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Premiership Rugby

Preview – The 2003/4 Zurich Premiership season

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

Last year's Final saw an emphatic 39-3 demolition of regular season kings Gloucester by a rampant Wasps team, with the new format for the first time denying the round-robin winners of the 'champions' mantle, despite finishing a massive 15 points clear at the top.

But Premiership bosses have decided to stick with the winner-takes-all Grand Final format, and all 12 teams will be gunning for one of the coveted top three spots to stake their claim at the silverware.

A pulsating end to last season saw the top flight wave an emotional goodbye to the Bristol Shoguns, who finished bottom of the pile on a thrilling last day, thus preserving the Premiership status of London Irish, Bath and Saracens among others.

National Division One champions Rotherham take their place after being denied entrance on a technicality last season, and the Yorkshire club will be hoping to fare better than the bottom place they endured during their only other year in the Premiership, in the 2000/1 season.

There have been coaching arrivals and departures around the league in the off-season. Veteran Aussie John Connolly arrives at Bath to bolster a coaching staff including countryman Michael Foley, while London Irish's South African coach Brendan Venter has returned to his homeland.

But the biggest shock on the coaching front was the appointment of Australian centre Rod Kafer as head coach at Saracens, following the sacking of Kiwi predecessor Wayne Shelford after their poor season last time round. The inexperienced Kafer had been due to play a backroom role at Sarries, but had not been expected to steer the ship.

The early part of the season coincides with the Rugby World Cup in Australia, and considerable store has been set in how the respective teams perform without their international stars in the opening two or three months.

This has resulted in some canny dabbling in the transfer market, with many coaches specifically choosing players who will not be away with their countries for the global showpiece.

And then current internationals such as Wasps' Samoan hooker Trevor Leota and Saracens' Fijian lock Simon Raiwalui have even turned a deaf ear to the call of their countries at World Cup time and opted to stay in England to fight it out with their clubs.

There have, yet again, been a host of major international signings into the Premiership. From the southern hemisphere come the likes of South African centre Robbie Fleck (Bath), Australian fly-half Duncan McRae (Gloucester), ex-New Zealand scrum-half Mark Robinson (Northampton) and former All Black captain Taine Randell (Saracens).

There has been a sizeable number of top players moving between Zurich Premiership clubs, and the mass exodus from relegated Bristol has seen all of their stars take flight, mainly for other clubs in the league.

They include Julian White (Leicester), Phil Christophers (Leeds), Garath Archer (Newcastle), Michael Lipman (Bath) and Andy Sheridan (Sale Sharks), with clubs by-and-large getting their wallets out to avoid the dreaded lure of a relegation scrap, and the financial meltdown therein.

The basement door has been left well and truly open, with the decision being made – after much procrastinating – that the bottom team in the Zurich Premiership will be automatically relegated, presuming that the Division One champions have their house sufficiently in order to make the step up.

The alternative option was to have a play-off between the Division One champions and the Premiership basement boys, but Rugby Football Union Chief Executive Francis Baron said of the decision: "My assessment is that a move to a play-off solution of itself would not encourage growth in the game generally.

"I think the balance of probabilities lies with the maintenance of automatic promotion and relegation as more likely to generate interest, participation and growth in the game. It is pertinent to note that of the 12 clubs currently in the Premiership, seven have achieved that status through the process of promotion and relegation.

"It must be remembered that even at the professional level, rugby is a sport first and a business second."

Another change which may well give the league a different look in the long term was the decision of the European Court of Human Rights to rule that a national sporting body cannot limit the number of players from European Union nations, or indeed a whole host of others, from playing in limited numbers in the league.

This now means that the old 'two foreigner' restriction does not apply anywhere near as strictly as it did last season. Clubs can now field as many South Africans and Pacific Islanders as they wish on match-days, although Australians and New Zealanders still fall under the old system at the moment.

There is also a slightly new look to the fixture list, with the clubs having agreed that it is in their best interests to continue playing league games during the Six Nations, when traditionally they would have put their feet up.

While this may leave some of the bigger clubs depleted in playing numbers, it may afford some breathing space at the traditionally cramped end to the season, as well as offering regular gate receipts during the previously barren months of February and March.

* So, who's going to win the title this time round? You can check out the lowdown on each of the Zurich Premiership sides by reading our specific team-by-team previews to the campaign, with all the off-season comings and goings, as well as the key men at each of the 12 clubs.

By Mark Smith

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