Spend, spend, spend philosophy threatens Worcester and Bristol

Paranoia rules at English clubs as the season starts tonight. Chris Hewett fears for those unable to shop to avoid the drop
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Two of the usual suspects, Leeds and London Irish, have shopped until they have dropped - or rather, shopped with a view to avoiding the drop - and between them recruited top-drawer players from South Africa, Australia, France and Argentina, not to mention New Zealand, from where legions of Super 12 players and the odd All Black have come sailing over the horizon like a fleet of America's Cup challengers. One of last term's unusual suspects, Northampton, have done likewise. The Midlanders have no intention of revisiting the Edgar Allan Poe territory they inhabited in 2004-05.

Which appears to leave Worcester, popular survivors last time out, and Bristol, promoted from the Second Division for another shot at Premiership prosperity. Unless one of them falls off the back of the peloton, so to speak, there could be a second successive instance of a club winning half a dozen matches or more and still find themselves heading in a southerly direction en route to the earth's core. It's a hard world out there, that's for sure.

Given that there is every chance of life being equally as interesting at the top end, where Leicester's personnel losses and Wasps' restructuring leave them prey to the chasing pack - juggernaut Bath, feel-good Saracens and, most notably, Philippe Saint-André's dangerous Sale side - the new campaign, which begins with Newcastle's visit to Edgeley Park this evening, is not obviously in need of a sub-text. Yet there is one, and it goes directly to the heart of England's planning for the next World Cup in 2007.

Somewhere along the line, the national coach, Andy Robinson, is going to have to find himself a Test side, and the only hard evidence will be provided by the Premiership. At a conservative estimate, Robinson needs to sort out his back three, find himself an outside centre, identify his senior stand-off, settle on a scrum-half, reshape his front row and reorganise his lock combination. But for the obvious back-row pre-eminence of Joe Worsley, Lewis Moody and Martin Corry, he might as well reach for the nearest blank sheet of A4 and start over.

The coach will not be short of advice. Bath will want to see Andy Beattie, a blind-side flanker with more than a touch of the Ben Clarkes about him, fast-tracked towards a first cap, and they will demand that the excellent Olly Barkley is given credit where it is due. Leeds will push any number of bright young things on the national hierarchy - their locks, Stuart Hooper and Tom Palmer, for starters; Leicester will make a song and dance on behalf of George Chuter and Louis Deacon; Newcastle will insist that Mathew Tait, last season's special attraction for one day only, is rehabilitated both quickly and sympathetically.

As for Wasps, three-times champions and Grand Finalists supreme - well, they have more agendas than the United Nations. Very senior figures at the club cannot believe Robinson's reluctance to pension off a coaching colleague or two and introduce Shaun Edwards to the red rose mix. What is more, they are utterly flabbergasted by the absence of Ayoola Erinle, an outside centre of out-sized proportions, from the élite squad.

Add to this the latest influx of overseas players - spellbinding entertainers to some eyes, money-grabbing mercenaries to others - and the cup floweth over. There is a new Anglo-Welsh tournament trading under the familiar Powergen Cup brand, a more straight-forward qualification regime governing entry into the Heineken Cup, and a new, toughened-up set of disciplinary procedures aimed at curbing the worst excesses of a sport that has not been excessive on the violence front for some years. If a player lands a half-decent right hook now, he might conceivably be lumbered with a 12-month ban. The Gareth Chilcotts and Wade Dooleys of blessed memory must be laughing their socks off.

All of which brings us to the referees, bless 'em. Some familiar faces - Chris White, Tony Spreadbury, Dave Pearson - are still around, but Steve Lander has called it a day.

This season's panel includes the likes of Wayne Barnes, Rob Debney and Martin Fox, some of whom have paid recent visits to Siberia and Mongolia to referee Russian Premiership matches. No, honestly. Those who assume Premiership officials cannot find their way around a rolling maul will be interested to see any of them make it back to England, but that is another story.

In all seriousness, the whistle-blowing fraternity will be under unprecedented pressure this year, for the simple reason that the competitive and financial consequences of defeat at Premiership level increase season on season. Ed Morrison, a brilliant official in his day and now one of the Rugby Football Union's élite development officers, said earlier this week: "When you involve a human being in something, there is every likelihood of a mistake being made somewhere along the line. I think we'd all do well to remember that." And he was right, of course. But will the head coaches keep their tempers when one dodgy decision costs them victory? Dream on.

Celebrity A-List: This season's major new arrivals

CARLOS SPENCER Outside-half. From New Zealand to Northampton

Well, it won't be boring at Franklin's Gardens this term. As Spencer showed during the Lions tour, when he steered the New Zealand Maori to a famous win in Hamilton, there is no substitute for footballing imagination, especially when mixed with a high level of technical proficiency. Thrilling.

OWEN FINEGAN Blind-side flanker. From Australia to Newcastle

One of only nine players to have scored a try in a World Cup final - he wrapped up the 1999 title for the Wallabies at the Millennium Stadium - Finegan will add serious poundage, very nearly 19st of it, to a Newcastle pack often found wanting.

OLIVIER MAGNE Open-side flanker. From France to London Irish

Magne played against Finegan in that Cardiff showpiece, losing nothing by comparison - indeed, he was among the two or three outstanding figures in the tournament. A pedigree breakaway specialist, he will give London Irish a new dimension.

JUSTIN MARSHALL Scrum-half. From New Zealand to Leeds

Potentially one of the most potent overseas signings ever made by a Premiership club, the All Black half-back will be at the heart of the latest stage of the Leeds experiment. World-class scrum-halves are few and far between in the English game.

2005-06: Team-by-team guide to the Premiership, who's in, who's out and what lies in store

Bath

Head coach: John Connolly

Captain: Steve Borthwick

The West Countrymen will field the most physical forward pack in the tournament, as per usual, and under Borthwick's passionate leadership they will crack a few heads along the way. The question mark concerns the backs' ability to give the ugly mugs full value for their efforts. Olly Barkley will cut a dash in midfield and there are new wings in the intelligent David Bory and the seriously rapid Michael Stephenson. Bory may be past his best, though, and Stephenson is already injured.

Warm welcomes David Bory (Castres), Andy Dunne (Harlequins), Pieter Dixon (Western Province, SA), Michael Stephenson (Newcastle).

Fond farewells Brendon Daniel (Pau), Robbie Fleck (retired), Jonathan Humphreys (retired), Geraint Lewis (Bristol).

The tea leaves say... Anything short of top three will provoke an inquest.

Bristol

Head coach: Richard Hill

Captain: Matt Salter

More realistically financed than at any point in the professional era and painstakingly prepared by the highly rated Hill, this season's newcomers have done everything right for more than a year now. But being right and being good enough are not necessarily one and the same thing, and Bristol look worryingly lightweight up front, despite the return of the ever-combative Mark Regan. They will miss every hair on the head of their erstwhile line-out organiser, Jim Brownrigg.

Warm welcomes Mark Denney (Castres), Brian Lima (Munster), Mariano Sambucetta (Brive), Roy Winters (Harlequins).

Fond farewells Jim Brownrigg (London Welsh), Hentie Martens (released), Luke Nabaro (Doncaster), Ed Pearce (retired).

The tea leaves say... It's sad, but someone has to finish 12th.

Gloucester

Head coach: Dean Ryan

Captain: Adam Balding

One of these fine days, the menacing Ryan will allow his anger to get the better of him and take the field himself. The Big Bad Wolf was incandescent at some of the Cherry and White performances last time out and now he is the main man he will be even less inclined to put up with second best. Gloucester have recruited well, however, and should win a majority of the punch-ups by knock-out. If Ryan gets them fit and Phil Vickery gets himself back on the field, who knows?

Warm welcomes Ludovic Mercier (Pau), Peter Richards (Wasps), Mike Tindall (Bath), Rob Thirlby (Penzance).

Fond farewells Christo Bezuidenhout (Blue Bulls, SA), Chris Fortey (Worcester), Seti Kiole (Clermont Auvergne), Alex Page (Bedford).

The tea leaves say... A rugged seventh seems a reasonable bet.

Leeds

Director of rugby: Phil Davies

Captain: Stuart Hooper

Rugby union may be the third game in town - fourth, now that cricket has become the new sex - but does Davies care? Does he hell. The lovable Welshman's long-running project at Headingley is beginning to bear fruit, as the outstanding success of his latest recruiting mission indicates, and it would be no great surprise if Leeds enjoyed their best Premiership season. With Justin Marshall loading the bullets, the likes of Tom Biggs and David Doherty should be well worth watching.

Warm welcomes Gordon Bulloch (Glasgow), Justin Marshall (Canterbury, NZ), Roland Reid (London Irish), Nathan Thomas (Cardiff Blues).

Fond farewells Diego Albanese (retired), Phil Christophers (Castres), Duncan Hodge (Edinburgh), Mark Regan (Bristol).

The tea leaves say... Sixth - maybe higher if the backs catch fire.

Leicester

Head coach: Pat Howard

Captain: Martin Corry

Ah, very interesting, Mr Bond. A new coach, a new captain and a new look to the back row, where Shane Jennings has been summoned from Ireland to perform the Neil Back role on the open side. Can things be pulled together in time for a meaningful assault on the title? Maybe, maybe not. That's the fun of it. There is no shortage of quality at Welford Road, but there is more than a suspicion that this will be a transitional season, with all the quirks and cock-ups that generally occur under such circumstances.

Warm welcomes Leo Cullen (Leinster), Shane Jennings (Leinster), Alejandro Moreno (Brive), Ian Nimmo (Heriots FP).

Fond farewells Neil Back (retired), John Holtby (released), Martin Johnson (retired), Tom Ryder (Saracens).

The tea leaves say... Fifth - and no, it is not meant as an insult

London Irish

Director of rugby: Brian Smith

Captain: Ryan Strudwick

Along with Leeds and Northampton, the Exiles have recruited boldly - an irony that will not be lost on Gary Gold, last season's coach, who bemoaned the lack of star quality at the club before upping sticks and returning to South Africa. The overseas signings cover most of the bases and if Smith, a brilliant defensive strategist with Bath a couple of seasons back, can get the mix right straight away, the Irish could find themselves holding their own in the mid-table scrap.

Warm welcomes Danie Coetzee (Blue Bulls, SA), Michael Collins (Waikato, NZ), Riki Flutey (Wellington, NZ), Olivier Magne (Clermont Auvergne).

Fond farewells Geoff Appleford (Northampton), Mark Mapletoft (retired), Peter Poulos (Samoa), Tony Roques (Exeter).

The tea leaves say... A competitive eighth, if they kick their goals.

Newcastle

Director of rugby: Rob Andrew

Captain: Colin Charvis

Andrew's summer horse-trading has left the Falcons heavily in credit, and the thought of the rumbustious Owen Finegan partnering the effective Charvis in the back row gets the juices flowing. As ever, Newcastle's season will boil down to two things: Jonny Wilkinon's fitness and, more importantly, the potency of the front row, which has been horribly limp-wristed for years. Robbie Morris? Tino Paoletti? The Tynesiders badly need their new props to stand up and be counted.

Warm welcomes Anthony Elliott (Rotherham), Owen Finegan (ACT Brumbies, Aus), Robbie Morris (Northampton), Tino Paoletti (Plymouth).

Fond farewells Craig Hamilton (Glasgow), James Isaacson (Leeds), Semo Sititi (Borders), Epi Taione (Sale).

The tea leaves say... A curate's egg of a season. Ninth.

Northampton

Director of rugby: Budge Pountney

Captain: Steve Thompson

On the face of it, Northampton cannot conceivably be as bad as they were last year. There again, they have lost two international loose forwards, albeit elderly ones, and can no longer rely on the services of Paul Grayson, who has turned his hand to full-time coaching. Their backs should be quite something - not simply because "King" Carlos Spencer has assumed the throne at No 10, but because the likes of Sean Lamont and David Quinlan are nobody's fools. But the forwards? Umm.

Warm welcomes Sam Harding (Canterbury, NZ), Sean Lamont (Glasgow), David Quinlan (Leinster), Carlos Spencer (Auckland, NZ).

Fond farewells Andrew Blowers (Toyota, Jap), Paul Grayson (retired), Corne Krige (retired), Marc Stcherbina (Cardiff Blues).

The tea leaves say... Tenth, but no relegation traumas.

Sale

Director of rugby: Philippe Saint-André

Captain: Jason Robinson

Saint-André's men were far too hot for the good of the club last season: so many of them played their way into the Test arena that the wonderfully entertaining Frenchman could barely raise a competitive side for important Premiership fixtures. He is having none of it this time, recruiting on the basis of regular availability as well as talent and experience. As a result, Sale have a squad of title-challenging weight, and if Charlie Hodgson plays at his Lions pitch, they will go close.

Warm welcomes Nathan Bonner-Evans (Ospreys), Vincent Courrent (Brive), Daniel Larrechea (Bayonne), Mark Taylor (Llanelli Scarlets).

Fond farewells Jos Baxendell (Béziers), Mike Hercus (Llanelli Scarlets), Chris Rhys Jones (St Helens RL), Bryan Redpath (retired).

The tea leaves say... Top of the log come May.

Saracens

Head coach: Steve Diamond

Captain: Hugh Vyvyan

Saracens finished with a hiss and a roar last time out, which made a change: in previous seasons, their hissing and roaring ended within seconds of the first kick-off, when their fancy-dan all-stars realised they did not know each other from Adam. Diamond put an end to the pantomime act by hardening up his players, selecting on form and adding a few four- lettered home truths to the mix. Assuming Andy Farrell turns out to be an asset rather than a distraction, things may happen.

Warm welcomes Alan Dickens (Leeds), Andy Farrell (Wigan RL), Shane Byrne (Leinster), Emmanuel Amapakabo (Brive).

Fond farewells Aston Croall (Harlequins), Robbie Kydd (released), Raphael Ibanez (Wasps), Morgan Williams (Stade Français).

The tea leaves say... Top six, fourth at a pinch.

Wasps

Director of rugby: Ian McGeechan

Captain: Lawrence Dallaglio

Wasps have bought a whole new front row, with power to add - three props and an international hooker, to be specific. Given that the sharp end of the scrum was the one obvious issue affecting the three-time champions, there is no reason to anticipate any serious slippage, provided the new boys shape up. They will, however, be without the wonderful Dallaglio for the first couple of months, and Josh Lewsey is also on incapacity leave. Expect an early defeat or two.

Warm welcomes Peter Bracken (Connacht), Jon Dawson (Harlequins), Jeremy Staunton (Harlequins), David Van Eyk (Waikato, NZ).

Fond farewells Harvey Biljon (Blackheath), Craig Dowd (retired), Will Green (Leinster), Trevor Leota (Free State, SA).

The tea leaves say... Second, as usual, before ending up first.

Worcester

Director of rugby: John Brain

Captain: Pat Sanderson

Worcester were one of the glories of last season, with their boisterously supportive crowd, their heavyweight scrum and the M5's worth of grit they brought to their work. Generally speaking, Premiership survival underpins an improvement in fortunes the following season, and they have spent a few bob in the market in an effort to spice up their attacking game. The problem? Everyone else has improved, too. They certainly cannot afford to lose eight of their first nine games this time.

Warm welcomes Emiliano Bergamaschi (Saracens), Shane Drahm (Northampton), Andy Gomarsall (Gloucester), Mark Tucker (Northampton).

Fond farewells Tommy Hayes (Bristol), Neil Lyman (retired), Daren O'Leary (Moseley), Clive Stuart-Smith (Llanelli Scarlets).

The tea leaves say... Eleventh, unless they win a fistful early on.

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