There are, as usual, plenty of things to look forward to in a new season. I, for example, can't wait to see the following: big Sam Burgess try his hand at the proper code, Christian Wade get his full fitness back and start tearing sides up, how Freddie Burns will perform behind a dominant pack and what length skirts the Sarries' cheerleaders will be modelling this year. But, most of all, I want to see more games like the Gloucester v Saints match at Kingsholm last season.
If you need reminding what happened, well, it was epic. Both sides flew into each other, Saints scored a late try that was, in my opinion, the score of the season (set off by some George North magic), before the hosts nabbed the win thanks to a late (and controversial) penalty from Billy Twelvetrees. It was sporting theatre at its finest…and there's every reason to expect a hearty second helping in the opening match of the Premiership season this time round.
Saints' last action in the Premiership was to hoist the comically oversized trophy following a classic Twickenham final. After so long playing the role of plucky runners up, the question has to be: how will they handle the pressure? Everybody will be out to get them. I suspect they'll be fine. The vast majority of their side are old enough to have the experience and nous to deal with the expectation, whilst remaining young enough to actually move a bit, too. A handy combination. And when you look at the likes of the Pisi brothers, North, Lawes and Manoa, you can see that there is easily enough firepower in this Saints side to challenge for honours once again. That's why Mallinder hasn't felt the need to tinker extensively with his squad over the summer.
New coach David Humphreys, on the other hand, leads a new-look Gloucester side into Franklins Gardens – although plenty of those acquisitions were made by his predecessor, Nigel Davies. The Gloucester pack was a laughing stock last season – something that the Shed faithful aren't used to, having seen renowned hard-men Phil Vickery and Mike Teague bleed red and white on the Kingsholm turf. That issue has been addressed with the signings of Afoa, Hibbard and Palmer amongst others – big lumps who won't take a backwards step. They'll fit into the Gloucester way well. There's never been any doubting the ability of the Gloucester backs – especially now they have the nous of James Hook pulling the strings – but playing Saints at Franklins Gardens is a massive challenge first up for the Gloucester pack…and a chance to lay down a marker.
So here we go again. What do we want this season? More of the same please…
Northampton Team News
England full-back Ben Foden is on the bench as he continues to recover from an ankle injury, but fly-half Stephen Myler starts after a calf problem. One of Jim Mallinder's two summer signings, Jon Fisher, is due to make his debut from the bench.
Starting Line-up: Wilson, K Pisi, G Pisi, Burrell, North, Myler, Dickson, Corbisiero, Hartley (capt), Ma'afu, Lawes, Day, Clark, Wood, Manoa
Subs: McMillan, Waller, Denman, Craig, Fisher, Fotuali'i, Hooley, Foden
Courtney Lawes. The England hit man is the figure that haunts Premiership fly halves' dreams, and with good reason too. He was such a major figure for Saints' brutal, title-winning defence and has an uncanny knack of timing those rib-tickling hits on the half-back to perfection. The end result of this is that the 10 is forced to play deeper to avoid getting smashed every time he has the ball, meaning the attack is stifled and an aggressive defence can shut them down behind the gainline. And with a classy operator like James Hook in the 10 shirt – who is not easily flustered – it's imperative that Lawes does a job on him.
Gloucester Team News
New coach David Humphreys has wasted no time in stamping his authority on his new club – internationals Richard Hibbard, John Afoa, Greig Laidlaw and James Hook make their debuts, along with Jacob Rowan, in a more grizzled looking Gloucester line.
Fellow summer signings Mark Atkinson and Steve McColl make the replacements bench, but Gareth Evans (knee), Matt Kvesic (foot) and Nick Wood (back spasms) are not available.
Starting Line-up: Cook; Sharples, Trinder, Twelvetrees (C), May; Hook, Laidlaw; Murphy, Hibbard, Afoa; Savage, Hudson; Kalamafoni, Rowan, Morgan
Subs: Dawidiuk, Thomas, Puafisi, Palmer, Moriarty, Robson, Atkinson, McColl
Billy Twelvetrees. He's the new skipper for the Cherry and Whites and is clearly an influential figure in the backline, but his main job on Friday night will be to offer an outlet to the enormous pressure Hook will be under from the brothers of destruction, Samu Manoa and Courtney Lawes. Whether that is offering an alternative distribution option on the blindside, or standing as a wider second receiver, Twelvetrees must work hard and think smart with his positioning to try and stretch the Northampton defence.
Dylan Hartley v Richard Hibbard. Much has been made of Gloucester's summer signings – bringing big blokes and big names into the pack in an attempt to make it less of a doormat – and what better way to test them against arguably the most aggressive and physical set of forwards in the league. And nobody personifies this battle better than Hartley and Hibbard. Sure, they'll have important roles to play in the set piece but – to be frank – what I want to see are these two boys getting into each other's faces and giving it a right go. These two play rugby in a similar style – aggressive and confrontational – and whoever gets on top in this mini-battle could just set the tone for the rest of their side.
It's all change at Gloucester and we'll certainly see an improvement this year – but not just yet. Saints are the reigning champions and, with that, comes extra pressure, but they have the wise heads in the team to deal with it. With the physicality they have in their pack and the power out wide, I can see Saints overwhelming the visitors in the second half. Expect a tight but enterprising first 40 though. Northampton by 10.
PS A shout out to James Simpson-Daniel, a superb rugby talent who was never allowed to showcase his talents properly on the world stage down to injury. Enjoy the retirement, Sinbad.
What else is happening in the Premiership opening weekend?
Sale Sharks v Bath: Much is expected of Bath this term but it's unlikely to be easy in Salford as they take on Sale. It will be tight, but the West Country outfit have the quality to nick it. Bath by 3.
Saracens v Wasps: Part one of the double header sees pre-season favourites Sarries take on Wasps at Twickenham. Wasps can play some scintillating stuff, but Saracens will have too much force for them. Sarries by 15.
Leicester Tigers v Newcastle Falcons: If a bit of Tuilagi on Tuilagi action floats your boat then head on down to Welford Road, where Manu will be taking on Alex. Tigers have too much quality and should get a bonus point win. Tigers by 18.
London Irish v Harlequins: Irish have invested wisely and will provide a much sterner test this season round, but Quins have so much pace in their side that it's hard to see anything but a win for them. Quins by 9.
London Welsh v Exeter Chiefs: I've picked Chiefs to struggle this season so don't be surprised to see them stunned by the new boys, but I think they've got enough talent there to avoid this particular banana skin. Chiefs by 5.