Newcastle v Bath
Bath’s plethora of new signings face a potential banana skin on the opening weekend of the season, in the form of their trip up to Newcastle. It is a long old journey for the West Countrymen and their new boys know they need to gel straight away to get a win at Kingston Park. Matt Garvey and Leroy Houston add bite to their back-row, while the centre partnership of Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph, if put in the right areas by George Ford, has the potential to devastate with its pace. For Newcastle the Scottish half-back pairing of Mike Blair and Phil Godman, both new signings, will be vital – if they can control the game then Newcastle have more than a decent chance of coming away with an impressive first scalp. Expect Andy Saull to shine, also.
Dean Richards will have prepared a wily outfit that will give Bath a run for their money, but ultimately the men from the West Country should come out on top. Bath by 6.
London Irish v Saracens
The first game of the London double header looks to be a relatively straightforward affair (cue huge upset). Irish have lost the majority of their top players without signing any of the calibre, while Saracens have a quiet strength about them that nobody has really discussed in the off-season. They have, however, gambled with their first team selection, naming new boy Billy Vunipola at blindside to accommodate Ernst Joubert. Vunipola’s mobility and work rate will certainly be tested, and it will be fascinating to see if this area of his game has improved the way his brother Mako’s did when he moved to Sarries. Dave Strettle and Chris Ashton both have points to prove after middling seasons last year, so expect to see them working hard. Mind you they will be up against Irish’s greatest area of strength; their back three of Ojo, Tagicakibau and Yarde has copious amounts of pace and power. If they get the ball there could be tries – but that is a big if.
The Sarries pack looks immense, and will steamroll Irish into submission – hopefully Yarde and his pals will get the chance to entertain us at some point, though. Saracens by 23.
Gloucester v Sale Sharks
Gloucester’s team, from six to fifteen, is immensely exciting. Their front five is far from the best in the league, but then neither is Sale’s, so they are unlikely to suffer too much this weekend in that area. The back-row trio of Kalamafoni, Kvesic and Morgan is beautifully balanced, with pace, power and prowess at the breakdown in equal measures. Burns and Twelvetrees have the ditribution and vision to free the likes of Trinder, Sharples and Simpson-Daniel – there could be tries aplenty for the Kingsholm faithful to get their teeth into. The most notable feature of Sale’s team is the absence of Danny Cipriani – the marmite man does not even make the bench, where Joe Ford, elder brother of the precocious George, is set to make his debut. New captain Dan Braid joins Dave Seymour and James Gaskell to form what is a massively mobile back-row, and they will have to be at their best to counter the threat of Gloucester’s.
The Cherry and Whites are tipped to trouble the top four this season, and they should get off to a comfortable winning start here. Gloucester by 15.
Northampton Saints v Exeter Chiefs
The Saints have, on paper, the strongest team in the Premiership. They have offered a trio of debutants a first start, with victorious Lions George North and Alex Corbisiero in the line-up, as well as no.8 Sam Dickinson. The back-row player was actually at the club last season, but saw his campaign ruined by injury. The back-line combines the power of Burrell, George Pisi and North with the guile of Ben Foden and the raw pace of Ken Pisi, while box-of-tricks Kahn Fotuali’i will make an impact from the bench. The Chiefs name a typically settled squad, with Tom James the only new addition on the wing. England U20 stars Henry Slade and Sam Hill could feature from the bench, alongside the only other new signing in the squad scrum-half Dave Lewis.
It is a tough one to call. On paper the Saints look far superior but as everyone knows, you can never write the Chiefs off – they are part of the furniture in the Premiership now. They have never won at Franklin’s Gardens, and that is unlikely to change – but they could well bag a bonus point. Northampton by 7.
London Wasps v Harlequins
If this game is half as exciting as it was last year, it will be an absolute belter. With the weather forecast looking decent and two teams that love to chuck the ball about, it is all set to be a cracking game at Twickenham. Wasps’ free-scoring flyers Christian Wade and Tom Varndell are set to recommence their try-tally rivalry, while wily old Andy Goode will direct the show from fly-half. Matt Mullan – arguably one of the shrewdest signings of the off-season – starts at loose-head, on the other side of the scrum from fellow debutant Jake Cooper-Wooley. Quins have been rocked by the news of Nick Kennedy’s long term injury, so George Merrick comes in to partner Robson in the second row. Will Collier has the unenviable task of filling James Johnstone’s sizeable boots – without the giant Samoan and Olly Kohn, the Quins tight five looks ever so slightly undercooked.
It should be a fantastic game between two teams that love to play it fast and loose. It could come down to one score either way, but Quins look to have just about enough. Harlequins by 3.
Leicester Tigers v Worcester Warriors
Dean Ryan’s first task as the new Worcester boss is an unenviable one – attempt to win at Welford Road. While by no means impossible – the fortress has been penetrated a few times over the last couple of seasons – it is a terribly difficult place to win at the best of times. The Tigers have injury issues aplenty but can still boast a very strong squad, with Ed Slater, Ben Youngs and Manu Tuilagi all set to feature from the bench. Ryan Lamb and Dan Bowden form an intriguing 10-12 partnership that, should it click, has the ability to create oodles of space for the quick men out wide. Look out for young Owen Williams coming off the bench too, a star name for the future. Worcester’s team includes several new faces, most importantly the new half back pairing of Jeremy Su’a and former Chief Ignacio Mieres. How they play early on in the season will go a long way to dictating the Warriors’ fortunes. Dean Schofield and new captain Jon Thomas will brovide grunt and grit in the pack, and coached by Dean Ryan one thing is for certain – Worcester will not take a backwards step.
They will battle admirably but it is highly unlikely that Worcester will get off to a winning start this year. Leicester by 20.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images