Sexton back for Leinster as European rugby returns

It’s double-header time in Europe as the Champions Cup returns and sides get to square off twice in the space of as many weeks.

It’s double-header time in Europe as the Champions Cup returns and sides get to square off twice in the space of as many weeks.

The tables start to take shape and we inch ever closer to knowing who will be playing knockout European rugby in 2020, as well as players making a statement with the 2020 Guinness Six Nations in sight.

A smattering of games are set for Friday, with the main course on Saturday and a trio of matches on Sunday forming a delectable dessert.

Here’s what to look out for.

There’s only one Champions Cup match on Friday night as Bath welcome Clermont Auvergne to the Rec to kick things off this weekend.

England centre Jonathan Joseph returns from injury to the No.13 jersey for what is Bath’s 100th match in the competition.

Clermont have had their struggles on the road but any team boasting Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra in the half-backs are a dangerous proposition.

There are also a slew of Challenge Cup matches on Friday evening, with the headline encounter seeing Wasps square off with a impressive Edinburgh side full of Scottish stars surely set to feature in the 2020 Championship – Stuart McInally, Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie, Darcy Graham and Blair Kinghorn all sharpening their games.

Saturday’s headline clash sees Guinness PRO14 Conference A toppers Leinster travel across the Irish Sea to take on English Premiership leaders Northampton Saints at 1pm.

Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton is back to skipper Leinster, where he will face off against Welsh counterpart Dan Biggar – with one of the most in-form backs in European rugby at inside centre for Saints, Scotland’s Rory Hutchinson.

Leinster haven’t lost to an English side in the Champions Cup group stage since 2016 but Northampton haven’t been playing this well for a long time.

Also in Pool 1, Benetton’s gaggle of Italian internationals travel to Lyon where both sides are looking for their first European win of the season.

There’s plenty of Guinness Six Nations interest in the 3.15pm kick-offs as Ulster host a Harlequins side boasting the likes of Kyle Sinckler and Joe Marler, while La Rochelle welcome Glasgow Warriors in what could be the most free-flowing match of the weekend.

A Warriors back-line featuring players such as Adam Hastings, Sam Johnson and Tommy Seymour will certainly interest Scotland coach Gregor Townsend and a trip to Stade Marcel Deflandre is never easy.

Townsend will also keep an eye on the Liberty Stadium where fly-half Finn Russell will lead Racing 92 into battle against Ospreys.

The Racing side is also replete with French international superstars and slowing the likes of Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Maxime Machenaud and Wenceslas Lauret will be key to Ospreys getting anything from the game.

The other 5.30pm game sees a glamour tie at Thomond Park as Munster call on the international class of Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Conor Murray while Saracens are without much of their England contingent, although Maro Itoje is in the second row.

The weekend ends with a fascinating trio of games on Sunday – the first of which sees Connacht travel to Gloucester in a crucial encounter.

The two sides are trailing in Pool 5 and both need wins to get back into the reckoning – Toulouse and Montpellier face each other later in the day with Toulouse leading on nine points, Montpellier on five and Connacht on four.

Marauding Italian back-rower Jake Polledri will look to make his mark for Gloucester against the Irishmen, while large parts of the Toulouse back-line could be starting for France in the 2020 Guinness Six Nations – Romain Ntamack, Yoann Huget and Thomas Ramos all looking to shine.

There’s also a fascinating all-English tie in Manchester as Sale Sharks welcome Exeter Chiefs to the AJ Bell Stadium.

Exeter have been stellar so far and are the only side on ten points but Sale, including the irrepressible Curry brothers in the back row brothers, are rarely beaten at home.