Glasgow), Dean Schofield (Toulon, Fr), Nikki Walker (Ospreys).
Fond farewells Tom Arscott (London Welsh), Alex Crockett (Newcastle), Marcel Garvey (Castres, Fr), Dale Rasmussen (retired).
The tea leaves say 11th
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