Bristol Bears and Clermont Auvergne get things underway in the Champions Cup on Saturday, while Toulon host Sale and Leinster travel to Montpellier…
Bristol Bears vs Clermont Auvergne
Bristol went from promoted to the top flight in 2017-18 to semi-finalists in last year’s campaign, and Pat Lam’s side have carried last season’s form into the current season; losing narrowly to Wasps first time out before beating Worcester then showing their maturity and game management to overturn Northampton’s lead late and snatch victory.
Champions Cup giants Clermont have won six of their first nine games in the Top 14, but the teams to have beaten them are La Rochelle, Bayonne and Montpellier, with the latter two in the bottom of the Top 14 table which hints at some inconsistency.
While Bristol have some exciting backs, it’s the forwards who will have to stand up this weekend if they are to cause an upset, and No 8 Nathan Hughes will have to spearhead the physical presence in the pack. The England international will have to impose himself on the likes of Sébastien Vahaamahina, Sitaleki Timani and Fritz Lee.
Clermont have a wealth of internationals in their team, both for Les Bleus and further afield, so there are plenty of threats including Alivereti Raka and Wesley Fofana, however it’s the electric Damian Penaud who makes them such a dangerous team out wide.
Bristol are without star player Semi Radradra because of a leg injury, but returning internationals include Wales fly-half Callum Sheedy and England back-row forward Ben Earl.
Clermont have picked experienced half-backs Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra to start, while full-back Kotaro Matsushima joins Penaud and Raka in the back three.
Bristol Bears: 15 Max Malins, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Piers O’Conor, 12 Siale Piutau (c), 11 Henry Purdy, 10 Callum Sheedy, 9 Harry Randall, 1 Jake Woolmore, 2 Bryan Byrne, 3 John Afoa, 4 Ed Holmes, 5 Joe Joyce, 6 Ben Earl, 7 Dan Thomas, 8 Nathan Hughes.
Replacements: 16 Will Capon, 17 Yann Thomas, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Jake Heenan, 21 Andy Uren, 22 Ioan Lloyd, 23 Siva Naulago.
Clermont Auvergne: 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Apisai Naqalevu, 12 George Moala, 11 Alivereti Raka, 10 Camille Lopez (c), 9 Morgan Parra, 1 Etienne Falgoux, 2 Adrien Pélissié, 3 Rabah Slimani, 4 Sitaleki Timani, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 6 Judicaël Cancoriet, 7 Peceli Yato, 8 Fritz Lee.
Replacements: 16 Etienne Fourcade, 17 Peni Ravai, 18 Sipili Falatea, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Tavite Veredamu, 21 Sébastien Bézy, 22 Tim Nanai-Williams, 23 Tani Vili.
Bath vs Scarlets
Bath’s domestic season has begun in shaky fashion. They started with a loss to Premiership newcomers Newcastle Falcons which was followed by a 40-3 hiding from defending champions Exeter Chiefs. They beat Worcester last time out, but haven’t yet shown the kind of form that will give them confidence going into Europe.
Scarlets have won only three of their first seven games of the PRO14 season, but their three losing bonus points suggests it’s been a case of nearly there for the Welsh region. This fixture could ignite the season for either of these sides – who will take the opportunity?
Bath will need Joe Cokanasiga to fly out of the traps early. Along with World Cup bolter Ruaridh McConnochie he offers plenty of attacking threat that will need to be pin-point this weekend. While Scarlets have not had a dominant start to the season, they have conceded only 12 tries in their PRO14 campaign so far; only Leinster’s 11 is better than that in the competition.
The Scarlets are without a host of their Welsh contingent, which means the onus is on veteran Leigh Halfpenny to provide the spark for the team. The full-back will have his hands full keeping Bath’s back three quiet, can they do the same to him?
Bath welcome back Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and Sam Underhill from England Autumn Nations Cup duty, but fly-half Rhys Priestland is sidelined after suffering a head injury against Worcester last weekend and is replaced by Josh Matavesi.
Scarlets are without injured Wales backs Liam Williams and Johnny Williams, and James Davies and Rhys Patchell also miss out on the trip to the Rec.
Bath: 15 Anthony Watson, 14 Joe Cokanasiga, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Cameron Redpath, 11 Ruaridh McConnochie, 10 Josh Matavesi, 9 Ben Spencer, 1 Beno Obano , 2 Tom Dunn, 3 Will Stuart, 4 Josh McNally, 5 Charlie Ewels (c), 6 Mike Williams, 7 Sam Underhill, 8 Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: 16 Jack Walker , 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Christian Judge, 19 Elliott Stooke, 20 Josh Bayliss, 21 Zach Mercer, 22 Will Chudley, 23 Semesa Rokoduguni.
Scarlets: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Ryan Conbeer, 13 Tyler Morgan, 12 Steff Hughes (c), 11 Steff Evans, 10 Dan Jones, 9 Gareth Davies, 1 Wyn Jones, 2 Ryan Elias, 3 Samson Lee, 4 Jake Ball, 5 Sam Lousi, 6 Blade Thomson, 7 Jac Morgan, 8 Sione Kalamafoni.
Replacements: 16 Marc Jones, 17 Rob Evans, 18 Javan Sebastian, 19 Morgan Jones, 20 Joshua Macleod, 21 Kieran Hardy, 22 Angus O’Brien, 23 Jonathan Davies.
Toulon vs Sale Sharks
Toulon are fourth in the Top 14 table after winning six of their 10 fixtures so far, but they have not managed to outmuscle the other teams at the top such as La Rochelle and Toulouse. The visit of Sale Sharks is an intriguing fixture, with Toulon no longer the full European force they once were, while the Sharks are a team on the up.
Though Sale are on the rise, and have only lost one of their first three games of the domestic season, the sudden departure of coach Steve Diamond earlier this week is likely to prove distracting. However, with Edinburgh waiting in rounds two and three, the Sharks will see this game as a big opportunity to finally flex their muscles and cause a stir in Europe.
Toulon have the likes of Ma’a Nonu and Eben Etzebeth to call upon, but captain Sergio Parisse is the man who will have his hands full against a combative back row in the form of South Africans Cobus Wiese, Jono Ross and Jean-Luc du Preez.
Fly-half AJ MacGinty will have Sam Hill and Robert du Preez outside him in the Sharks’ midfield to lean on, but he will need to be the loudest voice at Stade Felix-Mayol if the Sharks are to dictate the tempo of the game on Saturday.
Toulon have a pair of All Blacks in midfield as Isaiah Toeava and Nonu start, with Etzebeth packing down alongside Brian Alainu’uese in the second row. Parisse captains the side in the No 8 jersey.
The Sharks have made three changes to the matchday 23 that beat London Irish last Sunday, with Bevan Rodd’s inclusion at loosehead prop the only change to the starting pack. He is backed up by Ross Harrison on the bench, who is included in the Sale squad for the first since time this season. Sam Hill, named at inside centre, also makes his first Sharks appearance this term.
Toulon: 15 Duncan Paia’aua, 14 Ramiro Moyano Joya, 13 Isaiah Toeava, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Gabin Villière, 10 Louis Carbonel, 9 Baptiste Serin, 1 Jean Baptiste Gros, 2 Anthony Etrillard, 3 Emerick Setiano, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 5 Brian Alainu’uese, 6 Swan Rebbadj, 7 Raphael Lakafia, 8 Sergio Parisse (c).
Replacements: 16 Christopher Tolofua, 17 Bruce Devaux, 18 Luka Tchelidze, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Facundo Isa, 21 Simon Moretti, 22 Anthony Meric, 23 Masivesi Dakuwaqa.
Sale Sharks: 15 Luke James, 14 Marland Yarde, 13 Robert du Preez, 12 Sam Hill, 11 Simon Hammersley, 10 AJ MacGinty, 9 Will Cliff, 1 Bevan Rodd, 2 Akker van der Merwe, 3 Willgriff John, 4 Matthew Postlethwaite, 5 James Phillips, 6 Jacobus Wiese, 7 Jono Ross (c), 8 Jean-Luc du Preez.
Replacements: 16 Curtis Langdon, 17 Ross Harrison, 18 Jake Cooper-Woolley, 19 Sam Dugdale, 20 Ewan Ashman, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Sam James, 23 Denny Solomona.
Dragons vs Wasps
Dragons have won three of six in the PRO14 this season, and that record could have been worse had Glasgow fly-half Brandon Thomson not missed a simple conversion with the final kick to hand the Welsh region a dramatic 23-22 victory at Scotstoun last week.
Wasps have fared worse; they followed their opening-weekend victory over the Bears with losses to Gloucester and the Falcons. The men from Coventry will see this game as a chance to rectify their patchy form, but then, so will the Dragons.
Jamie Roberts will offer plenty of experience at inside centre for the Dragons, but the man outside him, Nick Tompkins, will be vital in orchestrating the attack of the Welshmen.
Jack Willis’ stock has risen over the autumn, making his England debut against Georgia last month and scoring a try to mark the occasion. The 23-year-old has the important task of making an impact around the ruck for Wasps and joining Thomas Young in trying to disrupt the ball at the tackle.
Tompkins is the only change in the backline as scrum-half and captain Rhodri Williams makes his 50th appearance for the Dragons. Two changes to the front row see hooker Richard Hibbard and Lloyd Fairbrother called up to pack down with Brok Harris, while Aaron Wainwright slots into the blindside jersey and Harrison Keddie moves to openside.
Wasps are bolstered by the returning Dan Robson, Joe Launchbury, Will Rowlands and Willis, while Charlie Atkinson takes over from injured fly-half Jacob Umaga.
Dragons: 15 Josh Lewis, 14 Jared Rosser, 13 Nick Tompkins, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Ashton Hewitt, 10 Sam Davies, 9 Rhodri Williams (c), 1 Brok Harris, 2 Richard Hibbard, 3 Lloyd Fairbrother, 4 Ben Carter, 5 Joe Maksymiw, 6 Aaron Wainwright, 7 Harrison Keddie, 8 Ollie Griffiths.
Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Joshua Reynolds, 18 Leon Brown, 19 Matthew Screech, 20 Taine Basham, 21 Tavis Knoyle, 22 Jack Dixon, 23 Jonah Holmes.
Wasps: 15 Lima Sopoaga, 14 Zach Kibirige, 13 Paolo Odogwu, 12 Jimmy Gopperth, 11 Josh Bassett, 10 Charlie Atkinson, 9 Dan Robson, 1 Tom West, 2 Tom Cruse, 3 Kieran Brookes, 4 Joe Launchbury (c), 5 Will Rowlands, 6 Jack Willis, 7 Thomas Young, 8 Alfie Barbeary.
Replacements: 16 Gabriel Oghre, 17 Zurabi Zhvania, 18 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 19 Tim Cardall, 20 Ben Morris, 21 Will Porter, 22 Michael Le Bourgeois, 23 Matteo Minozzi.
Montpellier vs Leinster
Despite boasting some big-name players, Montpellier are languishing in 11th place in the Top 14, and besides beating the two bottom sides Brive and Agen, the only result to hang their hat on this season was a rare defeat of Clermont at Stade Marcel-Michelin.
Leinster are one of three teams still unbeaten in the PRO14. Leo Cullen’s side are defending champions in the PRO14, but were dumped out of last year’s Champions Cup by an inspired Saracens side. They will be want to make sure there are no bumps on the road this year as they seek another European title.
Montpellier are a side with plenty of raw power in the forwards, so the leadership of hooker and former France captain Guilhem Guirado is of obvious importance in keeping younger heads in check against an experienced Leinster side.
With Johnny Sexton on the bench for the Irish province, all eyes are on Ross Byrne in the No 10 jersey. His battle with Alex Lozowski, two players with big international ambitions, will be an intriguing one.
Lozowski wears the No 10 jersey for Montpellier and will play outside Benoit Paillaugue, who is making his 250th appearance for the Top 14 side. The back row sees Nico Janse van Rensburg and Yacouba Camara start alongside No 8 Jacques Du Plessis.
Full-back Jimmy O’Brien makes his European debut for Leinster, while Ciarán Frawley makes his first start in Europe and will be partnered in midfield by Robbie Henshaw, who makes his 50th appearance in Leinster colours. Rhys Ruddock captains the side from blindside flanker, with Josh van der Flier and No 8 Caelan Doris completing the back row.
Montpellier: 15 Vincent Rattez, 14 Gabriel N’gandebe, 13 Yvan Reilhac, 12 Arthur Vincent (c), 11 Vincent Martin, 10 Alex Lozowski, 9 Benoit Paillaugue, 1 Grégory Fichten, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 3 Mohamed Haouas, 4 Bastien Chalureau, 5 Paul Willemse, 6 Nico Janse van Rensburg, 7 Yacouba Camara, 8 Jacques Du Plessis.
Replacements: 16 Bismarck Du Plessis, 17 Enzo Forletta, 18 Titi Lamositele, 19 Louis Picamoles , 20 Caleb Timu, 21 Louis Foursans, 22 Paul Vallée, 23 Axel Bevia.
Leinster: 15 Jimmy O’Brien, 14 Hugo Keenan, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Ciaran Frawley, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Luke McGrath, 1 Peter Dooley, 2 James Tracy, 3 Michael Bent, 4 Devin Toner, 5 Scott Fardy, 6 Rhys Ruddock (c), 7 Josh van der Flier, 8 Caelan Doris.
Replacements: 16 Ronan Kelleher, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 James Ryan, 20 Ryan Baird, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Johnny Sexton, 23 Dan Leavy.
Edinburgh vs La Rochelle
Edinburgh are in a spot of bother already in the PRO14, having lost five of their first seven fixtures in the competition. They stared with consecutive losses to Ospreys, Munster and Connacht before somewhat steadying the ship with a narrow win over Scarlets followed by a victory against Cardiff Blues. However, since then they shipped 50 points to Leinster and most recently were beaten 43-14 by Ulster.
La Rochelle are top of the table in the Top 14 after eight wins from 11, and have seen off the likes of Racing 92 and Toulon. However, they were comfortably beaten by Toulouse and Stade Francais which shows that their mercurial nature, which has cost them their title ambitions in recent times, could still be an issue.
Duhan van der Merwe seems comfortable at international level, scoring two tries for Scotland over the autumn after making his debut against Georgia in October. His electric pace offers Edinburgh an x-factor in the backs, and the same can be said of Viliame Mata in the forwards.
Levani Botia is box office when he gets going, as is midfield partner Geoffrey Doumayrou – together they will look to make it a tough afternoon for Edinburgh pair Chris Dean and Mark Bennett.
It’s a new-look side for Edinburgh, with centre Chris Dean, scrum-half Henry Pyrgos, prop Pierre Schoeman and second rower Andrew Davidson the only ones retaining their places. Rejoining the pack after the autumn are Scotland quintet Stuart McInally, WP Nel, lock Ben Toolis and back-row forwards Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson.
La Rochelle have South African wingers Dillyn Leyds and Raymond Rhule in their starting line-up, while Jules Plisson and Tawera Kerr Barlow form the half-back pairing. Former Saracens lock Will Skelton is in the second row alongside Thomas Lavault.
Edinburgh: 15 Blair Kinghorn, 14 Darcy Graham, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Chris Dean, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Henry Pyrgos, 1 Pierre Schoeman, 2 Stuart McInally (c), 3 WP Nel, 4 Ben Toolis, 5 Andrew Davidson, 6 Jamie Ritchie, 7 Hamish Watson, 8 Viliame Mata.
Replacements: 16 Mike Willemse, 17 Rory Sutherland, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Andries Ferreira, 20 Magnus Bradbury, 21 Nic Groom, 22 Nathan Chamberlain, 23 James Johnstone.