Weekend Preview: Carbery returns and the final countdown in France

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It’s out with the old and in with the new as we kick off a new decade with a tantalising set of domestic fixtures across Europe this weekend.

It’s out with the old and in with the new as we kick off a new decade with a tantalising set of domestic fixtures across Europe this weekend.

There are more derby fixtures to look forward to in the Guinness PRO14 as well as many stars looking to press their Guinness Six Nations claims in both the English Premiership and in France, with only one month to go until the 2020 Championship.

With Johnny Sexton facing a race against time, albeit one that he seems to be winning, to be fit for Ireland’s Guinness Six Nations opener against Scotland there is opportunity brewing in the fly-half ranks.

But, Joey Carbery has not had the chance to stake his claim yet this domestic season due to an ankle injury originally sustained in August that has kept him on the sidelines.

The Munster man did feature during the World Cup but aggravated the injury in Japan, and only returned to action last Saturday as he made his first appearance of the season from the bench in his province’s 15-6 defeat to Leinster.

Now though, he is fit to feature from the start at out-half against Ulster at Kingspan on Friday night and it will certainly be intriguing to see whether he can get back up to speed straight away with one eye on what is to come.

There is an unfamiliar feel to the pack selected by Dave Rennie for Glasgow’s contest with Benetton, as Bruce Flockhart and Tom Gordon get their chance to shine to Italy this weekend.

Flockhart, a 22-year-old No.8, had made several appearances this season and brings with him great promise, while fellow 22-year-old back-rower Gordon is an explosive athlete who has excited Rennie – watch this space.

For a Benetton side who have been impressive of late, Jayden Hayward will be looking to continue his own strong form as he gears up to help Italy improve on last year’s showing in the Guinness Six Nations.

Elsewhere in the Guinness PRO14, there are two exciting Welsh derbies on offer.

Owen Lane, who will be looking to add to his two Wales caps in February, has been a star on the wing throughout Cardiff Blues’ campaign so far and he’ll square off with fellow countrymen Leigh Halfpenny and Ken Owens as they face Scarlets.

The top six sides in Conference B are separated by just seven points and the two Welsh outfits are tantalisingly poised with Blues fifth and Scarlets third – so a cracker should be in store.

While, on Saturday, an Ospreys side featuring the likes of George North and captain Justin Tipuric travel to Dragons in desperate need of a victory.

Over in the English Premiership, the West Country derby between Gloucester and Bath highlights another intriguing weekend of battles.

The visitors are buoyed by the return of England Rugby World Cup star Sam Underhill while young star Ollie Thorley will be aiming to stake his own claim to be a part of Eddie Jones’ new era as he returns to action for Gloucester.

Saracens will be looking to bounce back following their defeat last time out to Exeter Chiefs and December Premiership Player of the Month nominee Ben Earl is back on the flank as he looks to catch the eye of England once more.

Finally, the game of the weekend in the Top 14 looks set to see an improving Stade Francais host Toulouse.

The home side may be bottom of the standings but they have claimed seven points from their last three games – albeit they have lost seven matches in a row against Toulouse.

Looking to end that run will be French stars Gaël Fickou and Paul Gabrillagues, as they aim to secure their spot in a Les Bleus side entering a new era under head coach Fabien Galthié.

It is a big weekend for them, and indeed all French hopefuls, with it being the last round of Top 14 matches before Galthié names his Guinness Six Nations squad on January 8.