Derbies galore on big festive weekend

Michele Lamaro 6/2/2021
The weekend’s festive action kicks off on Christmas Eve with an Italian derby while there are plenty more exciting fixtures lined up across the holiday period.

The weekend’s festive action kicks off on Christmas Eve with an Italian derby while there are plenty more exciting fixtures lined up across the holiday period.

Boxing Day provides some exciting fixtures across Europe with the rugby continuing onto Monday with a Scottish derby and the Big Game in England.

Back-row battles in Italy

It all starts in Parma though, where Zebre will look to get the better of Benetton in the first Italian derby of the United Rugby Championship.

Zebre won both meetings in last season’s Guinness PRO14 but the roles were then reversed in the Rainbow Cup, with Benetton going onto lift the trophy.

The Christmas Eve clash provides plenty of Azzurri head-to-heads, particularly in the back row where Italy skipper Michele Lamaro will be charged with getting the better of Zebre openside and national rival Maxime Mbandà.

Lamaro will hope to get plenty of support from Benetton and Italy colleague Giovanni Pettinelli, capped for the first time in the Autumn. But at No.8 Zebre can call on Giovanni Licata, who started that Argentina clash in which Pettinelli made his debut, and will be hoping to help Zebre to a first win of the campaign.

All eyes on the front row at Ashton Gate

Bristol Bears and Leicester Tigers have started an unlikely rivalry in recent seasons and that should continue at Ashton Gate as Pat Lam’s side are the latest team to try to end Tigers’ perfect start to the season.

The main focus will no doubt be on the front row, with Ellis Genge swapping Welford Road for his native Bristol next season.

His scrum battle with England colleague Kyle Sinckler could be key, with Bristol in must-win territory after a slow start to the campaign.

Elsewhere in England, Gloucester, with the likes of Louis Rees-Zammit and Jonny May, will be looking to pile more pressure on winless Bath in their West Country derby, with the Cherry & Whites right in the mix for a semi-final spot as it stands.

And then on Monday, Twickenham will be the venue for the Big Game as champions Harlequins play host to Northampton Saints.

The standout matchup in that one could be at ten where Marcus Smith, England’s fly-half in the Autumn Nations Series, will potentially go up against Wales’ No.10, Dan Biggar, provided the latter has recovered from the injury that saw him limp off against Racing 92 a fortnight ago.

URC derbies

While Covid has seen two games postponed in the United Rugby Championship, there are still three big derbies on over the weekend as Ulster host Connacht, Cardiff entertain Scarlets and last, but not least, Glasgow Warriors welcome Edinburgh.

Ulster won two from two in Europe, including a memorable victory out in France against Clermont, and have just secured the future of centre James Hume, one of their outstanding young players.

The battle in midfield should be key to the game against a Connacht side with Bundee Aki causing lots of problems playing outside in-form fly-half Jack Carty.

At the Arms Park, Cardiff will play host to the Scarlets, although the latter will be without head coach Dwayne Peel who has tested positive for Covid.

Cardiff will be able to call on a host of players who are now out of quarantine following their trip to South Africa, while the likes of Ellis Jenkins and Josh Adams will look to carry their European form back into domestic action.

Finally on Monday, Warriors will look to retain the 1872 Cup that they claimed during the Rainbow Cup earlier in the year.

Edinburgh had dominated the fixture for the best part of four years, but Warriors won both meetings in the spring.

And Danny Wilson’s side, fresh from their win in the fog over Exeter Chiefs, will be hoping that skipper Ali Price can inspire them to more success against an Edinburgh side who have been flying this year, sitting second in the United Rugby Championship table, and winning their sole European clash away to Saracens.

A classic encounter in France

There are three Boxing Day clashes in France, including a battle of the Stades, Toulouse and Stade Français.

That meeting will see France skipper and world player of the year Antoine Dupont looking to sign off 2021 on a high.

Toulouse currently sit second in the Top 14 and are unbeaten at home this season ahead of taking on a Stade team who are tenth and need a win to stay in touch with the play-off battle.

On Monday, Toulon take on leaders Bordeaux-Bègles in one of the games of the round, with Baptiste Serin, now fully recovered from his shoulder operation, set to go up against his former team.

His replacement at Bordeaux, Maxime Lucu, was also France’s replacement scrum-half during the Autumn Nations Series, so there could be international ramifications for this one, as well as the Top 14 implications.