The turn of the year means only one thing for rugby fans in the northern hemisphere – the imminent arrival of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations.
And with that in mind, the focus on club rugby this weekend is very much with the Championship on the horizon.
Auditions continue apace for international spots before the head coaches name their training squads and there is yet more chance to steal a march this weekend.
Derbies continue to hold sway in the Guinness PRO14 while in the Gallagher Premiership and Top 14 there are mouth-watering match-ups to take in.
We start our weekend’s analysis in Ireland – the home of the reigning Grand Slam champions.
Munster – who downed Leinster last weekend – take on in-form Connacht in their third and final inter-pro of the festive period.
And in the second row is where the real interest will lie for Joe Schmidt as Iain Henderson’s injury opens the door in the engine room.
James Ryan and Devin Toner are locks at lock but behind them Tadgh Beirne and Quinn Roux are battling to earn a spot in Ireland’s matchday 23.
The two will face off this weekend in a clash that could go a long way to making up Schmidt’s mind with Ultan Dillane also in the reckoning.
Roux has won eight caps since his 2016 debut but of late Beirne – since returning to his homeland from Scarlets – has caught the eye. After two bench showings in the summer against Australia he started against both Italy and USA this autumn and his Munster form means he is well in contention for a Championship debut next month.
Elsewhere in Ireland, Leinster take on Ulster and while rotation makes the matchday 23s hard to nail down – Rory Best and Sean Cronin’s potential hooker match-up would be intriguing not to mention Jordi Murphy’s back row battle with the likes of Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy.
Second in last year’s Championship were Wales and two more derbies this weekend will give Warren Gatland further food for thought.
The back-row balance with Ellis Jenkins injured is still in question while Taulupe Faletau’s recovery from a broken arm in October has been slower than expected.
But regardless, Wales went unbeaten this autumn for the first time in their history and that was without Josh Navidi – one of the stars of the 2018 Championship.
The Cardiff Blues flanker has returned over Christmas however and will go head to head with Justin Tipuric this weekend when they take on the Ospreys.
And with James Davies also back to try and lighten the Scarlets’ growing injury list Gatland is not short of options.
Davies – an Olympic silver medallist from Rio – will take on Aaron Wainwright who has been so impressive for both the Dragons and Wales so far this season in their derby clash.
RED ROSE IN BLOOM
In the Gallagher Premiership the injury to Danny Cipriani means his anticipated match-up with George Ford this weekend looks unlikely when Gloucester face Leicester Tigers.
But Eddie Jones might well have an eye on Newcastle Falcons vs Harlequins and particularly the blindside.
Alex Dombrandt appears the flavour of the month and cannot stop scoring tries for Quins – leading some to build him up as a World Cup bolter.
Mark Wilson missed last weekend for the Falcons with injury but could return and his battle on the blindside with Dombrandt will be a good yardstick for the youngster.
Wilson was one of the stars of England’s autumn and his seemingly endless work rate is something Dombrandt will have to match if he is to continue his meteoric rise.
Meanwhile, Ben Te’o returned to Worcester colours last weekend and scored a try as they pushed Saracens very hard.
This weekend the England and British & Irish Lions centre will aim to build on that against another hard-hitting Lions centre who scored a try last weekend in Jamie Roberts.
The Welshman will not have given up hope of forcing his way back into Gatland’s plans for the Guinness Six Nations and their face off could measure on the Richter scale this weekend.
The Premiership weekend begins however, at the AJ Bell with Sale Sharks taking on Saracens and Chris Ashton – recalled under Jones – will test himself against his former teammates and fellow internationals in the back three Liam Williams and Alex Goode.
Over in France the Top 14 has a whole host of big clashes.
Most notably leaders Clermont face in-form La Rochelle and again the back row is the place to look for Jacques Brunel.
Arguably more comfortable at lock, Arthur Iturria started all three of France’s autumn internationals at flanker and looks likely to take on Kevin Gourdon this weekend.
Gourdon was once the flavour of the month in Les Bleus’ back row but has been overlooked of late by Brunel.
He could lay down a marker this weekend however while the battle in midfield is also worth considering where Wesley Fofana and Remi Lamerat are back fit for Clermont and could steal a march on La Rochelle’s Geoffrey Doumayrou.
Sticking with the centres and Racing 92 take on Toulon which could put Mathieu Bastareaud and Virimi Vakatawa on a collision course.
While at hooker France skipper Guilhem Guirado can nail down his No.2 jersey for the Championship with a dominant showing – especially if it comes against Camille Chat his understudy who is in a fitness battle to make the game.
The battle of the fly-halves could also be fascinating as Finn Russell of Scotland and Anthony Belleau of France could go head to head.
The latter looks to be playing second fiddle to Camille Lopez for France of late but a strong showing against Scotland’s incumbent No.10 could reset the pecking order.
Meanwhile Russell’s back-up Adam Hastings – who signed a new deal with Glasgow last month – has his own Guinness Six Nations audition against Italy’s Tommaso Allan when the Warriors host Benetton Rugby.