Jim Lyon - Bringing home the big prize would be the greatest change of all

Northamptonshire Telegraph's sports writers Jon Dunham, Jim Lyon and Alec Swann.
Northamptonshire Telegraph's sports writers Jon Dunham, Jim Lyon and Alec Swann.

Times change and rugby has perhaps changed more than many things over the last couple of decades.

For all its intrinsic similarities, the game is a different beast to the one we watched in the early 1990s.

So many facets of the game have altered, professionalism being the most obvious, even if the essence is still 15 blokes chasing a funny shape ball around – or the fat ones bend over and the skinny ones run around as a friend’s child once described it.

A look at the Northampton Saints squad picture ahead of this season is evidence of that.

There were 51 people on the shot at this year’s press day.

In 1993 there were 32 including several club officials.

Things are a lot different now – and maybe it is time for the club’s fortunes to change as well.

We might not be renowned for being of the ‘glass half full’ mindset around these parts but even the most pessimistic of Northamptonshire folk must be feeling a little tingle of anticipation ahead of the new season.

Some impressive signings have arrived at the Gardens over the summer and the sight of George North charging around the Premiership in the green, black and gold is something many will look forward to.

Tipping Saints to produce a serious challenge for the title is perhaps as brave a prediction as Greg Dyke’s suggestion an England win in the World Cup next year is unlikely.

It would be a major shock if anything less than a top-four spot was claimed once again.

With Alex Corbisiero, Kahn Fotuali’i, North and the like arriving to add to an already strong first XV there is a real sense of excitement ahead of the new campaign.

Of the several new faces Australian prop Salesi Ma’afu – who might not be among the most instantly recognisable, or indeed pronounceable, names in world rugby - could prove to be a shrewd recruit.

The departure of Brian Mujati and Soane Tonga’uiha for a new Parisien adventure had a few questioning what would be left up front for Saints.

Corbisiero’s arrival appeased many grumblers. But Ma’afu has built up a reputation for being strong in the scrum and powerful out if it and under the tutelage of Dorian West the 30-year-old could be about to take his game to a new level.

It is, undoubtedly, on the backs where most eyes will be focused, though.

Criticism that Saints were unable to change a game and did not have the flair to compete with the best will mean proof of improvement will be looked for.

Fotuali’i and North might add an x-factor to things but there is still a perceived weakness in the centre.

It will be as interesting to see who stands up there as it will be to witness the glamorous roles being filled elsewhere.

And, for all the buzz regarding the talent of these new signings, it is perhaps in the head that silverware will be won.

There has often been a feeling that Saints are slightly off the pace.

Talented and good enough to produce a performance but not necessarily able to genuinely challenge the best man-for-man and pound-for-pound.

Now excitement needs to be turned into belief - a belief the big prize can be taken and not that we all turn out for a season, play our games and then Leicester win the title.

This really could be Northampton Saints’ year and first Premiership crown is definitely achievable.

And that would certainly be a welcome development to the game in these parts.