Weekend Preview: Crunch time for European hopefuls

It is crunch time in the Champions Cup with several quarter-final spots up for grabs in the final round of pool matches.

It is crunch time in the Champions Cup with several quarter-final spots up for grabs in the final round of pool matches.

This week has seen Wales, Ireland, Italy and Scotland announce their squads for the upcoming Guinness Six Nations, with France having done so the previous week.

But those selected will still be looking to prove a point while players eyeing an England call-up will have one last chance to impress before the squad is named on Monday.

Here’s a selection of games and players to watch out for this weekend.

Lyon v Northampton Saints 2pm

Pool One will be the first group to be wrapped up with Wales fly-half Dan Biggar aiming to fire Saints into the last eight at the Matmut Stadium de Gerland.

Biggar returns to the starting line-up as Northampton bid to make the reach the knockout stages for the first time since 2016.

Lock Courtney Lawes and flanker Lewis Ludlam – part of England’s Rugby World Cup squad – add international class in the forwards.

But Lyon will pack a punch up front with uncapped back-rower Dylan Cretin earning a call up by France boss Fabien Galthié.

Exeter Chiefs v La Rochelle, Saturday 5.30pm

After the news of his appointment as Scotland captain, Stuart Hogg can complete a memorable week by securing a home quarter-final for Chiefs.

The full-back came agonisingly close to clinching Exeter victory last weekend as his last-gasp penalty from 60 metres out struck the crossbar in the 31-31 draw at Glasgow Warriors. But Hogg will now hope to finish the job for Chiefs.

With the England squad yet to be decided, prop Harry Williams, fly-half Joe Simmonds and No.8 Sam Simmonds will be among those looking to impress head coach Eddie Jones.

But La Rochelle – featuring France duo Vincent Rattez and Grégory Alldritt – will be no pushovers as they hold out slim hopes of reaching the final eight.

Saracens v Racing 92, Sunday 1pm

Arguably the match of the weekend sees Saracens and Racing 92 go head-to-head at Allianz Park on Sunday in a repeat of the 2016 final.

The London club won that day, but Racing have already wrapped up top spot in Pool Four after winning the reverse fixture in November.

Electric wing Roti Segun has been causing defences problems this season and will hope to push his case for England selection with another try-scoring performance while in-form back-rower Ben Earl is also searching for his first cap.

This much-anticipated clash sees many intriguing battles as Racing’s half-back pairing Teddy Iribaren and Finn Russell face off against Ben Spencer and Owen Farrell, with Russell and Farrell potentially set to match up again in Round Two of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations.

Teddy Thomas maybe be absent but France centre Virimi Vakatawa is in flying form and could prove a handful for Duncan Taylor and Brad Barritt in midfield.

Finally in the second row Boris Palu has been a key cog for Racing and could make his debut in the Championship opener against England, which makes this clash with Maro Itoje and George Kruis the perfect dress rehearsal.

Toulouse v Gloucester, Sunday, 4.15pm

Speaking of match-ups between scrum-halves Willi Heinz and Antoine Dupont will collide in this cross-channel clash in Pool Five at the Stade Ernest Wallon.

With England facing France in the Guinness Six Nations opener Heinz will be keen to get one over Dupont and provide a timely reminder to Jones of his credentials to be his starting number nine.

Teenage sensation Louis Rees-Zammit’s flying form has been rewarded with a first call-up to the Wales squad. But he will face a huge test when he comes up against South Africa’s World Cup star Cheslin Kolbe.

Uncapped duo Ollie Thorley and Val Rapava Ruskin will also hope to catch Jones’ eye in France as the Cherry & Whites look to seal their place in one of the three best runners-up spots with victory over unbeaten Toulouse.

Over in Italy, leaders Leinster have the chance to make it six wins from six in Pool One as they face bottom club Benetton on Saturday.

Selected at No.8, Caelan Doris will be looking to produce a big performance to boost his hopes of challenging CJ Stander for the coveted Ireland jersey.

Fellow uncapped back-rower Max Deegan could also stake his claim although he starts at blindside flanker.

Later on Saturday, Ulster and Bath face off at the Kingspan Stadium with the hosts aiming to overtake ASM Clermont Auvergne – who visit Harlequins – at the top of Pool Three.

Bath are looking to avoid a clean sweep of defeats with wing Ruaridh McConnochie bidding to secure his place in the England squad.