It seemed like just the other day that London Wasps overwhelmed Leicester Tigers at Twickenham to claim their fourth Guinness Premiership trophy in six years. It wasn’t that long ago to be fair – just over three months, in fact – and it’s almost hard to believe that the 2008/09 season is already upon us.
Well, whether you believe it or not, the ’08/09 Guinness Premiership is here and it gets going in the grandest way possible with the annual London Double Header at Twickenham involving the four London clubs playing each other at HQ, followed by four more fixtures on Sunday.
Wasps, appropriately, will kick things off at Twickenham on Saturday when they take on London Irish, who will have a new man in charge in the shape of Toby Booth, with Australian Brian Smith having moved on to join the English coaching staff under Martin Johnson.
Irish enjoyed a vintage 2007/08, finishing seventh in the Premiership, but impressing friend and foe alike in their march to the Heineken Cup semifinals – a result that not many would have picked at the start of the season.
Inconsistency remains the Exiles’ biggest worry – with Booth admitting much in pre-season interviews – and in Wasps you would probably struggle to find a more consistent team.
Yes, they don’t have Lawrence Dallaglio anymore, but in former French skipper Raphaël Ibañez they have a more than able replacement in terms of leadership, with young tyro James Haskell also ready to pick up the back row mantle from his illustrious predecessor.
Saturday’s second match should, however, be the closest of the two encounters, with two teams – Saracens and Harlequins – that have promised so much in recent times going head-to-head.
Saracens finished a disappointing eighth last year, whilst Quins ended sixth on an exciting final day of league action, when, at one stage, they appeared to be in the semifinals before losing out to Leicester and their try-machine Tom Varndell.
Once again under the coaching of former England star Dean Richards, Quins have a new skipper in tearaway flank Will Skinner, with the former Leicester No.7 in a determined mood this week.
“Once the whistle has gone, it will just be like any other rugby match,” said Skinner on quins.co.uk ahead of Saturday’s London Double Header.
“We want to show the rest of the Guinness Premiership that we have learnt from last year, that we have that little bit more experience and we are going to use it. We strongly believe that we are the team to beat this season, and we want to make sure the rest of the Premiership realise that.”
Looking at Sunday, all eyes will be on Franklin’s Gardens when Northampton Saints make their return to England’s top-flight, having spent last season in National Division One.
The Saints, formerly under the coaching of Ian McGeechan and then Kiwi Wayne Smith, were once a feared team in the Premiership – but all that changed when the club appointed former Springbok assistant coach Alan Solomons, with everything falling apart before they were eventually relegated.
Saints’ opponents, the Worcester Warriors, will know all about relegation, having stared the chop straight in the face after a shocking start to last season which saw them wait until January to claim their first win!
“Last season I think we underestimated how tough the start of the season can be,” said Worcester boss Mike Ruddock. “We’ve had 12 months to shape the squad and get things right. Now and we’re very optimistic and now we need to deliver on the field.
“The test will be a game away from home, particularly against a team like Northampton. I’m sure they are very keen to get into a flying start and show people that they are back big time.”
Elsewhere on Sunday, we have a West Country derby between Bristol and Bath to keep us entertained (with Butch James named in the Bath team – fresh from Tri-Nations duty with the Springboks), whilst Sale Sharks travel to Newcastle and there is a grudge match of note when Gloucester host Leicester.
West Country derbies are always the toughest games to call, the Falcons-Sale match will see the Tait brothers line up at fullback in opposition teams and Leicester travel to the ‘Shed’ without their inspirational captain Martin Corry.
Former All Black Aaron Mauger will lead the Tigers into battle in Corry’s absence, with new coach Heyneke Meyer selecting former Newcastle back Toby Flood in the No.10 shirt in his first game for his new club in the Premiership.
“The work ethic has been great here and the players have worked very hard in the off-season,” enthused Meyer.
“We made improvements in each of the pre-season games and now we will be looking to improve again. Gloucester are a very good side and this will be a good contest.
“We have got a good squad here and I am looking forward to the first game and looking forward to trying to get the best out of the players.”
Meyer’s team could have one advantage over their rivals this season, with the South African having plenty of information over those dreaded Experimental Law Variations (ELVs), the ‘new laws’ causing plenty of consternation amongst players, coaches and fans in the United Kingdom.
The ex-Blue Bulls coach was not involved in coaching in his homeland this season, but he would have seen the Super 14 played in his native SA and would no doubt have had contact with coaching friends back home and his former players at the Bulls.
For most of the other Guinness Premiership coaches, however, it’s a case of stepping into the unknown in 2008/09, with Newcastle Director of Rugby Steve Bates saying: “I don’t think the new laws will be very difficult to referee, they are all fairly straightforward, it is more the tactical implications that will be interesting.
“We haven’t really seen enough rugby in European winter conditions to evaluate what difference they will make, and we won’t know that until it starts chucking down and snowing every week in December.
“It’s fine watching these pristine pitches and sunny conditions in the southern hemisphere, but on a wet and windy Friday at Kingston Park it could well be a different story when it turns in to a kicking fest.
“I think most people are agreed the five-metre off-side line at the scrum will be excellent for the game, and we will see a lot of play developing from the scrummage.
“The change to the driving maul law is a good one, because realistically you couldn’t really stop it, but now it means you have to be much more technically adept to get a good rolling maul going.”
Weekend fixtures, teams and predictions:
Saturday, September 6
London Irish v London Wasps, 14.30 local time (15.30 SA time)
Referee: Andrew Small
London Irish: 15 Peter Hewat, 14 Topsy Ojo, 13 Delon Armitage, 12 Seilala Mapusua, 11 Sailosi Tagicakibau, 10 Mike Catt (captain), 9 Paul Hodgson, 8 Chris Hala’Ufia, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 Richard Thorpe, 5 Nick Kennedy, 4 Gary Johnson, 3 Faan Rautenbach, 2 Danie Coetzee, 1 Alex Corbisiero.
Replacements: 16 Dan Murphy, 17 David Paice, 18 James Buckland, 19 Jon Fisher, 20 Adam Thompstone, 21 Peter Richards, 22 Eoghan Hickey.
London Wasps: 15 Mark van Gisbergen, 14 Paul Sackey, 13 Dominic Waldouck, 12 Josh Lewsey, 11 Tom Voyce, 10 Riki Flutey, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 James Haskell, 7 Tom Rees, 6 Joe Worsley, 5 Richard Birkett, 4 Simon Shaw, 3 Pat Barnard, 2 Raphaël Ibañez (captain), 1 Tim Payne.
Replacements: 16 Rob Webber, 17 Phil Vickery, 18 Tom Palmer, 19 John Hart, 20 Joe Simpson, 21 Jeremy Staunton, 22 Lachlan Mitchell.
rugby365.com prediction: Wasps lost their London Double Header clash to Saracens last season, but don’t expect the same to happen against the Exiles this season. The champions are battling with a few injuries, but they should have enough in the tank to win their opening clash of the new season.
Saturday, September 6
Saracens v Harlequins, 17.00 local time (18.00 SA time)
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Saracens: 15 Dan Scarbrough, 14 Francisco Leonelli, 13 Kevin Sorrell, 12 Adam Powell, 11 Kameli Ratuvou, 10 Glen Jackson, 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Michael Owen, 7 David Seymour, 6 Chris Jack, 5 Hugh Vyvyan, 4 Steve Borthwick (captain), 3 Cencus Johnston, 2 Matt Cairns, 1 Nick Lloyd.
Replacements: 16 Fabio Ongaro, 17 Cobus Visagie, 18 Andy Saull, 19 Ben Skirving, 20 Moses Rauluni, 21 Gordon Ross, 22 Rodd Penney.
Harlequins: 15 Mike Brown, 14 David Strettle, 13 Gonzalo Tiesi, 12 Jordan Turner-Hall, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Nick Evans, 9 Danny Care, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Will Skinner (captain), 6 Chris Robshaw, 5 George Robson, 4 Ollie Kohn, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Tani Fuga, 1 Ceri Jones.
Replacements: 16 Aston Croall, 17 John Brooks, 18 Jim Evans, 19 Tom Guest, 20 Andy Gomarsall, 21 Waisea Luveniyali, 22 Epi Taione.
rugby365.com prediction: This is probably the toughest game to call… Sarries have a ‘new’ coach in Eddie Jones, whilst Harlequins will be looking to make a good start to the new season after their promising 2007/08. We’re going to put our money on Quins – who are basically playing at ‘home’ (across the road from their regular home ground, the Stoop), despite this being an ‘away’ game – for the narrowest of victories.
Sunday, September 7
Northampton Saints v Worcester Warriors, 13.30 local time (14.30 SA time)
Referee: Sean Davey
Northampton Saints: 15 Bruce Reihana (captain), 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Jon Clarke, 12 James Downey, 11 Sean Lamont, 10 Carlos Spencer, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Scott Gray, 6 Neil Best, 5 Christian Day, 4 Ignacio Fernandez-Lobbe, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Paul Shields, 1 Soane Tonga’uiha.
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 Tom Smith, 18 Alex Rae, 19 Mark Hopley, 20 Ben Foden, 21 Stephen Myler, 22 Joe Ansbro.
Worcester Warriors: 15 Chris Latham, 14 Rico Gear, 13 Dale Rasmussen, 12 Sam Tuitupou, 11 Miles Benjamin, 10 Matthew Jones, 9 Matt Powell, 8 Kai Horstmann, 7 Tom Wood, 6 Netani Talei, 5 Craig Gillies, 4 Greg Rawlinson (captain), 3 Tevita Taumoepeau, 2 Aleki Lutui, 1 Matt Mullan.
Replacements: 16 Chris Horsman, 17 Chris Fortey, 18 Will Bowley, 19 James Collins, 20 Ryan Powell, 21 Loki Crichton, 22 Chris Pennell.
rugby365.com prediction: Saints to make a winning return to England’s top-flight, despite the visitors boasting the likes of Chris Latham and Rico Gear – two huge attacking threats – in their back three.
Sunday, September 7
Bristol Rugby v Bath Rugby, 15.00 local time (16.00 SA time)
Referee: Chris White
Bristol Rugby: 15 Luke Arscott, 14 Tom Arscott, 13 Junior Fatialofa, 12 Kevin Maggs, 11 David Lemi, 10 Adrian Jarvis, 9 Haydn Thomas, 8 Dan Ward-Smith, 7 Joe El Abd (captain), 6 Andrew Blowers, 5 Robert Sidoli, 4 Nathan Budgett, 3 Jason Hobson, 2 Scott Linklater, 1 Mark Irish.
Replacements: 16 David Blaney, 17 Scott Linklater, 18 Mariano Sambucetti, 19 Redford Pennycook, 20 Graeme Beveridge, 21 Ed Barnes, 22 Greg Barden.
Bath Rugby: 15 Nick Abendanon, 14 Joe Maddock, 13 Alex Crockett, 12 Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, 11 Matt Banahan, 10 Butch James, 9 Michael Claassens, 8 Jonny Faamatuainu, 7 Michael Lipman (captain), 6 Stuart Hooper, 5 Peter Short, 4 Justin Harrison, 3 Matt Stevens, 2 Lee Mears, 1 David Barnes.
Replacements: 16 Pieter Dixon, 17 Duncan Bell, 18 David Flatman, 19 James Scaysbrook, 20 Scott Bemand, 21 Shaun Berne, 22 Andrew Higgins.
rugby365.com prediction: These West Country derbies are not the easiest of games to call, with upsets seemingly the order of the day. However, we are going to play it safe and go with Bath here – mainly due to the promise they showed last season and also because of their powerful-looking team. James makes a big difference at No.10, but expect an almighty front-row battle to decide which halfbacks get the most ball.
Sunday, September 7
Newcastle Falcons v Sale Sharks, 15.00 local time (16.00 SA time)
Referee: Martin Fox
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Alex Tait, 14 Tom May, 13 Jamie Noon, 12 Spencer Davey, 11 John Rudd, 10 Rory Clegg, 9 James Grindal, 8 Phil Dowson (captain), 7 Brent Wilson, 6 Adam Balding, 5 Mark Sorenson, 4 Andy Buist, 3 Carl Hayman, 2 Andy Long, 1 Joe McDonnell.
Replacements: 16 Matt Thompson, 17 Micky Ward, 18 Geoff Parling, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Hall Charlton, 21 Steve Jones, 22 Tim Visser.
Sale Sharks: 15 Mathew Tait, 14 Mark Cueto, 13 Luke McAlister, 12 Lee Thomas, 11 David Doherty, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Dwayne Peel, 8 Sebastien Chabal, 7 JM Fernandez-Lobbe (captain), 6 Luke Abraham, 5 Dean Schofield, 4 Chris Jones, 3 Eifion Roberts, 2 Neil Briggs, 1 Lionel Faure.
Replacements: 16 Marc Jones, 17 Andrew Sheridan, 18 Brent Cockbain, 19 Sean Cox, 20 Richard Wigglesworth, 21 Chris Bell, 22 Rory Lamont.
rugby365.com prediction: Many are tipping Newcastle to make the drop this season, especially now that they are without two of their most influential backs in Toby Flood and Mat Tait. The ‘other’ guy who makes a difference, one Jonny Wilkinson, is not playing and thus won’t be able to prevent a win for Tait’s new team, the Sale Sharks.
Sunday, September 7
Gloucester Rugby v Leicester Tigers, 16.00 local time (17.00 SA time)
Referee: Dave Pearson
Gloucester Rugby: 15 Olly Morgan, 14 James Simpson-Daniel, 13 Mike Tindall (captain), 12 Anthony Allen, 11 Lesley Vainikolo, 10 Ryan Lamb, 9 Rory Lawson, 8 Luke Narraway, 7 Alasdair Strokosch, 6 Peter Buxton, 5 Marco Bortolami, 4 Will James, 3 Carlos Nieto, 2 Andy Titterrell, 1 Nick Wood.
Replacements: 16 Olivier Azam, 17 Dave Young, 18 Alex Brown, 19 Andy Hazell, 20 Gareth Cooper, 21 Willie Walker, 22 Matthew Watkins.
Leicester Tigers: 15 Geordan Murphy, 14 Tom Varndell, 13 Dan Hipkiss, 12 Aaron Mauger (captain), 11 Alesana Tuilagi, 10 Toby Flood, 9 Harry Ellis, 8 Jordan Crane, 7 Ben Herring, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Ben Kay, 4 Richard Blaze, 3 Julian White, 2 George Chuter, 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Dan Cole, 18 Marco Wentzel, 19 Ben Woods, 20 Julien Dupuy, 21 Sam Vesty, 22 Matt Smith.
rugby365.com prediction: Along with the Saracens-Quins game, this is another tough game to call correctly. Amazingly, Gloucester won at Welford Road last season and Leicester won twice at the ‘Shed’ – including their epic semifinal victory, a result that will still have Kingsholm faithful smarting. We’re going to plump for Gloucester, but not by many in a game that has some salivating one-on-one match-ups across the board.Tweet