WORCESTER Warriors flanker Phil Dowson admits there’s no better way to start the new Aviva Premiership season than facing much-fancied Northampton Saints.
Dowson, who lives in Belbroughton, will be lining up against his former employers tonight in an eagerly-awaited curtain-raiser at Sixways (7.45pm).
The 34-year-old former England international arrived at Worcester in the summer after making 186 appearances in a hugely successful spell at Saints.
Dowson, Munster legend Donncha O'Callaghan, South African centre Wynand Olivier, fly-half Tom Heathcote and lock Darren Barry are all set to make their competitive debuts for newly-promoted Warriors.
“We have got a young squad which is relatively inexperienced but we have a very keen squad so they are learning very quickly and looking to improve,” said Dowson.
“I can’t wait for the game. Hopefully, it will be a great atmosphere and there’s no better way to start it than facing Northampton.
"It’s everything the players worked for in the Championship last season and now we’re hoping to make a statement and there’s lots of guys with lots to prove.
"The overriding emotion is excitement and wanting to get into the new season."
Last term, Northampton finished top of the Premiership during the regular season with 16 wins from their 22 matches.
Their line-up includes fit-again full-back Ben Foden, Luther Burrell at centre, hooker Dylan Hartley and Christian Day at lock.
England star and former Warrior Tom Wood is not in Saints' squad while Springbok legend Victor Matfield and Wales wing George North are on World Cup duty.
Dowson said: “We know Northampton will bring a massive physical presence. Saints have got a lot of international-quality players so defence is a huge area for us to work on and improve on.”
Warriors have been victorious only once in an opening Premiership fixture - when they defeated Sale at Sixways in 2011.
Worcester's last competitive outing was the thrilling Championship play-off final second leg against Bristol at the end of May. Worcester drew 30-30 to edged home by one aggregate point.
Dowson said: “It has been the longest pre-season I have ever had but it’s been solid and we had a great trip to France. We have to make sure that when we get the ball we put Northampton under pressure.
“We have been slightly guilty of overplaying in certain areas in pre-season and, in a high-pressure environment, you are going to concede if you play too much in your own third."
He added: “We have worked on our exits and clearing our lines and we have got structures in place to do that.
"It will be good for the players to get out there and realise they are more than capable of causing upsets.”
Warriors: Pennell, Vuna, Olivier, Mills, Biggs, Heathcote, Arr; Ruskin, Annett, Schonert, O'Callaghan, Barry, Dowson, Lewis, van Velze. Replacements: George, Leleimalefaga, Rees, O'Shea, Mama, Mulchrone, Grove, Humphreys.
Northampton: Foden Ken Pisi, Stephenson, Burrell, Elliott, Myler, Dickson; Waller, Hartley, Brookes, Paterson, Day, Gibson, Fisher, Dickinson. Replacements: Haywood, Waller, Hill, Harrison, Nutley, Fotuali’I, Hanrahan, George Pisi.
Referee: Greg Garner (RFU).