With less than three months until the 2020 Guinness Six Nations kicks off, all eyes will be on the return of European club rugby this weekend as some of the Championship’s most high-profile stars take to the field.
A whole host of domestic matches are set to take place across the continent, with all players inevitably looking to impress as the countdown to next year’s Championship really starts to intensify.
And with a generous helping of both Champions Cup and Challenge Cup action around the corner, we’ve picked out some of the main stories as some of the Guinness Six Nations’ most famous faces prepare to do battle.
French contingent descend on Kingsholm
This weekend’s Friday night offering sees Toulouse travel to Gloucester, buoyed by the presence of several of France’s most valuable players who will be hoping to get their European campaign off to the perfect start.
While the Cherry & Whites are without the injured and Rugby World Cup-returning Willi Heinz, no fewer than five of France’s World Cup stars will be on show for the visitors under the Kingsholm lights.
Capable of devastating rugby, could Gloucester be a dark horse this year?? 🐎 pic.twitter.com/RKcPvgfeSC
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) November 15, 2019
Thomas Ramos, Yoann Huget, Maxime Medard, Cyril Baille and Romain Ntamack – who recently won the World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year award – are all set to feature for Ugo Mola’s men, helping form a formidable backline that will be seeking to penetrate Gloucester’s resolute defence.
England and Scotland face off at Scotstoun
The Calcutta Cup is one of rugby’s most storied old rivalries, so what better way to start the European club season than with a tantalising match-up between key clubs from each country.
Sale Sharks travel to Glasgow Warriors on Saturday, a fixture that will not feature England’s talismanic Tom Curry but one that will see a plethora of Scottish talent grace Scotstoun.
Flanker Ryan Wilson returns to captain the visitors, while Zander Fagerson, Scott Cummings and Tommy Seymour all start and will be bidding to impress Gregor Townsend straight after the World Cup.
Star-studded line-up as Ireland face Italy on the Emerald Isle
Leo Cullen’s Leinster may be the reigning Guinness PRO14 champions but this weekend their attention turns to European affairs as they welcome Benetton to the RDS Arena.
And a whole host of Guinness Six Nations talent will be on show for last season’s Champions Cup finalists, not least Leinster’s triumvirate of Johnny Sexton, James Ryan and Garry Ringrose who will be eager to impress as Ireland head into a new era.
For Benetton, Italy duo Nicola Quaglio and Marco Riccioni line up in the front row, while Dean Budd and Braam Steyn will also form part of a pack that is saturated with Azzurri pedigree.
World Cup finalists galore at Welford Road
England’s remarkable run to the World Cup final in Japan was well-documented and now a whole host of Eddie Jones’ heroes will feature for Leicester Tigers against Pau – this time in the Challenge Cup.
Manu Tuilagi, George Ford, Ben Youngs and Dan Cole will all be in action at Welford Road, with all those watching being curious to gage how they will perform after such a memorable run.
And for Cole and Youngs there is added incentive to perform in the build-up to the 2020 Championship, with both in with a chance of duking it out to be England’s most capped player over the coming years as they rapidly approach Jason Leonard’s 114 game record.
The battle of the two previous winners
In a match-up between two Guinness PRO14 heavyweights from either of the last two Grand Slam-winning nations, Munster travel to Swansea to take on a struggling Ospreys side.
Two Guinness Six Nations veterans will line up for the hosts in captain Dan Lydiate and centre Scott Williams, both of whom have accumulated 45 Championship appearances between them.
📽 Our first Champions Cup team of the season has been named.#OSPvMUN #SUAF 🔴 @KEITHEARLS87 returns to start @jeremyjloughman's 1st European start @longdogbeirne back & ready for action pic.twitter.com/40sa5oNM7D
— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) November 15, 2019
And for Munster, the Irish double-act of John Ryan and Niall Scannell feature in the front row, while Conor Murray, CJ Stander and Keith Earls are all set to play in an Ireland-dominated Johann van Graan side.
Biggar to do battle with French stars at Franklin’s Gardens
Newly-appointed Wales head coach Wayne Pivac will have his eyes on Northampton Saints this weekend as fly-half Dan Biggar prepares to spearhead a side looking to topple Lyon.
But the visitors are not short of international talent themselves, including French duo of Pierre Louis-Barassi and Demba Bamba in their squad who will be looking to impress head coach Fabien Galthie in the build-up to February’s Championship.
With Wales entering preparations for defending their Guinness Six Nations Grand Slam crown, however, it will be Biggar who will be seeking to pull the strings to help engineer an early and confidence-boosting Saints victory on home soil.