Tom Vickers’ Northampton Saints v Gloucester preview

TITLE TRIUMPH - Saints will bid to back up last season's Aviva Premiership success by doing it all over again this time round (Picture: Linda Dawson)
TITLE TRIUMPH - Saints will bid to back up last season's Aviva Premiership success by doing it all over again this time round (Picture: Linda Dawson)
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Fixture: Northampton Saints v Gloucester (Aviva Premiership round one)

Date/kick-off time: Friday, September 5 (7.45pm kick-off)

Venue: Franklin’s Gardens, Northampton

Weather forecast: 19C, cloudy

Betting: Saints 1/4, draw 25/1, Gloucester 4/1

Saints: Wilson; K Pisi, G Pisi, Burrell, North; Myler, L Dickson; Corbisiero,Hartley (c), Ma’afu; Lawes, C Day; Clark, Wood, Manoa.

Replacements: McMillan, A Waller, Denman, Craig, Fisher, Fotuali’i, Hooley, Foden.

Gloucester: Cook; Sharples, Trinder, Twelvetrees, May; Hook, Laidlaw; Murphy, Hibbard, Afoa; Savage, Hudson; Kalamafoni, Rowan, Morgan.

Replacements: Dawidiuk, Thomas, Puafisi, Palmer, Moriarty, Robson, Atkinson, McColl.

Outs: Saints: Haywood, Collins (both shoulder), Dowson (hamstring), G Dickson (hip), Dickinson (neck), Hodgson (wrist). Gloucester: Evans, Kvesic (both foot), Wood (back spasms)

Most recent meeting: March 1, 2014: Saints 39 Gloucester 13

Tom’s preview: There have been some great title-winning teams in Premiership history - and a selection of one-hit wonders.

Leicester and Wasps can be considered in the former category, having gone on to build on their first top division trophy by adding many more to the cabinet.

The one-hit wonders are clubs such as Harlequins, Sale and even Saracens; teams who have won it once, but never been able to replicate their achievements.

Yes, Saracens have come close. To within seconds in May, of course. But the mark of Premiership champions – in the league’s current play-off format – is getting over the line.

And the mark of a great team is doing it over and over again.

Saints got their first taste of Premiership glory thanks to Alex Waller’s score in that most dramatic of denouements at Twickenham.

But now they must ensure that it wasn’t just one day in the sun. Their task is to show why they became champions - and to do it all over again.

Many tipped them to claim the title last season. Few are backing them to follow it up this time round.

Why?

Well, it’s not because Saints have lost their best players. The squad, barring the acquisition of Joel Hodgson and the departure of GJ van Velze, remains largely the same.

Primarily, it is because of what history tells us, not just in rugby, but in most sports. Winning a title once is tough, but retaining it is the real challenge.

Look at football, where there have been some glittering sides to have won the Champions League over the years, but none who have done it again the following season.

It is slightly different in rugby’s equivalent, with Leicester, Munster, Leinster and Toulon all winning the Heineken Cup back-to-back.

But there is no doubt that the second time round was harder. Why? Because as everyone at Saints is well aware, targets are placed firmly on the heads of champions.

Everyone raises their game when the best are in town.

Teams will spend extra hours working on game plans for opponents with the biggest reputation.

There is no greater scalp than beating the champions, than being the ones who dethroned the kings of England.

That is what Saints will have to deal with this season, but the noises coming from the camp are positive.

And what must be remembered by those outside of the club is that last season’s Premiership triumph did not just bring a trophy, it brought a massive mentality shift.

For so long, Saints were the nearly men. The bridesmaids at annual weddings.

Not any more. They overcame the Leicester curse in the semi-final and smashed their major showpiece hoodoo by edging out Saracens.

Now they are the ones to beat - and they know it.

Gloucester will provide the first threat to the title defence, and in Friday’s meeting at Franklin’s Gardens two contrasting worlds will collide

While the hosts can boast a settled environment – one that bore fruit last season – there has been far less to shout about for the visitors.

Gloucester have opted for wholesale changes in a desperate bid to steer the Kingsholm ship out of choppy waters and fulfil ever-lofty expectations.

Boss Nigel Davies eventually paid the price for a poor campaign that culminated in a ninth-place finish.

Since then, David Humphreys has come in to fill the director of rugby void, heading up a new-look coaching team that also includes a head coach, in the form of Laurie Fisher, formerly of UC Brumbies.

And the overhaul hasn’t been restricted to the management staff, with a raft of big-name players arriving.

Former All Blacks prop John Afoa and Lions hooker Richard Hibbard will be expected to make their sizeable presence felt in a pack that was pushed around last season, while the likes of Greig Laidlaw and James Hook promise to whip the ever-excitable Shed into a frenzy.

But in Saints they face their antithesis: a squad that has had a whole year together. And, ultimately, one that has already tasted a large dollop of success.

And that should ensure Mallinder’s men get off to the slickest start possible as they bid to begin their bid for greatness with a bang.

Prediction: Saints 25 Gloucester 18