Stars return as new rugby season heats up

Alun Wyn Jones 20/3/2021
The countdown to the 2022 Guinness Six Nations gathers pace this month, as international rugby returns in the shape of the Autumn Nations Series.

The countdown to the 2022 Guinness Six Nations gathers pace this month, as international rugby returns in the shape of the Autumn Nations Series.

Europe’s best players are flocking back to their clubs in order to get match-fit and there is plenty on the line across the continent this week.

There are mouth-watering match-ups in the English Premiership, a host of returning players in Wales and two brothers facing off in France.


Wales begin their autumn campaign against New Zealand in just three weeks’ time and this weekend marks the return of several big names following the Lions tour this summer.

Captain Alun Wyn Jones is the biggest and he trots out for club side Ospreys against South African side the Sharks on Friday night in the United Rugby Championship, as the hosts look to maintain their unbeaten start to the campaign.

Josh Navidi makes his return for the Cardiff Blues against the Bulls on Saturday, while hooker Ken Owens and scrum-half Gareth Davies play for Scarlets for the first time this season against Munster on Sunday, as they look to build on their 36-13 win against the Lions last weekend.

Across the border in England, and Wales winger Louis Rees-Zammit is also playing for the first time this season for Premiership side Gloucester, along with Scotland centre and fellow Lion Chris Harris.


The action in England begins on Friday night when defending champions Harlequins entertain Bristol Bears in a rematch of their classic semi-final last season, which Quins won 43-36 after trailing 28-0.

England head coach Eddie Jones will no doubt be watching on and will surely be keen to see what happens in the scrum, when two of his charges – Harlequins’ Joe Marler and Bristol Bears’ Kyle Sinckler – go head-to-head.

The Bears got off the mark at the third time of asking against Bath last weekend, while Harlequins start the weekend third in the table.

Harlequins are also set for their first glimpse of fly-half Marcus Smith this season from the bench, as he begins his bid to build on his maiden Lions call-up by establishing himself in the national side.

George Ford is also trying to muscle his way back into Jones’ plans after missing out on the latest training squad and starts for league leaders Leicester Tigers alongside England teammates Ben Youngs and Ellis Genge for the trip to London Irish.


There are plenty of big names on show in north London, where Saracens host Newcastle Falcons.

The hosts have filled their XV with England regulars for the visit of Dean Richards’ side, with Owen Farrell captaining the side from fly-half and Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Billy Vunipola also getting the nod.

Falcons’ winger Adam Radwan, who is in England’s autumn squad, will be hoping to improve on his remarkable record of 38 tries in 49 games, while fellow training squad members Trevor Davison, Callum Chick and Jamie Blamire are also set to feature.

Meanwhile, Exeter Chiefs v Worcester Warriors is a fixture that will interest many Scottish fans, with four of their most important players lining up at Sandy Park.

Scotland captain Stuart Hogg starts at full-back, while Jonny Hill gets the nod at lock for the two-time Premiership winners – who have won just one of their three league games so far.

Worcester can match that though, handing first starts to new signings Rory Sutherland and Duhan van der Merwe, both fresh from touring with the Lions.


Across in Dublin, Ireland head coach Andy Farrell will be happy to see full-back Jordan Larmour return after a groin injury to make his first appearance this season for Leinster against Zebre.

Leinster have picked a pack full of internationals in the likes of Sean Cronin, Devin Toner, Ryan Baird, Dan Leavy and Rhys Ruddock, while Johnny Sexton starts from the bench.

Leinster are yet to lose this season, just like Benetton Rugby, who have Italy’s Luca Sperandio, Tommaso Benvenuti, Callum Braley and Braam Steyn in their side to face Ulster.


There is a familiar opponent for France and Lyon ace Baptiste Couilloud this weekend – his brother Barnabe.

The pair will battle it out at scrum-half for their clubs as Barnaby’s Biarritz host Lyon on Saturday.

Meanwhile, there is an interesting fly-half battle as France and Bordeaux Begles No.10 Matthieu Jalibert faces Italy and Montpellier ace Paolo Garbisi.