Bristol the favourites, but title chase could go to wire
EYES front. Fasten your safety belts, and get ready for take-off. The new Championship season is upon us and this one promises a rollercoaster ride of joy and despair like none we have seen before.
A year ago we were faced with a Newcastle Falcons side who everyone knew would romp to promotion, a Pirates squad who were hoping for something just a bit better than mid-table and two or three teams capable of being relegated.
Now we have those perennial chokers on the big stage, Bristol, emerging as pre-season favourites to go up but that is by no means a certainty other than in the terms of the money and resources at their disposal.
Winning on the field when it really counts is something Andy Robinson's squad still needs to be introduced to.
The Pirates, with their new brief and new-look playing roster, could go either way with neither a run at the play-offs nor a scrap at the wrong end of the table out of the question. They are massively overdue a break from their injury jinx of recent seasons and if the youngsters find their feet quickly watch this space.
Relegation should be already in a sealed envelope somewhere with Ealing's name on it because nobody at all can see past the new boys going straight back down after eight months in the Championship bear pit.
Jersey and London Scottish have all managed to hang on and develop into their second and third seasons respectively. Esher went pretty much straight back down and Ealing seem set to do the same unless they can make the most of their home games and nick a win or two on the road.
This year it really is difficult to predict where each team will end up but having plumped for the Falcons as champions last year and successfully predicted that Doncaster would go down, I am duty bound to try again ...
Bristol – Champions and promoted via play-offs: They simply can't chuck it away again, can they? Could be vulnerable at the start of the season though.
Leeds – 2nd: A quiet summer of recruitment at Headingley after last summer's free for all. Strong links with northern Premiership clubs will keep them competitive.
Bedford Blues – 3rd: I expect them to start slowly and have their customary wobble before the play-offs but when you can recruit from Saracens you can do anything.
London Welsh – 4th: Not good enough to go back to the Premiership and are a borderline pick for the play-offs in my opinion. But a season in the Prem and a decent pay-off must give them an advantage.
Cornish Pirates – 5th: Same prediction as last year. With a bit of luck and consistent form they could just make the final four.
London Scottish – 6th: Will fancy a better finish than this and if they can keep Mark Bright fit could well achieve it. Will be dangerous opponents for everyone.
Rotherham Titans – 7th: A dark horse this season and a much changed unit. Never easy to beat at Clifton Lane and could spring a surprise or two on the road.
Jersey – 8th: Fought a superb rearguard action to stay up last season. Have recruited well and are as ambitious as ever.
Plymouth Albion – 9th: A new set up and a new playing style under James Shanahan. A bit of an unknown quantity.
Moseley – 10th: Tenacious battlers from Billesley Common who know what it takes to stay in this league.
Nottingham – 11th: Last year's semi-finalists now rocked by financial problems and apparently short of quality players. Will need to maximise their links with Leicester Tigers to the full. An outside bet for the drop.
Ealing – 12th and relegated: Will tip my hat to them if they prove me wrong.