It's the morn of the big kick off and, like a child eagerly charging downstairs on Christmas dawn in the hope that the Power Rangers Megazord has found its way into Santa's sack, we can continue the new season enthusiasm with Part 4 of our Premiership Preview.
Please note that the above mentioned Megazord was well worth the wait.
Coach: Steve Diamond. He may look like a chap who works the door of your local Yates' Wine Bar, but there's more to Diamond than meets the eye. Having led a Sale recovery from an atrocious 2012-13 season, big Steve produced one of the most irritating, ball-pinching defences in the league and an attack with no lack of imagination. Plus, any man who can harness the mercurial talents and boyish charms of Danny Cipriani deserves a pat on the back.
Captain: Dan Braid. The Kiwi import has been a revelation for the Sharks, working in tandem with his flanking partner Dave Seymour to rank amongst the turnover kings in the Premiership. A real dog of a flanker who will always be at the coal-face – and one who usually chips in with a couple of crucial tries as well – he will need to be at his disruptive best if the Sharks are to challenge for the Top 6 again.
What happened last year? A very welcome improvement in the north-west, as the Sharks once again found their teeth. With a home win against Saints and a 50 point away drubbing of the Chiefs particular highlights, Sale were pretty much 'in' every game they played – even the ones they lost, against the top teams. The trick now is take the next step.
How do they look this year? On the face of it, there's a few big names leaving that could leave the Sharks a bit short – talented prop Henry Thomas, lively full back Rob Miller and stalwart James Gaskell, but they've also made a couple of cracking signings to make up for it. Nathan Hines still has the physicality to perform at this level and Luke McLean is one of the best fullbacks in Europe. Keep an eye out for old-boy Magnus Lund, too, as he returns after a difficult season with injury in Biarritz. He remains an abrasive presence on the flanks.
Players out: James Gaskell (Wasps), Tom Holmes (Rotherham), Kiril Kulemin (Perpignan), Rob Miller (Wasps) Dwayne Peel (Bristol), Henry Thomas (Bath)
Players in: Chris Cusiter (Glasgow), Darren Fearn (Bedford Blues), Nathan Hines (Clermont), Magnus Lund (Biarritz), Alberto De Marchi (Treviso), Luke McLean (Treviso)
Key Player: Danny Cipriani. Already off to a better start as he hasn't been tackling any public transport in post-season shenanigans, Cirpirani built nicely throughout the year and was rewarded with a call up on the England tour to New Zealand. At his best, he seems to have a huge amount of time on his hands and can create gaps with his eyes – important for a Sale Sharks side that perhaps lacks the out-and-out freaks of nature that Saints and Tigers have in their back line.
One to Watch: Michael Paterson. OK, at 29, he is no spring chicken, but last season really propelled him onto the domestic radar in England. A strong performer in the set-piece, it was his work with the ball in hand that really caught the eye – palming off tacklers and bursting through gaps with a surprising turn of pace. If he can carry on from where he left off, the Sharks will have an absolute gem on their hands – and perhaps England will come knocking.
Prediction: 7th. The Sharks will be difficult opponents once again for any side – especially in Salford – but they don't seem to have really made any signings to take them forward. The players they have brought in are very good, don't get me wrong, but it strikes me that they are simply replacing very good players who have left. They'll be around the Top 6, I'm sure, but they'll fall just short.
Coach: Mark McCall. Quiet, understated, pleasant – he's almost the polar opposite of his predecessor, Brendan Venter, but he has the same effect on his team. A man with a clear, tactical vision, he got Sarries out of the kick-chase dross they were serving up two seasons ago to play some fantastic power-based rugby last term.
Captain: Alistair Hargreaves. Steve Borthwick takes with him a face that looks like a scrunched up flannel and leaves behind a mightily big pair of shoes to fill in terms of the Sarries captaincy. Hargreaves is the ideal man to step up though and echoes a lot of Borthwick's best qualities – durable, brave and physical – and those in the know are confident he'll excel in his new responsibility.
What happened last year? In so many ways, it was a magnificent year for Saracens. They played some scintillating rugby at times, based off the back of a hugely physical pack, and there were few teams that could live with them at full flow as they dominated the Premiership Season for 9 months. The flipside was the burnout of playing at such a high level for so long, as the men in black fell agonisingly short of both the European title and the Premiership title.
How do they look this year? There's no real big name signings (although Juan Figallo is a formidable prop), indicating that McCall is rightly pretty happy with the quality he has at his disposal and the talent he has coming through. Last season has to be looked at it context – meaning that, although it was a silverware-free campaign, the standard that they consistently produced and the style of rugby they played was a tremendous positive.
Players out: Nic Auterac (Bath), Steve Borthwick (retired), James Short (London Irish), Matt Stevens (Sharks), Michael Tagikacibau (Scarlets)
Players in: Michael Ellery (England Sevens), Juan Figallo (Montpellier), Jim Hamilton (Montpellier), Kieran Longbottom (Western Force), Phil Thiel
Key Player: Billy Vunipola. Big Billy had a superb season last year, cementing his England place and improving his fitness levels – but not to the point where he could avoid fading badly towards the tail-end of the season. In my opinion he still needs to do a lot of work on his conditioning – if he can get himself quicker, fitter and shed just a couple of pounds of blubber, he will be almost unplayable. Even if he stays as he is, he's a crucial cog in Saracens gameplan – they rely on him to get over the gainline off first or second phase ball.
One to Watch: Will Fraser. He may not exactly be a new name but Fraser will feel like a new signing after a horrendous run of injuries which saw him miss the majority of last season. A different kind of flanker to Jacques Burger, the talented openside is superb over the ball and a solid carrier – as well as being able to weigh in with the big hits. He was our player of the season in 2012-13 and he'll be back with a bang this term. Keep an eye out for lively scrum half Ben Spencer as well, who should get more game time this term.
Prediction: 1st (Champions). I have a couple of doubts about the quality in depth of their tight 5 and perhaps the wings but, who am I kidding, this is a high quality and exceptionally well-drilled Saracens outfit. I don't think they'll dominate the league season like they did last time but, ironically, I think it will help them at the business end of the season. I suspect they'll ensure they have enough left in the tank to finish the job this time around.
Coach: Dai Young. A big man and a big personality, his work with Wasps has been admirable under often difficult circumstances – usually off the pitch. He'll have more headaches to deal with this time around, too, with murmurs of a move to Coventry doing the rounds.
Captain: James Haskell. James 'the Brand' Haskell is the marmite of the English game, loved or loathed by supporters for his endless, loud and often average banter. I'm well and truly in the Pro-Brand Haskell camp – he's a real character in a game where we are treated to PR monkeys every week, and his performances last year suggest that his off-field business interests have only heightened his passion for rugby, playing with relentless physicality and energy. It seems he now knows when to joke and when to perform, and it is probably the right time for him to take on the responsibility of captaincy.
What happened last year? I felt pretty sorry for Wasps. They have two of the most dangerous finishers in the land on either flank, and they had them both fit at the same time for all of about 2 games. Having that lack of incision out wide hurt Wasps in what was actually a very respectable campaign considering all factors, in which they were challenging for the top 6 before falling just short late on in the season. They'll be targeting a step up this time around.
How do they look this year? It's been a year of change at Wasps at there's been some smart signings made in an effort to bolster that pack and the depth out wide. Cittadini and Davies are both grizzled internationals who will add real bite to the front 8, whilst Leuia and Miller will offer pace and guile out wide. It could go one of two ways for Wasps – if they stay focused, and ignore the off-field whispers, they could challenge the Top 6 again, but if they let external events catch up with them, they may be in for a season of mediocrity.
Players out: Tommy Bell (Jersey), Joe Carlisle (Treviso), Neil Cochrane (Edinburgh), Liam O'Neill (Nottingham), Tom Palmer (Gloucester), Rory Pitman (Scarlets), Ricky Reeves (London Welsh), Brett Sheehan (Narbonne), Hugo Southwell (retired), Taione Vea (London Welsh)
Players in: Lorenzo Cittadini (Treviso), Bradley Davies (Cardiff Blues), James Gaskell (Sale), Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow), Buster Lawrence (Moseley), Alapati Leiua (Hurricanes), Alex Lozowski (Leeds), Rob Miller (Sale), Nathan Morris (London Welsh), Ed Shervington (Worcester), Sailosi Tagicakibau (London Irish), Thomas Young (Gloucester).
Key Player: Christian Wade. Arguably the likes of Bradley Davies or the impressive Nathan Hughes will have more say in games, but Wasps need to keep their chief finisher fit and firing. If they can keep on the field, they will know that even in tight games, they have someone who can create something from nothing. He has a point to prove too, with England's wing spots still well and truly up for grabs.
One to Watch: Alapati Leiua. Keep an eye out for talented hooker Nathan Morris as well, but Alapati Leiua is probably a name you haven't heard too much before – or have tried to spell. A brief bit of background – he's a Samoan international with seven caps, he can play wing or centre, and he can score tries like the below. Yep, he's good.
Prediction: 10th. It may surprise some people but I have a sneaking suspicion that this may be a difficult season for Wasps, despite having some undoubted talent on both the field and coaching sides, as well having a couple of decent signings coming in. They won't be in a relegation scrap – but with a relatively frustrating first half to 2014 and with whisperings of ground moves permeating the squad, it may be hard to keep the side focused and motivated.