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European preview: O’Brien headlines returning stars

European preview: O’Brien headlines returning stars
  • Sean O'Brien returns for Leinster after broken arm back in November
  • Robbie Henshaw and Iain Henderson both make injury comebacks for Leinster and Ulster respectively
  • England also boosted by Jonathan Joseph's first start in nine months

The final round of European Pool games arrive tonight and there are games with Guinness Six Nations ramifications wherever you look.

Stars like Sean O’Brien, Robbie Henshaw and Iain Henderson are back on club duty this weekend to boost defending champions Ireland while Jonathan Joseph also ends his long injury wait for Bath.

So without further ado, here are some of the key talking points heading into a final weekend before preparation for the 2019 Championship stars in earnest.

A BOOST FOR JOE

Plenty of Ireland’s squad are in action over this weekend in European action, as they prepare to open their defence of their title at home to England on 2 February.

Flanker O’Brien is included in Leinster’s matchday 23 for the first time since breaking his arm in the autumn win over Argentina.

And while O’Brien is on the bench, his teammate Henshaw is passed fit to start at inside centre for their clash with Wasps at the Ricoh Arena.

Elsewhere, Henderson’s miraculous return to fitness following thumb surgery just before Christmas is confirmed by his place in the starting Ulster team that travel to Leicester for tomorrow’s Champions Cup match.

Suggestions that Henderson would make his return from injury seven weeks ahead of schedule were raised by his inclusion in Ireland’s 38-man squad for the Six Nations.

And the match against Leicester will be the lock’s 100th appearance for the province and he will be hoping he can help rubber stamp Ulster’s place in the Champions Cup quarter-finals, with John Cooney also back on the bench.

Meanwhile, out of the three uncapped Connacht players to make Joe Schmidt’s squad, only Tom Farrell starts against Bordeaux in the Challenge Cup, Caolin Blade and Jack Carty are named amongst the replacements.

JJ’S BACK FOR JONES

Jonathan Joseph will return to action for Bath as they take on Toulouse in the final round of Champions Cup action in France.

Joseph was not included in Eddie Jones’ England squad to prepare for Ireland in their opening Guinness Six Nations fixture, but the centre has returned from ankle surgery and nine months out to start for Bath in their trip to Toulouse.

Dan Robson, who replaces Danny Care in the England squad, starts for Wasps as they face Leinster at the Ricoh Arena.

The scrum-half will be in action against Ireland’s Henshaw and O’Brien ahead of the clash between the England and Ireland in two weeks’ time where he is expected to win his first cap off the bench.

And Premiership player of the month for November Ollie Thorley – called up by England for the first time this week – starts for Gloucester as they face Castres.

BEST OF THE REST

Josh Navidi, Josh Turnbull, Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe all celebrated Wales call-ups this week ahead of the 2019 Championship.

And the quartet will also be in action from the start for Cardiff Blues as they prepare to face Lyon in the Champions Cup.

Meanwhile, Bernard Le Roux shifts to the back row for Racing 92 who only need a draw against Scarlets to claim top spot in Champions Cup pool four.

Pulling the strings at No.10 for Racing is Scotland fly-half Finn Russell who will be key to their attempts to secure a home quarter-final.

Uncapped hookers Grant Stewart and Jake Kerr, both called up by Gregor Townsend this week, start for Glasgow and Leicester respectively as they look to steal a march and claim the role as Stuart McInally’s back-up.

Meanwhile, Italy’s squad for their Six Nations opener against France is dominated by Benetton players with 18 members of the squad coming from the Italian club and they are in action against Grenoble in their Challenge Cup clash but there is no place for the returned Sergio Parisse in Stade Francais’ side for their clash with Worcester Warriors where Ben Te’o gets the nod to start.

Leonardo Ghiraldini does make his return for Toulouse however in a boost for Conor O’Shea.

Finally Grégory Alldritt, who has been singled out as a back-up to Louis Picamoles at No.8 for France, plays in that role in La Rochelle’s crucial trip to Zebre in the Challenge Cup.