What to watch out for this weekend?

Gael Fickou celebrates scoring their first try 19/3/2022
The domestic season continues apace with just three weeks before the start of the international window.

The domestic season continues apace with just three weeks before the start of the international window.

With that in mind, time is running out to impress national selectors and prove fitness, with some big names making their returns this weekend.

Nowhere is that truer than in France, where Gaël Fickou is making his first appearance of the season.

Elsewhere Johnny Sexton is making a first start of the campaign and fellow fly-half Dan Biggar begins his long farewell for Northampton Saints.

So what should you be looking out for?

Fickou returns in the nick of time

France are hardly lacking for depth across the park but the 2022 Guinness Six Nations champions have been hit by a number of injuries ahead of the Autumn Nations Series.

That is particularly the case in the midfield where Arthur Vincent’s recent knee injury, combined with Virimi Vakatawa’s sad retirement, has left Fabien Galthié with limited options.

His defensive captain, Gaël Fickou, is one of the first names on the teamsheet, and having missed the first five weeks of the season because of an injury sustained in pre-season, he makes his bow against Pau.

That should mean that he will be sufficiently match-fit by the time that France take on the Wallabies at the start of November, while the game also sees young scrum-half Nolann Le Garrec return to fitness and Christian Wade make his debut for the Paris club.

Elsewhere in France, a couple of the Grand Slam champions will be playing in unfamiliar positions as Anthony Jelonch starts at lock for Toulouse and Damian Penaud shifts to the centres for Clermont when two of the heavyweights of French rugby face off.

Penaud has plenty of experience in the midfield, and could have provided an option to Galthié, although that seems less likely with Gabin Villière the latest French international to be ruled out of the Autumn.

Sexton starts again

Following on from Ireland’s historic series victory in New Zealand, Johnny Sexton has been eased back in this season, playing 14 minutes off the bench against Ulster last week.

This time around, he gets the nod from the off as Leinster take on the Sharks, with the Ireland skipper keen to get into top form for the upcoming clashes with South Africa, Fiji and Australia.

He is not the only Ireland fly-half who is back in action, with Jack Carty making a first appearance of the season on Friday when Connacht take on Munster.

The man Carty is challenging for Sexton’s understudy role, Joey Carbery, will also be on the park, but at full-back for the visitors, with neither side having clicked so far this season.

Biggar bids farewell

Wales skipper Dan Biggar announced that he would be leaving Northampton Saints at the end of the season after a successful spell in the east Midlands.

And Saints fans will have a first opportunity to show their appreciation to the fly-half when he lines up in their clash with Wasps, an important game to get themselves back in the hunt for a top-four finish.

Another international skipper will also be starting at fly-half this weekend, Owen Farrell taking the No.10 jersey as he captains Saracens against Newcastle Falcons.

New role for Tuipulotu

The only team from the Guinness Six Nations in action in the opening round of international games is Scotland, so Gregor Townsend will be narrowing down his squad at the moment.

The midfield is an area of particular strength, with Sione Tuipulotu one of those hoping to earn a starting berth.

And having started the campaign strongly for Glasgow Warriors, he will now get a chance to captain the side when they take on the Bulls.

Azzurri hoping for more Benetton success

Confidence must be high in Italy where Benetton have started the season very strongly, while Zebre have also managed four bonus points despite losing their first three games.

Benetton will be keen to extend their strong start when they welcome the Dragons to Treviso, a week after beating the Scarlets at home.

Able to call on the likes of Italy skipper Michele Lamaro, in a back row that also features up-and-comers Manuel Zuliani and Lorenzo Cannone, Benetton will hope to keep the good run going and build some momentum that Kieran Crowley could carry on in the Autumn Nations Series.

And it is not just on the United Rugby Championship that Crowley will be focused. Marco Riccioni starts for Saracens as he continues his recovery from a long-term knee injury, while Jake Polledri features for Hartpury College in the English Championship.