Danny Cipriani, the London Wasps fly-half, is hopeful a summer of scandals will quickly be forgotten when the English Premiership kicks off this weekend. Sale host Leicester at Edgeley Park tonight for the first game of the season ahead of a Twickenham double-header tomorrow which sees Wasps take on Harlequins and Saracens face London Irish. The season's start cannot come soon enough following the summer's two scandals: Bloodgate at Harlequins and the row over missed drug tests at Bath.
Cipriani, 21, has paid little attention to activities off the field and is firmly focused on compounding Quins' misery at the home of rugby union as he starts a potentially long process he hopes will lead him back into the England set-up. "I'm not ignorant enough to say all that's happened has passed me by but all I can focus on is what I'm doing at Wasps," said Cipriani, who last season went from England's new rugby sensation to fifth-choice fly-half in the international reckoning.
"We got off to a bad start last season and we can't afford to do the same at Twickenham. We need to start with a bang and I feel good about it. There's been a lot of changes at the club over the summer and there's a really good buzz about the place." Director of rugby Ian McGeechan has been replaced by Tony Hanks, while a player exodus has seen England trio Riki Flutey, James Haskell and Tom Palmer leave. But new faces have been brought in to the club, who have won the title four times in the last seven seasons and also two Heineken Cup titles in that time but stuttered to seventh place in the league last season.
Cipriani feels like a new addition to the squad, now rid of the injury which blighted last season having had a plate removed from his ankle in July. "I feel like a new player this season. The injury is not even in my mind and now hopefully I can go and express myself completely. I can't wait to hopefully show people what I can do," he said The season starts with two new rule changes. The first comes in response to the Bloodgate dispute - where Quins were found guilty of using fake blood to mimic injuries - and will see doctors from both sides allowed to inspect blood wounds before substitutions are made.
Teams will be allowed to name eight, rather than the previous seven, replacements to ensure that enough front-row players are on the bench in a bid to help cut out uncontested scrums. While the dispute could yet continue, the futures of Bath duo Alex Crockett and Michael Lipman remains undecided. The former Bath captains have appealed against their nine-month suspensions for missing drug tests at the club last season and that appeal will be heard by the Rugby Football Union on Monday.
Bath, along with Wasps, are among the sides to have undergone a massive overhaul of players in the summer, with England's Olly Barkley and South African Luke Watson among those to move to the Recreation Ground for the coming season. Bath's campaign begins away to Barkley's former club Gloucester on Sunday with Barkley in the stands while still recovering from the leg he fractured on a pre-season training trip to Portugal at the end of July.
Like Cipriani, Barkley has tended to be overlooked by the England coach Martin Johnson in recent months but is confident his return to Bath after just one season at Gloucester can help catapult Bath to the top spot of a league they dominated in the early 1990s. "It's great to be back but I still feel I've got a lot to prove. Hopefully people will welcome me back. The players have and fingers crossed the fans are the same," he said.
"The leg injury's far from ideal - I always seem to get injured at bad times - but I'm looking forward to teaming up with Butch James [Bath's South African fly-half] in particular and recapturing what we tried to do in the 2007-8 season. "But I'm not even sure I'll start for the first team, judging by the way Shontayne Hape played at No12 last season, let alone thinking about a starting place with England."
All eyes are on the opening game of the season between defending champion and pre-season favourites Leicester and struggling Sale, who have won just one of their five matches in pre-season. That was a struggling 17-13 win over National League One Exeter last weekend and the new Sale coach Kingsley Jones, who took over from Philippe Saint-Andre in the summer, faces further headaches with some key players missing for the Tigers' visit.
Influential prop Andrew Sheridan and scrum-half Dwayne Peel are missing while the lock Brent Cockbain is also a major doubt. But Tigers boss Richard Cockerill is wary of his club's poor record at Edgeley Park - they have won just once on their last six visits to Manchester - but is adamant his players are up to the challenge. "We've been firing blanks for a good few weeks and now's the time for the bullets," he said.