On the eve of its opening tonight, when Northampton Saints host Gloucester at Franklin’s Gardens, as ever the rugby’s Premiership seems tantalisingly unpredictable in prospect.
In many respects, the Saints game epitomises what I’m talking about. Saints, the deserved winner of last term’s title, did very little business during the summer. Gloucester, on the other hand – still smarting from their poor 2013/2014 season and constant criticism of their under-powered pack – appeared to opt for “All change, please!” They replaced director of rugby Nigel Davies with Ulster’s David Humphreys, picked up a whole new deck of coaching cards, and acquired more beef for their front five in Wales hooker Richard Hibbard and former All Black prop John Afoa. Most interesting of all, for me at least, is their hiring of James Hook, the mercurial but out of favour Welsh fly half.
Saints will prevail in this one. Gloucester are unlikely to have bedded in their new players properly yet and the best they can hope for tonight is a solid performance and a losing bonus point.
Tomorrow Harlequins take on their fiercest derby rivals London Irish at Twickenham in the second of the London Double Header games.
I haven’t seen the team sheets yet, but am hoping to witness the first appearances of both summer new signings – Marland Yarde (wing) and Asaeli Tikoiratuma (centre/wing) – in the Premiership.
At this stage of the season, sadly, clichés are unavoidable. For Quins much depends upon having a good start … all teams would say that, wouldn’t they? … but in Quins’ case it is vital. On Friday night next week we shall be hosting the formidable double runners-up (Premiership and Heineken Cup) Saracens at the Stoop so a comfortable victory over Irish tomorrow is a must.
However, the London Double Header, which I never attend, is not a particularly happy hunting ground for us. In recent seasons we have tended to squeak home either unimpressively or unexpectedly (who can forget the horror show against Wasps when we gave them a 20-plus points start and then somehow managed to prevail by a single point?) and having bragging rights over the Irish would be very welcome this time.
My own prediction for 2014/2015 – made earlier this week to a London Irish fan – is that Quins will finish fifth in the Premiership, just missing the play-offs. I take no satisfaction or kudos from the fact that two other respected Fleet Street rugby hacks have since reached a similar conclusion without apparently having read mine first.