Bristol to open 2018-19 Gallagher Premiership at home against Bath

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Bristol are back in the Gallagher Premiership

Bristol will mark their return to English Rugby union’s top flight by launching the new Gallagher Premiership season against west country rivals Bath.

The Ashton Gate clash on Friday, August 31 will be one of four games broadcast live by BT Sport across the competition’s opening three days.

Elsewhere that weekend, champions Saracens open against last season’s play-off qualifiers Newcastle at Kingston Park, while new Northampton Rugby director Chris Boyd’s Premiership baptism will be a Kingsholm meeting with Gloucester.

Exeter, beaten in the Twickenham final by Saracens six weeks ago, start against Leicester at Sandy Park, with Harlequins hosting Sale Sharks and Worcester entertaining Wasps.

Press Association Sport understands, meanwhile, that discussions continue over having a match in America during the forthcoming campaign, with Premiership Rugby expecting to make an announcement before the start of the season.

Past excursions to the United States saw Saracens play London Irish in New Jersey, while they faced Newcastle in Philadelphia last term.

Announcing the 2018-2019 fixtures at BT Tower in London, Premiership Rugby said that Saracens’ appointment with Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop on October 6 will be screened live by NBC on network American television, rather than NBC Sports, for the first time.

And there is no traditional season-opening London double header this time around, as Twickenham Stadium is closed for redevelopment work in September.

Other season highlights include a possible reunion with his former Wasps team-mates for new Gloucester signing Danny Cipriani on October 6, while the first Exeter versus Saracens rematch is the weekend before Christmas and Bath’s return fixture against Bristol on April 6 will be their current annual game at Twickenham.

The Premiership final takes place at Twickenham on Saturday, June 1.

For Bristol, relegated last year but now back in the Premiership at a first possible opportunity, the Bath encounter represents a mouthwatering occasion.

“To open the season against Bath and come up against (Bath Rugby director) Todd Blackadder – a man I know and respect a huge amount – is really exciting and a major boost for our supporters, too,” Bristol head coach Pat Lam said.

“We have no doubt they will fill Ashton Gate and create an incredible atmosphere.

“It’s great for us to be in Gallagher Premiership Rugby, and everybody is relishing the opportunity to test themselves in a fantastic competition.”

Saracens, who will be chasing a fourth title in five seasons, face an immediate test of those aspirations in the north-east against a Newcastle side revitalised by Rugby director Dean Richards.

Saracens Rugby director Mark McCall said: “We are all excited about the upcoming season, and the fixtures coming out certainly adds to the anticipation.

“Everyone understands the amount of work which needs to be put in over the coming months to ensure we are ready for the challenge ahead.”

Gallagher Premiership fixtures (first six rounds):

August 31 – Bristol v Bath, September 1 – Gloucester v Northampton, Harlequins v Sale Sharks, Worcester v Wasps, Exeter v Leicester; September 2 – Newcastle v Saracens.

September 7 – Northampton v Harlequins; September 8 – Wasps v Exeter, Leicester v Newcastle, Saracens v Bristol, Bath v Gloucester; September 9 – Sale Sharks v Worcester.

September 14 – Gloucester v Bristol; September 15 – Exeter v Sale Sharks, Harlequins v Bath, Northampton v Saracens, Worcester v Newcastle; September 16 – Wasps v Leicester.

September 21 – Newcastle v Exeter; September 22 – Bath v Northampton, Bristol v Harlequins, Leicester v Worcester, Sale Sharks v Wasps; September 23 – Saracens v Gloucester.

September 28 – Newcastle v Wasps; September 29 – Bristol v Northampton, Exeter v Worcester, Gloucester v Harlequins, Saracens v Bath; September 30 – Leicester v Sale Sharks.

October 5 – Bath v Exeter; October 6 – Northampton v Leicester, Sale Sharks v Newcastle, Wasps v Gloucester, Harlequins v Saracens; October 7 – Worcester v Bristol.

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Saracens' Billy Vunipola will come back stronger than ever

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Billy Vunipola in action for Saracens

Billy Vunipola will come back stronger from his latest injury setback and could peak at the right time for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, according to Saracens coach Alex Sanderson.

Vunipola refractured his right arm during England’s tour of South Africa, just two months after returning to action following an initial break suffered in January.

The 25-year-old Sarries number eight has avoided surgery and resumed work with the Gallagher Premiership champions.

“His arm’s fine, his arm’s healing well, he’s back in the club. He’s been doing bits and bobs and he’ll be back in the week after next, not full training but rehab,” said Sanderson, speaking at the Premiership fixture launch.

“I think whenever he plays for any length of time, Billy’s going to have a big season.

“I hope and I pray and I think the bad luck he’s had might have come at the right time for him with respect to England and this World Cup; that he’ll see this World Cup through injury-free because he’s a big part to play in that side as well.

“Every time Bill’s come back, he’s been better for it.”

Vunipola has been plagued with injuries, dating back to the 2015 World Cup when he was ruled out of the tournament with knee ligament damage sustained during the pool stages.

He suffered a further knee problem the following year before missing the British and Irish Lions’ tour of New Zealand last autumn while undergoing surgery.

His initial arm break came at the start of the year when playing for Saracens against Ospreys, ruling him out for four months, and he then was forced off in the first half of his country’s second Test against the Springboks in Bloemfontein on June 17.

Saracens begin the new Premiership season at Newcastle on September 2, with the World Cup in Japan scheduled to start 12 months later.

And Sanderson, who was forced to retire at the age of 26 due to injury, believes the mental challenge of being sidelined is the biggest hurdle facing Vunipola.

“It’s more so his head, it’s his third time he’s been through it,” added Sanderson.

“I think it’s the toughest thing because as soon as you get injured, you’re out of the squad. You feel out of the squad, even if you’re not.

“Every player goes through injuries and it’s how you come out the other side that will determine the kind of player you’re going to be. I didn’t come out the other side; Billy will.

“You either let the injury affect you mentally and physically and then try and get back to near where you were, or you use the time when you’re injured to get bigger and stronger and faster to become a better player, cognitively-speaking.”

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French rugby seeking approval for radical move to introduce 12 replacements

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The Top 14 want to bring in 12 replacements from next season

Teams in the French professional rugby leagues of the Top 14 and Pro D2 might be able to field 12 replacements per match next season, up from the current eight.

In a joint statement, the French rugby federation and the LNR, the body that runs professional rugby in France, said the proposed increase in the number of subs was in response to a medical study on how to best avoid injuries in the sport.

The proposal requires the stamp of approval from World Rugby, but the LNR told AFP it was confident of getting the green light for the radical change. A response from World Rugby was expected within two weeks.

Should the proposal go through, it would allow any “tactical” replacement to come back on for a teammate who had been injured or suffered a knock to the head.

Currently, only front-row forwards are allowed to re-enter the field of play in case of injury to the vital positions of prop and hooker.

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