Things to look out for this weekend in European domestic rugby

Alun Wyn Jones 20/3/2021
With just two weeks to go until the Autumn Nations Series kicks off in Edinburgh, there is a full set of domestic action to get stuck into.

With just two weeks to go until the Autumn Nations Series kicks off in Edinburgh, there is a full set of domestic action to get stuck into.

It gives players from across Europe only a fortnight to impress selectors and either work their way into the team or cement their places ahead of Rugby World Cup year.

Perhaps the most prevalent example of this is in Wales, where the Ospreys will welcome four Welsh internationals back into their side as Tomas Francis, Alun Wyn Jones, Adam Beard and George North all return to club duty.

Elsewhere, England prop Joe Marler makes a landmark appearance in the battle of the two most recent Gallagher Premiership champions and the current holders of the Heineken Champions Cup do battle with last season’s Challenge Cup winners.

We take you through everything you should look out for this weekend in European domestic rugby.

Ospreys bring back superstars

It has hardly been a dream start to the United Rugby Championship for the Ospreys this season, winning one and drawing one of their opening four matches, but the return of four Welsh internationals to the fold should certainly help that.

Francis, Jones, Beard and North have almost 400 Test caps combined, something that will benefit any side – and will be pleasing for Wayne Pivac as he prepares to face New Zealand in three weeks’ time.

The return of four players of such importance to Wales will give them another boost after their history-making summer which saw them finally win a Test match in South Africa.

Jones – with 165 Test caps to his name, more than any other player in the history of Test rugby – gives Wales belief whenever he is involved, while in Beard they welcome back one of the outstanding second rows in world rugby.

Francis’ injury in South Africa was a frustrating blow for Pivac, with front row positions still up for grabs, so for him to shake off his injury just in time ahead of a vital Autumn Nations Series is incredibly important.

North meanwhile started in all three Tests at outside centre and will now have three weeks to hit the ground running and look to retain his form.

Marler reaches landmark

Few players reach 250 club appearances overall, let alone for one club, but that is what Joe Marler has to look forward to this weekend.

The England prop is set to reach the incredible landmark of 250 appearances against reigning champions Leicester Tigers at the Twickenham Stoop on Sunday, where he will do battle with former England teammate Dan Cole.

Marler, who has 79 England caps, could well become a key part of Eddie Jones’ Autumn Nations Series plans once more, having missed the summer tour to Australia, but faces stiff competition in Mako Vunipola and Ellis Genge.

His battle with Cole is not the only one to catch the eye, with Danny Care and Ben Youngs colliding at scrum-half, with both players hoping to continue to push each other this Autumn.

Perhaps the most interesting clash will be between Anthony Watson and Joe Marchant, with both players looking to prove a point to Jones after injury and being dropped respectively.

Elsewhere in the Gallagher Premiership, Saracens and Bath Rugby lock horns in another game packed with internationals.

The master takes on the apprentice when Owen Farrell and Orlando Bailey go head-to-head, while Max Malins and Joe Cokanasiga go up against in each other with the England number 14 jersey in sights.

There is also an intriguing clash of the tightheads, with Saracens’ Italian prop Marco Riccioni and Bath’s Will Stuart looking to get their respective scrums on the front foot.

Battle of European heavyweights in Top 14

The Top 14 is looking incredibly tight just six games into the season and this weekend second takes on third.

La Rochelle host Toulon at the Stade Marcel Deflandre in a battle of two of the great European teams in recent years.

La Rochelle, the current European champions, host Toulon, last season’s Challenge Cup runners up and three-time Champions Cup winners themselves.

The back row will be the area to watch on Sunday, as French stars Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt do battle, with Italian legend Sergio Parisse also likely to be included in the Toulon back row.

It is a big chance for Ollivon to show his credentials again in the French back row, after re-emerging in the summer series in Japan following a long injury lay-off.

He comes up against one of the world’s best back row forwards in Alldritt, with the two French stars on opposite teams ahead of a potential Autumn reunion for Les Bleus.

On Saturday there is also an intriguing battle when Racing 92 visit Bordeaux Begles and Finn Russell and Mathieu Jalibert clash in the fly-half position.

Scotland’s Russell enjoyed the summer off following a hectic year for both club and country, but will have his eyes on the No.10 jersey again with Australia looming.