6 Bold Predictions for Aviva Premiership Opening Weekend
September brings with it the return of the Aviva Premiership season and every bit of champagne rugby that comes with it.
England’s best and brightest kick off their campaigns with more than a few bubbling questions waiting to be answered.
Can Leicester retain their title? Will Northampton Saints’ busy summer recruitment make for a better title challenge? Who’s most likely to see the drop come the end of the season?
We’re likely to get the first hint of those answers and more this weekend, with a few predictions ahead to get the ball rolling.
1. Falcons Not Soaring for Long
Friday sees the promoted Newcastle Falcons get their return to England’s top flight started with a tough home fixture against Bath.
The visitors have made some encouraging moves in recent months despite losing a few key players to retirement and moves abroad. In particular, the arrivals of Juan Pablo Orlandi, George Ford and Martin Roberts are likely to impact first-team matters in a positive way, adding options in the front-row and both half-back positions.
In contrast, the Falcons have added a lot of quantity, but not so much in terms of quality and still look very much like a Championship side at the moment.
In their first steps back in the Premiership, Newcastle should be stopped in their tracks by a side that will be competing for a playoff place this season.
2. George North Gets off to a Try-Scoring Debut
George North is probably the most exciting additions to the Premiership this season, coming off the back of a summer that saw him feature very prominently for the British and Irish Lions on their successful tour of Australia.
Last season, the winger scored nine tries in just 14 league appearances for the Scarlets, showing himself to be an extremely prolific talent on his day.
With George Pisi and Luther Burrell inside him, Jim Mallinder’s marquee signing is likely to get a lot of time carrying the ball after only featuring sporadically in preseason.
Last term, the Exeter Chiefs were defensively mediocre, but any defensive strength they do have doesn't lie on the wings.
Since then, Rob Baxter has added Fetu’u Vainikolo to his ranks, but the marauding weapon that is North should be able to overcome that as he makes the ideal scoring Premiership bow.
3. Teething Problems at the Scrum
A controversial aspect of change in the past few months has been the introduction of yet another new batch of laws around the scrum.
Pushed forward with the aim of making for a fairer, safer set-piece, Brian Moore recently commented in a Telegraph article his support of the change, ensuring that it’s for the best of the sport.
However, not everyone agrees with the shift in dynamic and the concoction of northern and southern hemisphere talent and the Premiership is bound to need some time in adapting to the change.
This weekend, one can expect to see a lot of confusion between players, officials and coaches alike, resulting in a fairly stop-start game at times.
While it may be an obstacle initially, things are only bound to improve as the season goes, Now, however, is when things are most likely to look a bit rusty.
4. Saracens Finish on Top of the Pile
Despite not being able to maintain such dominance in the playoffs, last season saw Saracens finish the regular Premiership season atop England’s pile, and rightfully so.
Fluid in attack and steadfast at the back, not a lot has changed for the London club over the last few months, making for another promising campaign.
About to begin their first full season at the newly christened Allianz Park, things start away from home for Steve Borthwick’s merry band of men, who make the short trip to London Irish on Saturday.
The Reading outfit still appear to be caught in their on-going cycle of settling for just below mid-table and wouldn’t appear set for any great changes this term.
The Exiles had the second-worst defence in the division last season and only managed to salvage ninth place as a result of their ability to win some crunch matches.
Having not added an awful lot of experienced quality to their ranks but losing the key presences of Alex Corbisiero, Joe Ansbro and Jerry Yanuyanutawa, one wouldn’t be absurd to think the sides are even weaker now than they were then.
Saracens should book a comfortable win over their not too distant rivals, with the opportunity for a bonus point certainly on the table to kick things off with a bang.
Tigers Roar on Without Cockerill
As was announced by BBC Sport in late July, Richard Cockerill’s touchline suspension as a result of his actions in last season’s Premiership final would not be reduced, leaving the Tigers head coach with the same nine-game term with which he could stew.
Despite that absence, the reigning champions will have enough game-winning experience within their ranks to be able to overcome the threat of Worcester Warriors this Sunday.
After a fairly decent preseason, it’s now that Leicester’s stars will begin to pick up the pace, with the likes of Tom Croft, Manu Tuilagi and the Youngs brothers all coming off successful tours with the British and Irish Lions.
The Leicester pack has more than enough talent to be able to front up to Worcester’s, although the absence of Toby Flood is a big miss for the hosts, as the fly-half struggles to come back from a concussion.
Worcester are still piecing together their ranks after a busy summer and will see Ignacio Mieres and Jeremy Su’a still finding their feet as a half-back pairing.
Following another season of quality recruitment, the Tigers’ squad runs as deep with talent as ever, and the leadership of those on the pitch will make up for the absence of those off it.
Harlequins Stung by London Wasps
Arguably the pick of week one’s fixtures is the clash that’s set to unfold at Adams Park, where London Wasps host Harlequins.
In a crucial story of key battles, the hosts will have their first taste of what life will be like without the presence of Billy Vunipola in the pack while Harlequins don’t have quite as many issues.
Having said that, Quins have only managed to win one of their three preseason outings and, despite having a very impressive squad of their own, are set to fall victim to one of the Premiership’s re-emerging sides.
Last season, this fixture may have looked like somewhat of a mismatch, but Wasps undoubtedly have as much, if not, more strength than Quins on the wings, boasting the considerable talents of Christian Wade and Tom Varndell.
And it’s in the backs that this encounter will be decided as Conor O’Shea fields Ugo Monye and Mike Brown, as well as former Wasp Paul Sackey in a bid to turn things in his favour.
Preseason went slightly different for Wasps and Dai Young has been quoted by BBC Sport as saying that his club’s briefer summer break will put the team in good stead for a better season.
This Saturday will be the first test as to just whether or not that tactic has paid off, with his improving Wasps side set to repay him with an opening win.