Following two captivating rounds of European action before Christmas, the first continental action of 2023 takes place this weekend with a raft of crunch games to look forward to.
Plenty of Guinness Six Nations stars will be on show for their club sides – here are five storylines to keep a close eye on…
Russell and Smith face off in Paris
Paris hosts one of the clashes of the weekend as Racing 92 welcome Harlequins and plenty of attention will rest on the two fly-halves.
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Having missed Quins’ 14-10 win when the sides met at Twickenham Stoop before Christmas, Marcus Smith is back in the no.10 shirt for the trip across the Channel and goes up against Finn Russell in a battle between two mercurial talents.
Russell will have to be at his best to spark a Racing revival, last season’s semi-finalists having lost their opening two Heineken Champions Cup matches.
With Smith and Russell potentially going head-to-head in the opening round of the 2023 Championship with the Calcutta Cup at stake, this is a fascinating chance to see who gains the upper hand.
Gloucester front-rowers get chance to stake claim
Val Rapava-Ruskin is among the players hoping a change in England management could lead to international recognition in the coming weeks.
The Gloucester loosehead’s excellent form this season has put him firmly in the picture, with former England prop David Flatman leading the calls for the 30-year-old to be given a shot by Steve Borthwick.
As a dress rehearsal for the international arena, a clash with Leinster is about as close as it gets and that’s what lies in wait at Kingsholm this weekend.
Andrew Porter occupies the visitors’ no.1 jersey and will give Rapava-Ruskin’s international ambitions a stern test, while George McGuigan – one of several hookers looking to stake a claim following Luke Cowan-Dickie’s injury – makes his Champions Cup debut.
Reigning champions in ominous form
La Rochelle denied Leinster in the final last season and the reigning champions have made a strong start to the defence of their trophy.
This weekend, the French outfit welcome an Ulster side without a Champions Cup win to their name so far and are again led by Gregory Alldritt.
The talismanic France skipper is up against Ireland’s Iain Henderson, who takes up a position at flanker as opposed to his more traditional second-row berth, while the fly-half battle is also intriguing as the returning Ian Madigan battles Antoine Hastoy, who scored a round-high 26 points in the reverse fixture against Ulster.
North back for resurgent Ospreys
With Warren Gatland back in the Wales dugout, George North is among those looking to prove their fitness ahead of the big kick-off.
One of Gatland’s trusted lieutenants during his first spell, North returns to the Ospreys fold among the replacements this weekend as they look to back up their famous win in Montpellier against the same opposition at the Liberty Stadium.
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North’s fellow Wales stars Owen Williams, Rhys Webb, Alex Cuthbert, Adam Beard and Jac Morgan all start while Paul Willemse captains the visitors, who beat Racing 92 17-12 in the Top 14 last weekend.
Randall returns at opportune time
Harry Randall missed England’s Autumn Nations Series clashes through injury but makes his return for Bristol Bears this weekend.
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Randall has not pulled on an England shirt since the summer of 2021 but will be eager to show Borthwick what he can do between now and the Championship getting underway.
Bristol face Zebre on Saturday, pitting Randall against Alessandro Fusco, who was this week named in Italy’s 34-man training squad as one of three scrum-halves – another, Stephen Varney, is among Gloucester’s replacements against Leinster.