Next Friday evening in Stockport and Cardiff, Galway and Glasgow, four boots will hoof four oval balls into the late summer skies, a host of grasping hands will fight for possession, and a new season will be launched. After months of courtroom rucks and horrendous headlines, the real rugby will break out. Oh, blessed relief.
The Guinness Premiership and Magners League are about to kick off with one new team – promoted Leeds Carnegie – in the former and the shining light among the Celts last season, the Cardiff Blues, housed in a spanking new stadium. The Heineken Cup will follow on in October. Hmm. There's a theme in the competitions' three sponsors. Please consume your rugby responsibly?
All the players who are itching to launch into the fray will be scrutinised as never before. Is that a blood capsule I see before me? Surely not. The Rugby Football Union have set up an Image of the Game taskforce, which is not a judging panel for a photography competition but a high powered group charged with closing the laws' loopholes, or as many of them as possible, and putting right all the rotten publicity in the nine weeks since the conclusion of an exciting Lions tour. The rank and file of the Premiership have been more concerned with honing their tackle area technique and set-piece superiority, but more of that in a moment.
Twickenham will stage four Premiership matches, plus the final of course, and South African-backed Saracens have so far shifted 25,000 tickets for their Wembley Stadium date with Northampton on 12 September. Leicester's new grandstand has upped the champions' capacity to 24,000. These numbers look good, but buried deep in the hundreds of pages of testimony in the Harlequins fake-blood case – with more yet to come – were a few words of caution. The London club own their home ground, the Stoop, but they are making a loss.
Leicester remain England's benchmark club, having reached the last five Premiership finals, and it cannot hurt Leeds that they have more than a touch of the Tigers about them. Coaches Neil Back and Andy Key and captain Marco Wentzel are formerly of the Welford Road parish. But whereas Leicester tend to have powerful strength in depth, the Carnegie-ites are either unproven or worryingly over the hill. "It would be disrespectful to say we're just making up the numbers," said Back, and the former flanker will do his damnedest to support that assertion.
Premier Rugby are enlisting help from the former footballer Tony Adams's Sporting Chance to educate players on illicit drugs and drink. Leicester's head honcho, Richard Cockerill, said: "You can have a code of conduct as long as your arm, but the things you can and can't do are very much common sense. I'm not going to say we'll never have a problem, because it's a society problem. The players know the ramifications."
Cockerill bemoaned a reduction in his squad from 42 players to 35, and the loss of good squad men like Julien Dupuy, Benjamin Kayser and Ayoola Erinle could be damaging. During a season billed by the marketing people as "a marathon and a sprint", the second-choice player can make almost as much difference as the first.
England's two other perennial powers face wildly different challenges in this regard. Bath appear to have signed well in the aftermath of Matt Stevens's positive drugs test and the club's investigations of drug use by four other players (the appeals from Michael Lipman and Alex Crockett aren't done yet, either). Wasps look good from one to 15, but how about 16 to 30?
Their poster boy fly-half, Danny Cipriani, is close to fitness after an operation to remove the metalwork in the ankle he injured in May 2008. Ian McGeechan has moved on – possibly to Quins, eventually – so the coaching reins are held by a New Zealander, Tony Hanks, alongside Shaun Edwards and a new forwards coach, the former England prop Trevor Woodman. And always there is the looming figure of Lawrence Dallaglio, on the board and, perhaps, on the training ground before long.
This is the year for Cipriani to prove himself, where before he has been hoist by his own PR. "The kid's shown he can play at international level," Hanks said of 'DC', "but No 10s take some time to grow. He's a part of the team and at the moment he's in a really good place."
Saracens have 11 South African-born players and coaches and if the forthright Brendan Venter – returning from the Super 14 to the Premiership seven years after he left London Irish – can get a big pack talking the same language, they could prosper. "We're making our own tribe and that tribe needs one language which is English," said Venter at last Thursday's Premiership launch lunch. "It's a rule in the group, we're not allowed to speak Afrikaans. I've had to correct myself a couple of times."
Venter is a qualified doctor (not a bad second profession if you're rooting out fake injuries) who won the cup with Irish in 2002, based on aggressive defence, and he has given Saracens a new system. The abandonment of the experimental law allowing a maul to be collapsed should suit the behemoths but Venter said: "I'm not sure the maul is so back. We got pinged in pre-season for the support player blocking off the jumper, which is a very normal way of setting the line-out drive." The tackle area, too, is causing furrowed brows, with the tackler given leeway to keep competing for the ball if he stays on his feet.
Worcester's coach, Mike Ruddock, predicted less attacking from deep and more kicking. "You may have to put a couple of extra players to deal with that tackler and contest the space," said Ruddock, while his captain and openside flanker, Pat Sanderson, naturally enough, saw the upside. "A lot of No.7s are out there thinking, 'Brilliant, this is something I'm good at'," he said.
Phew, some rugby talk about playing rugby. Whatever next? Nine months of renewed fun in the game, with any luck.Reuse content