Worcester take on Northampton tonight in their season opener tonight at Sixways: 19:45 kick-off
England’s Kieran Brookes makes Saints debut in the front row
Donncha O’Callaghan, Phil Dowson, Wynand Olivier, Tom Heathcote and Darren Barry make their bows for newly-promoted Warriors
Friday’s big opener pits together two sides who could barely have been further apart in English rugby’s hierarchy last year; while Saints were busy finishing top of the Premiership, eventually falling in the semi-finals, Worcester finished second in the Championship before securing promotion courtesy of a dramatic 59-58 win over Bristol over two legs.
But tonight, they are equals.
Worcester, and a fair number of their players, are no strangers to the rigours of the Premiership, having been relegated by six points in 2014. London Welsh’s well-documented woes will have given Warriors boss Dean Ryan food for thought, but some impressive off-season recruitment, including Saints stalwart, Phil Dowson suggests they are not here to simply make up the numbers.
However, Northampton will be determined to banish the Blues of their 24-29 play-off collapse at the hands of Saracens last season and an opening-night win over an boisterous opponent would be the perfect tonic.
Northampton will inevitably take time to fill the hole that last year’s leading scorer Smau Manoa has left, but they will be certain to harbour title ambitions once more this year.
For the Warriors, Donncha O’Callaghan, Phil Dowson, Wynand Olivier, Tom Heathcote and Darren Barry have all been selected in the starting line-up and are set for their club debuts, while Kieran Brookes, a member of England’s World Cup squad, gets ready to make his bow in Northampton’s front row.
Worcester will be looking for a fast start to unsettle their visitors early on. After racking up 858 points in the Championship last year, promoting and retaining the ball to help starve Saints of possession and produce home chances, will be key if they are to pull off a win.
Northampton have class all over the pitch and, if they are are their best, they should pick up a win. But opening nights like this don’t come around too often, so the hosts will take home the spoils.
Worcester by 3.
Players to Watch
In a match which could set the tone for the season ahead, both captains will be looking to lead from the front.
Gerrit-Jan van Velze – Worcester Warriors
A veteran of 24 Warriors appearances, the hulking forward has settled well into the his new side. Having spent two years at Northampton prior to his switch to Sixfields, he will be keen to make a big impression on his return to the top tier. The South African, who also spent time with Blue Bulls, has plenty of big game experience to call upon, having featured off the bench in Saints’ 2013 Premiership Final clash with Leicester Tigers, but leading his side to the spoils tomorrow would surely be as sweet as any win in his career.
Lee Dickson – Northampton Saints
Dickson will be running out as captain for the first time tomorrow, but the tricky half has all the attributes to succeed in his new role. The former England man is a sticky competitor and will provide a stellar test as he looks to lock horns with van Velze. Germany born, Dickson began his career with Newcastle Falcons and has blossomed into a crucial cog in the hugely successful Northampton machine since switching to the Midlands in 2008.
Worcester: 15 Chris Pennell, 14 Cooper Vuna, 13 Wynand Olivier, 12 Ryan Mills, 11 Tom Biggs, 10 Tom Heathcote, 9 Jonny Arr, 8 GJ van Velze (c), 7 Sam Lewis, 6 Phil Dowson, 5 Darren Barry, 4 Donncha O’Callaghan, 3 Nick Schonert, 2 Niall Annett, 1 Val Rapava Ruskin.
Replacements: 16 Dan George, 17 Na’ama Leleimalefaga, 18 Joe Rees, 19 Darren O’Shea, 20 Marco Mama, 21 Charlie Mulchrone, 22 Alex Grove, 23 Perry Humphreys.
Northampton: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 Tom Stephenson, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jamie Elliott, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Lee Dickson (c), 8 Sam Dickinson, 7 Jon Fisher, 6 Jamie Gibson, 5 Christian Day, 4 Michael Paterson, 3 Kieran Brookes, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Alex Waller.
Replacements: 16 Mike Haywood, 17 Ethan Waller, 18 Paul Hill, 19 Teimana Harrison, 20 Ben Nutley, 21 Kahn Fotuali’i, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 George Pisi.
Date: Friday, October 16
Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Referee: Gregory Garner
Assistant referees: Andrew Pearce, Paul Dix
Television match official: Geoffrey Warren
Timekeeper: Matthew Peters
Assessor: Nigel Yates