Club rugby is back in the spotlight — outside of Cardiff at least — and there are some mouthwatering matches in store.
Ahead of a busy few days our experts predict which teams are set for a big weekend, which players will shine and where your attention should be trained across all three leagues.
Player to watch
Premiership (Martyn Thomas): Manu Tuilagi. The Leicester man has become something of an enigma following an injury-plagued few years that have seen his opportunities limited with both club and country. Tuilagi is back in training, however, and in line to make his first appearance in three months when Leicester face Wasps Saturday. Forget England for now, though, the Tigers need him back as they look to cement their place in the Premiership top four.
PRO14 (Cillian O Conchuir): Garry Ringrose. The Leinster centre missed Ireland’s autumn internationals due to a shoulder operation he had back in July. With Bundee Aki having shown his ability during those games, Ringrose is in for a fight to win back his international jersey for the Six Nations. That battle should begin with Leinster’s trip to Treviso.
Top 14 (James Harrington): Morgan Parra. A few weeks ago, the Clermont scrum-half’s international career looked as good as over, as French rugby fans, pundits and FFR presidents drooled over younger models Antoine Dupont and Baptiste Serin. But now it appears the 28-year-old could make a dramatic return to Les Bleus’ colours for the Six Nations, such is the desperate need for strong leadership in the French set-up.
Game of the weekend
Prem: Exeter vs. Bath, Saturday, 2 p.m.
First meets third at Sandy Park, as Exeter host Bath fresh from the away win at Saracens that took them top. Henry Slade, Sam Simmonds and Harry Williams should all return following England duty, while Jack Nowell is back in training and is due to be involved. Bath have won four consecutive games in all competitions, and although they will be without Taulupe Faletau, will be bolstered by several internationals of their own. Expect fireworks.
PRO14: Cheetahs vs. Scarlets, Saturday, 5.35 p.m.
The willingness of the Cheetahs to avoid their defensive duties makes any clash involving the South African side one to watch. Outside of the two teams with the worst record so far — Dragons and Southern Kings — the Cheetahs have shipped the most points, conceding 34 tries while scoring the same amount. That’s just five less than top try-scorers Munster. Their clash with the defending champions, therefore, should be one to watch.
Top 14: Toulon vs. Lyon, Saturday, 7.45 p.m.
Another Top 14 weekend with several game-of-the-week choices — the Paris derby on Sunday afternoon, or Toulouse’s match against near neighbours Castres, both catch the eye in the fixture list. But the post-November series French rugby zeitgeist is with Toulon and Lyon right now. Both sides are looking to break a three-match losing streak, with the hosts, in particular, in desperate need of points after slipping to eighth in the table.
Prem: Northampton vs. Newcastle, Friday, 7.45 p.m.
Both sides have slipped down the table of late having suffered to back-to-back defeats while their international players were away. The top four remains in sight, however, and both will be keen for a win to kickstart their domestic season. Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes are back for Saints but they will not have it all their own way against a Falcons side boasting eight changes from defeat to Gloucester last time out.
PRO14: Treviso vs. Leinster, Saturday, 3.30 p.m.
Treviso are on a five-game losing streak having made a promising start to the season. Leinster, meanwhile, have won six of their last seven games. Ian McKinley returns after his international bow for the Italian national team and will hope to add some attack thrust to the Treviso backline. Leinster may well have an eye on the Champions Cup and if so, will be ripe for picking.
Top 14: Brive vs. Oyonnax, Saturday, 5 p.m.
Look to the wrong end of the table for an upset. Basement side Oyonnax still have not won a match in any competition since September — but a second-half fightback to snatch a losing bonus point from the jaws of annihilation at Stade Francais a fortnight ago has instilled new belief. They were tremendous value in a pulsating 32-32 draw against Clermont last weekend and will be full of confidence, despite losing Matthew Hopper to injury, that they can overturn second-from-bottom Brive.
Big weekend for…
Prem: London Irish. Ahead of the November Tests it looked as though Worcester were doomed to relegation, but two wins in succession have rejuvenated the Warriors and plunged Irish into trouble at the foot of the table. The Exiles came close to victory over Wasps last time out but ultimately had to settle for a bonus point and an eighth-straight Premiership defeat. Worcester have shown that fortunes can turn quickly, but Irish must find a way to win — starting at Gloucester Saturday.
PRO14: Johann van Graan. His first home game for Munster against Ospreys will surely offer a sign of things to come. Last weekend’s win over Zebre in Italy saw JJ Hanrahan and James Hart show their potential, but looking ahead to vital back-to-back Champions Cup games against Munster, van Graan needs a good performance. He will hope the province’s returning Ireland stars can provide one.
Top 14: Louis Picamoles. Speculation over the futures of a number of France’s senior internationals — including captain Guilhem Guirado, winger Yoann Huget, and lock Yoann Maestri — is mounting following a dismal November series, but it’s Montpellier’s No. 8 who is squinting hardest under the harshest spotlight. He stands accused of losing his mojo since returning to France from Northampton — and nothing less than an extended run of barnstorming performances in the Top 14 and Europe will win redemption from sceptical hearts and minds.