Leicester opener at Franklin's Gardens

LEICESTER will launch the defence of their Guinness Premiership title when they travel to Northampton on 4 September.

The fiercely-contested Midlands derby at Franklin's Gardens, the setting for Saints' agonising 21-19 semi-final defeat by Saracens in May, is the standout fixture of the opening weekend. Premiership newcomers Exeter, who replace relegated Worcester, open their first campaign by hosting Gloucester before facing Leicester at Welford Road a week later.

The four London clubs are involved in the traditional double header, which is being staged for the seventh year.

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Saracens, who caused a stir on and off the pitch during their impressive march to last season's Premiership final, are the 'away' team against London Irish.

Wasps, champions in 2008, face Harlequins, who hope to have banished the 'Bloodgate' hangover that affected their performance last season.

Bath travel to Leeds, who performed wonders to escape relegation last season, while Sale Sharks host Newcastle in the fifth derby of the opening weekend.

The Premiership produced another record-breaking season last term, with attendances averaging 13,101 per match. It is hoped the opening round will generate a combined attendance of over 100,000 for a third time, repeating the successes of the 2006/7 and 2009/10 seasons.

Meanwhile, Sale have signed USA scrum-half Mike Petri from New York Athletic Club. Petri has won 15 caps since making his debut against South Africa in 2007 and was a try-scorer in the 39-22 Churchill Cup victory over Russia. Sale head coach Mike Brewer said: "Mike is a good organiser who bosses his forwards."