I bet by the time your reading this, you’ve arrived home from work, kicked off your shoes, stocked up the fridge with your favourite beverage and charged up your numerous electronic devices ready for a weekend of hard-hitting, jaw-dropping rugby action. For the really lucky ones, you’re probably winding your way down to the fortress that is the Gardens for an almighty clash between the Premiership Champions and new-look foes, the Cherry and Whites. Potentially, you’re nearing Thomond Park for the opening Guinness Pro12 fixture, that will see Munster do battle against Edinburgh , or, you may even be in Montpellier for what will be a monstrous Top 14 clash! That’s right, finally top-flight British rugby has returned and what a wait it has been!
Now that European rugby will be in full flow, In The Loose’s ‘Scrum Down’ will give you a detailed preview to the weekend’s top clashes and give you an insight into the head-to-head’s you should keep a close eye on!
The fixture line-up for this week includes:
David Humphrey’s new look Gloucester travelling to Premiership favourites Saints.
Alistair Hargreaves leading out Saracens onto the hailed Twickenham turf for the London Double Header Part 1, to take on a Wasps team back amongst Europe’s finest.
A replay of last season’s Pro12 final with Glasgow donning their boots to take on a strong Leinster side.
Finally, last season’s Championship runner’s up Bristol taking on a Worcester team with a new lease of life.
Northampton Saints v Gloucester
Recruitment for Saints and Gloucester over the summer has been something of a polar opposite. On one hand, the Saints have kept recruitment to a minimum with Falcons youngster Joel Hodgson and former Irish back row, Jon Fisher linking up with Mallinder’s already impressive squad. However, over in Gloucestershire, not only has top quality playing talent been brought in with the likes of Hook, Hibbard and Afoa added to the Cherry and Whites roster, but they’ve also added Irish legend David Humphreys and former Brumbies Coach Laurie Fisher, amongst others to the back-room setup.
After a hugely impressive league season last year, Saints seem to have found the perfect balance in the squad. Not only do they have a wonderful mix of youth and experience, they’ve also crafted a coaching and performance team that rivals any other in world rugby. The introduction of Alex King last year certainly inspired the Saints back-line into topping the try-scoring charts with 72, and align that with their superior defence, Saints remain the favourites to take the English and potentially, European crown.
The Kingsholm faithful will be expecting a changing of the tide come tonight’s encounter after a woeful 2013/14 season. Despite being touted as one of the favourites for a Top 4 finish, Gloucester struggled with consistency and seemed to have little direction or Plan B when things weren’t going quite their way. Despite impressive recruitment with numerous International’s arriving, Gloucester fan’s may have returned to a slight low with the news that James Simpson-Daniel has been force to retire due to an on-going ankle injury. With 14-years filled with pulsating tries and memorable moments, Sinbad will be dearly missed. Let’s hope a star-studded Gloucester team can get off to a positive start.
Hartley v Hibbard- Two of the world’s finest hookers locking horns for another time. Hartley has grown over the last few seasons and continues to demonstrate his technical scrummaging ability as well as his dynamic attacking game and consistency at lineout time. Comparatively, Hibbard will continually make the hard yards and get Gloucester over the gain line, turning and disorganising defences and will add considerable brute in the defensive line.
Myler v Hook- The second highest points scorer last season against an irregularly used asset of Welsh rugby. Myler has shown maturity in his game management of late and varies his position at first receiver, troubling defences. His clinical kicking, will mean Gloucester need to keep their penalty count to a minimum. James Hook offers something a little different, a jinking runner who seems confident with ball in hand, he can find his way through the smallest of gaps in midfield and create opportunities for the likes of May and Trinder. Unable to settle in Perpignan and never a nailed down starter with Wales, hopefully Hook can find his feet with Glaws.
Saracens v Wasps
The nearly team of last year, Saracens have made a few key additions in the pack that Mark McCall believes will give them further strength and domination up front. Whereas Wasps, who similarly have made a host of new signings will feel they have what it takes to book a place in the play-offs.
After the retirement of Premiership legend Steve Borthwick, Hargreaves has been handed the captain’s armband and likely Borthwick’s stacks of lineout notes that quite frankly, made him one of the world’s best in that department. In order for Saracens to go all the way, they need to find a spark of creativity that will help them come out on top during those tight encounters. They’re technically sound, effective up front and sharp in the backs, but occasionally maybe a little too regimented?! Perhaps this may be Saracens season and with the propping potential they hold after adding Longbottom and Figallo to the front row, they’ll definitely be out-scrummaging most sides with ease.
Alapati Leuia is one of the biggest summer signings and soon he’ll be pulling on a Wasps jersey for the very first time. For now though, Wasps will be without his monstrous ball carrying ability, but still look mighty fine with Wade, Tagicackibau and Daly all starring. It’s almost impossible to count the number of signings Dai Young has made on your fingers and toes (impossible if you’re counting Justin Burnell’s signings), yet each and every addition will have a crucial role to play. Perhaps his most inspired additions are in the form of Miller and Jackson, adding creative spark behind the scrum.
Vunipola v Hughes- Two of the finest Number 8’s in the league. England’s no.1 Vunipola will continue to give Saracens great go forward and continuity and will no doubt, take a few long, hanging kick-off’s and charge them 20m back up the field. Hughes, a similar type of player to Vunipola will work hard round the corner and ensure the likes of Simpson and co. get quick ball.
Strettle v Wade- Awesome finishers blessed with pace and power. Strettle will be sure to punish Wasps out-wide should he come up against a lacklustre defence, and will hopefully keep Wade at bay with his sound defensive work. Wade in comparison will light up the pitch with his quick feet and dexterity and want to make a name for himself after a season out on the side-lines.
Haskell against Fraser will be another fantastic battle to watch out for!
Glasgow Warriors v Leinster
It must have been extremely bitter-sweet for Gregor Townsend and his Warriors side last season. Despite losing in the Pro12 final to a ruthless Leinster outfit, Townsend should be extremely happy with how their regular season went. For Leinster, you’d expect nothing less than a solid European run and challenging for the Pro12 title once again, even though they’ll be without the God of Irish rugby, Brian O’Driscoll and the daunting figure of Leo Cullen.
Glasgow will look to score round the flanks and out-wide with their skilful back row and wing pairing of Tommy Seymour and Lee Jones. Leinster will be looking to utilise their strength in the pack and will look to boss the game with their experienced half-back combination.
Healy v Murray- Two British and Irish Lions looking to outmuscle each other up front. Healy, despite being one of the best loosehead’s around still hasn’t reached his full potential and will continue to reap havoc in the midfield with his rampaging runs. Murray, re-joining the club after spells with Saints and Worcester to name a few will be looking to prove his pedigree after a few years of inconsistent club performances. Scrum time will be hugely competitive, however a few penalties in Leinster’s favour wouldn’t surprise me!
Strauss v O’Brien- Two captain’s who will both be looking to get their side on the front foot. Strauss is a wonderful, all round player who will do the basics well and create a platform for Horne to play off. The Tullow Tank will undoubtedly get his engine roaring once again and his team will be looking to him to lead from the front. Who will reign supreme in the walls of Scotstoun Stadium?
Bristol v Worcester Warriors
A preview of this year’s Championship final…?! Bristol will be sore after falling at the final hurdle to London Welsh back in May and with the additions of Peel, Perenise and Lam to name a few, they’ll be looking to have an unbeaten season and work their way back to the top-flight. Worcester are seen to be passing through the brighter stage of their transition under Dean Ryan. After a tough, but impressive pre-season they’ll look to play expansive rugby when possible, with a Premiership quality backline that includes none other than Tom Biggs, Sam Smith and England’s Chris Pennell.
Both teams have recruited intelligently and will believe they are the ones to beat. Worcester seem to have the targets on their chests more than Bristol, so can the Gold and Blues live up to their expectations?
Short & Lemi v Biggs & Smith- You can’t look much further than the lightning pace and unbelievable finishing ability on the flanks. Short, a product of the Worcester Academy and former Warrior David Lemi will be looking to get one over on their old side. Biggs and Smith will be looking to prove their Premiership pedigree and will cause continual issues with their ability to fend and break tackles.
Lam v Betty- Another one of many big head-to-head’s in Sunday’s encounter. Cousin of Pat Lam, Jack will eat up every hard, every hit and jackal at every opportunity. He will be desperate to get Bristol promoted so he can play against the elite. Betty will be part of a aggressive Warriors back-row that doesn’t include either Club Captain GJ Van Velze or Pretorius due to injury. Betty will make his first up tackles and look to make Peel’s competitive Bristol debut, a misery.
What a weekend in store.