The Aviva Premiership has been wonderfully unpredictable in the last few years. That has made great viewing for the neutrals out there with no one team dominating like Leicester used to and different champions emerging at the end of typically bruising campaigns.
It has not however, been a great spectacle for Gloucester and Bath supporters out there and they'll be praying for better when it all kicks off again on Saturday.
A new season at Bath brings with it a change of guard and a change of tack. Head coach Gary Gold has assembled one of the largest coaching squads in the premiership, including Mike Ford, who was the national team defence coach under Martin Johnson until the fall-out after the last world cup. Only Brad Davis has survived the 'restructure' at Bath since Sir Ian McGeechan's reign as director of rugby came to an inglorious end last season. In total there are now five first team coaches to cater to the players' every need. Gold espouses a new ethos at the club's state-of-the-art training base at Farleigh House. He wants more honesty and endeavour, which will probably translate to greater accountability if his team or certain players fall short. Anything will be an improvement on last year's dross, when Bath spent the majority of the season struggling at the wrong end of the table. Mega rich owner Bruce Craig will expect to see some return sooner rather than later on his considerable outlay.
Gloucester's situation is markedly similar, after they fell short of expectations and fell away badly at the end of last season to finish outside the Heineken Cup places. Head coach Bryan Redpath resigned his position towards the end, only to reappear at Sale a few weeks later. It actually made life easy for the board at Kingsholm. Such was the growing sound of dissatisfaction in the stands that they might have been forced into change of direction anyway. Now they have a new head coach in Nigel Davies, eight new players, and it's as though the whole place has been reinvigorated. The existing squad have obviously taken to the Welshman, who's personality is far warmer and less brusque than his predecessor. Like Bath, Gloucester haven't qualified for the heineken Cup this time, so they'll be going all-out for the Premiership. There's no reason why this team, packed with the best young talent amongst their backs, can't mount a serious challenge.
The Chiefs wildly exceeded their Premiership aspirations in only their second year in the top flight. they just issed out on the play-offs by finishing fifth and also reached the European Challenge Cup quarter-finals. This year, their third in the top flight of English rugby, will be their greatest challenge yet. Rob Baxter's boys have more on their plates because they're making a first foray into the Heineken Cup. The experience will be great but an early exit won't necessarily be a bad thing. History shows that teams struggle to juggle the demands of the Premiership and a first season in Europe's top competition. The Chiefs have made several additions to the squad to help with the extra workload but the first six weeks will be telling as they come up against some of the big boys of the Premiership.
In the Championship, the much criticised play-off system has been restructured and much to everyone's relief. A stodgy, drawn out process involving the top eight teams has been revised to only involve the first four clubs.
But with Newcastle coming down from the Premiership it will be tougher than ever for Bristol to gain promotion. The club has been forced to go back to the drawing board again for this season - their fourth in English rugby's second tier. Under Liam Middleton's stewardship, the team made huge strides last year but having strengthened their ranks again, and with the backing of Bristol City owner Steve Lansdown now also behind them, Bristol will be expected to push for a return to the Premiership. Regardless of what they say publicly.
The Cornish Pirates lost the Championship play-off final in May but couldn't have been promoted anyway because their stadium isn't up to scratch. It's been that way for the last few years and nothing has changed yet. A raft of their best players have left this summer with the proposed stadium for Cornwall no closer to becoming a reality.
Plymouth Albion fought off near financial ruin last year, two changes in head coach, and an abysmal away record to cling to Championship survival. They've enjoyed a successful and undefeated pre-season ,however, to breed optimism within head coach Nat Saumi's squad. In reality, though, another relegation battle is in store.