Who'll be a cut above?
Gail Davis runs the rule over the Premiership's leading lights as we head for the big, blood-free kick-off.
Last Updated: 03/09/10 8:44am
So here we go again... the start of another Premiership season.
There are new sponsors but ahead of the big kick-off the same old headline has dominated this week. Not in the way it did last year, but the most infamous blood substitution and wink has been seen non-stop on every news outlet, as Dr Wendy Chapman awaited her fate for her part in the Bloodgate scandal.
However hard they insisted it wouldn't affect their season, Harlequins suffered the kind of hangover that would turn even the heaviest drinker tee-total. Having finished second two years ago, they failed to even qualify for the Heineken Cup last season and a squad packed with good English talent know under their new director of rugby Conor O'Shea, they have to step up and realise their potential.
The club are no doubt relieved that Dr Chapman was cleared by a GMC disciplinary panel to practice again; there's a new training ground (complete with a huge coffee shop and plenty of female rugby players during the Women's World Cup - which has gone down well) and a feeling that despite the harsh reminder of the shameful cover up this week Harlequins are ready to move onwards and upwards.
Bath too made the headlines last pre-season for all the wrong reasons following a summer drugs scandal. This season, after a miraculous run of form at the end of the last campaign, means they believe they are genuine contenders for the title. The arrival of Sir Ian McGeechan and players like Lewis Moody has done wonders for the team spirit.
Take a look at the Bath team bonding day at Bristol airport (below); my favourite quote of the day came from Olly Barkley. I asked him: "What did you learn about your team today?". "Not to give Lewis Moody a hose - and we make rubbish fireman." (cue a body being dropped head first from the plane). The place and the atmosphere has a completely different feel to this time last year.
So it seems does Sale under Mike Brewer but if the rumours are to be believed it might not be for the better. Brewer was nowhere to be seen at the Premiership launch, Kingsley Jones was given the PR duties along with Charlie Hodgson who even by his often understated standards,was downbeat.
Amongst nearly all the clubs, including the newest name in the premiership Exeter, there was plenty of optimism; e one exception was Sale. There have been so many comings and goings it is hard enough to keep track,let alone predict how they'll perform after narrowly avoiding relegation last seaso. But if you can't be positive at the start of the season what hope?
It will be interesting to see how Brewer's old-school style of management goes down; he put Jones in his place after taking his job and the players were next on his hit-list: "I maybe bringing in new players so the others might not get much rugby." It was becoming clear as to why he left the PR to Jones; the man-management might need a little work, too!
Elsewhere Leicester remain as confident as ever about retaining their Premiership crown, but it's in Europe they'll be looking for a huge improvement. It will be interesting to see how they evolve this season without the likes of Moody, Harry Ellis and Ben Kay - so often the stalwarts of the Tigers side - and of course Twitter after Richard Cockerill banned it following Jordan Crane's decision to announce to the world he was injured a good while before Leicester intended the story to get out.
Expect Saracens to go close again; there is a steely determination among their squad having gone so close last season. Northampton too, have to prove to themselves they can win the big games. Wasps need to prove they can still mix it with the big boys after two baron years and after a season in which the club failed to push on, London Irish need to prove they are genuine contenders.
The change in rules at the later stages of last season will hopefully mean entertaining rugby from day one, especially if the sun keeps shining - let's hope the Premiership begins as it ended. It was an outstanding final full of drama and excitement fought to the very last second.
Just finally, good luck to England's Women's team on Sunday at the Stoop against New Zealand in the World Cup final. England have been beaten by the Black Ferns in the last two finals, so here's hoping it will be third time lucky for Catherine Spencer and her team!
Who do you think will be top togs this year? Let Gail know by filling in the feedback form below...