It is always a special occasion when Bath Rugby play Bristol Bears under the floodlights at Ashton Gate in a West Country derby, even more so when it is the opening fixture of a new Premiership season.
On this occasion, however, there will be some notable differences. The Premiership’s opening weekend will take place later than usual, commencing on 18 October, and with the Rugby World Cup simultaneously reaching its latter stages, there will be a number of key personnel missing.
The blue, black and white of Bath will be forced to line up on that Friday night without England stars Anthony Watson, Joe Cokanisiga, Jonathan Joseph, Sam Underhill and now Ruaridh McConnochie – brought in last season due to the absence of some of the aforementioned.
They will also be without Francois Louw of South Africa and perennially injured Wales No8 Taulupe Faletau – because he is sidelined, although were he not he would be representing his country.
Premiership clubs have already begun their pre-season training and the Somerset outfit are one of the clubs hit hardest by the World Cup, although like all teams they will be accustomed to at times dealing without their international stars.
In the absence of top-flight games, the Premiership Rugby Cup, which replaced the Anglo-Welsh Cup last season and is typically an opportunity for young players to shine, will be brought forward.
Yet ramifications of the World Cup will be felt well into the start of the Premiership season as players return to their club sides at various stages, dependent on how far their country progresses, what their fitness or injury status is, and how much time off they are owed.
Unsurprisingly, Saracens are set to be hardest hit, with 15 players involved in Japan and many likely to reach the knockout stages.
Among them are the likes of England’s Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Billy and Mako Vunipola, Liam Williams of Wales and Scotland’s Sean Maitland.
They are perhaps equally the team best placed to cope with the loss of key players, though, as they have tended to on their way to back-to-back Premiership titles, with players such as Will Skelton, Alex Lozowski, Ben Spencer and European Player of the Year Alex Goode all absent from the World Cup.
Their rivals, successive Premiership runners-up and the likely biggest challengers to their crown again, Exeter Chiefs, have surprisingly few set to be involved in Japan.
With Sam Simmonds, Ben Moon, Gareth Steenson and Ollie Devoto all left behind, the Chiefs could run away with the league and finally progress to the Champions Cup knockout round, although it will come too soon to help them overcome Saracens should they meet in another play-off next year.
They are, however, lacking the squad depth of Sarries, and will feel the absence of their star players – Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, Stuart Hogg and Tomas Francis – more heavily than some rivals.
Gloucester (five), Sale (five), Wasps (two) and Worcester (two) also have similarly few players absent.
Sale in particular will miss England’s No6 Tom Curry as well as on-loan flanker Mark Wilson and first choice scrum-half Faf de Klerk, while Gloucester will also have to cope without their No9, Willi Heinz.
Harlequins will miss seven squad members including Kyle Sinckler and Joe Marler, who made a late decision to rescind his retirement from international rugby. Northampton will be without Courtney Lawes, Lewis Ludlam, Piers France and Welsh fly-half Dan Biggar among their seven absent players.
Newly-promoted London Irish also have seven players in Japan, four of whom they signed for the new campaign and will only join the squad for the first time after the World Cup: Australia’s Adam Coleman, Samoa’s TJ loane, who joins from Sale, Scotland’s Allan Dell, who joins from Edinburgh, and former Leicester lock Steve Mafi of Tonga.
Elsewhere the Bears will be missing Samoan quartet James and Jordan Lay, Chris Vui and Alapati Leiua as well as Tonga’s Siale Piutau, and there could be cause for concern at Leicester Tigers, who were embroiled in a relegation scrap and finished outside the top six for the first time last season.
They will have to start the campaign without key players, including Ben Youngs, George Ford, Manu Tuilagi and Jonny May among their eight absentees, although a proposed 13-team league from 2020 would mean no relegation this season anyway.