The summer break is about to come to an end, as this week sees the hotly anticipated start of the 2015/16 rugby season, and there is an abundance of action to look forward to in a packed opening weekend.
All of the Six Nations teams are in action once more – a final run-out and fine-tuning in advance of the Rugby World Cup, which is now just over two weeks away.
England v Ireland at Twickenham (k.o 14:30) is a huge game for two teams hoping to bounce back from defeats in their last games. England as hosts will be hoping to assert pressure on an Irish pack that seemed vulnerable at times against Wales in Dublin. The talismanic Jonny Sexton will need to be back to his accurate best if Ireland – currently ranked third in the world – wish to put down a marker against the World Cup host nation. Jonathan Joseph will hope to ignite England’s attacking threat, while Geoff Parling – one of my players of the 2013 Lions tour – returns in the second row.
Wales v Italy follows at 17:00 with Sam Warburton captaining a strong Welsh team. Scotland ran riot against Italy last weekend, and I expect a ruthless performance from Wales in preparation for their World Cup opener against Uruguay.
Scotland are on the road again, this time against France, with kick off in Paris at 20:00. Both teams will be hoping to conclude their warm-up series with victories following a mixed bag of results all round.
Elsewhere, the Pro12 explodes back to life this weekend, with the pick of the fixtures being Ulster v Ospreys. The Swansea based region got off to a flying start last term, recording victories in their first six games. They will be looking to repeat that sort of form here, having reportedly had a good pre-season that culminated in an away victory over Saracens. The other Pro12 fixtures this week include Connacht v Newport Gwent Dragons, Glasgow v Scarlets and Cardiff Blues v Zebre.
The Principality Premiership is trialling a new points system this season, which will see six points awarded for a try, and two points awarded for conversions, penalty-kicks and drop-goals. It will be really interesting to see how this effects the tactical element of the game. It is hoped that increasing the value of a try will encourage more open, attacking play, but there are those who believe reducing the points awarded for a penalty-kick could result in more cynical play, with fewer points at stake for infringements. Bridgend host Ebbw Vale this opening weekend, a team that has soared in recent seasons, and who I predict to finish in the top four this year. Current champions Pontypridd begin defence of their crown away at Llanelli.
Finally, a huge shout out needs to go to Nantymoel RFC, who last season won promotion to League 2 West Central. Their season begins at home against Aberavon Green Stars RFC. Up The ‘Moel!