Usual suspects eye Premiership glory
September 1, 2010
Leicester claimed a memorable triumph in last season's Premiership finale against Saracens at Twickenham © Getty Images
The latest battle for the Premiership crown kicks off this weekend with the new campaign promising to be just as compelling as last season's dramatic finale.
The rugby served up in the latter stages of last season was excellent and we can only hope that trend continues into the new campaign. I don't think we'll see the kind of open games we've seen in the southern hemisphere of late but that's not necessarily a bad thing - there are a lot of other great things about the Premiership - which we will be there for all to see come Friday night when the talking stops and the action begins.
Sale v Newcastle - Edgeley Park, Friday, September 3, KO 7.45pm
Both teams will have been very disappointed with how last season went and will be determined to put it behind them with a good start this season. Sale traditionally do quite well early on and I know Leicester have come unstuck up there before now at this stage of the season. I expect Sale to have the edge particularly with Mike Brewer taking over the coaching reins. He is certainly building for the future with the appointment of 20-year-old lock James Gaskell as his captain and it will be really important that all the senior players get round him and give him the start he needs. It will be a big challenge for Gaskell in particular but from what I have heard he is an outstanding individual with a tremendous attitude to training and playing.
London Irish v Saracens - Twickenham, Saturday, September 4, KO 2.00pm (LIVE on ESPN)
London Irish are another side who will be keen to start afresh after failing to kick on last season but I expect Saracens to be strong once again and come out on top in this one. Both these sides like to play an expansive game but the big battle will be at the breakdown where we may have, depending on fitness, two out and out No.7s going at it in the form of London Irish's Steffon Armitage and Saracens' Andy Saull. For these two attacking teams, the speed of the ball is key and Irish will need to make sure Saracens' Schalk Brits is kept busy scrummaging rather than running with the ball in hand.
Exeter v Gloucester - Sandy Park, Saturday, September 4, KO 3.00pm
It's is going to be very difficult for Exeter this year as it is for any side coming up to the Premiership. I don't think you can pin everything on their start but they certainly need a good performance and could do with making a statement. One of the few advantages they may have is Sandy Park and they will want to make some use of their fans and channel that passion. But Gloucester will no doubt take a fair few fans down there this weekend and I expect their experience to be pivotal - but Exeter will certainly run them close and you never know what might happen on the day.
London Wasps v Harlequins - Twickenham, Saturday, September 4, KO 4.30pm (LIVE on ESPN)
Another close call at Twickenham. Andy Powell has generated plenty of headlines on and off the pitch in the last few years and he'll want to put his golf cart exploits behind him and start his Wasps career with a bang. He is a great signing for them, a very physical player and someone I'm looking forward to watching in action in the Premiership. Riki Flutey is another class player and it's great to see him back in the Premiership. If he can put his injury woes behind him he'll be looking to cement his England status and have a big season as we build towards the World Cup. Ollie Smith has drifted a bit since his Lions call-up but it would be good to see him get back to where he was a few years ago now he has swapped Montpellier for Harlequins. I have a feeling that a change of scene and a return to England will see him do just that.
Leeds Carnegie v Bath - Headingley, Sunday, September 5, KO 3.00pm
Neil Back has raised the bar for Leeds this season and has set his sights on a top six finish rather than simply surviving in the Premiership. It will be a massive ask for them but they fully deserved to stay up last year and I expect them to do so again - but it is such a tight league. I was very impressed with them last year but the second season is always the difficult one and I think Backy has been quite clever by giving them a different focus. However, they face a tough start against Bath who have been buzzing since the arrival of new owner Bruce Craig who is determined to return the club to their heady days. Lewis Moody is a huge signing and will add to any team and that back row is already looking pretty formidable.
Northampton v Leicester - Franklin's Gardens, Sunday, September 5, KO 3.00pm
The prospect of a visit to Franklin's Gardens on the opening day of the season may worry some but I don't think Leicester will be too concerned. It may well have been a fortress for the Saints for much of last year but I think if you have the opportunity to tackle one of your main rivals early in the season when they might be a bit rusty then you would take it. No matter when it takes place, it is a massive game. I've played in my fair share of East Midlands derbies and as special as the London-based boys will feel at Twickenham, the noise and the atmosphere at Franklin's Gardens will be just as powerful.
No matter which way the result goes at Franklin's Gardens, I expect both sides to be there or thereabouts come the end of the season. It is very difficult to look beyond last season's semi-finalists - Leicester, Saracens, Bath and Northampton - when contemplating the likely play-off line-up this time around. At the same time it's such an open competition and predictions are often wrong! Leicester have been phenomenal in terms of their consistency in recent years but they were pushed all the way by Sarries last year and it came down to a stolen kick off.
I was really impressed with Saracens last year but the key for them and teams like them is backing it up season after season. Saracen and Northampton will feel they were robbed last season and that feeling can certainly drive you on. And if Bath can continue on their upward curve then you have an exciting season in the making.
Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN