Domestic action returns to the fore in the wake of the Six Nations finale and there is a big weekend of rugby in store across the Aviva Premiership, PRO14 and Top 14.
But which teams are set for a big weekend, which players will shine and who might have a shocker?
Player to watch
Premiership (Martyn Thomas): Manu Tuilagi. The post-mortem into England’s Six Nations failings continues apace, and the lack of physicality from Eddie Jones’ side has inevitably led to suggestions that Tuilagi could be brought back into the fold. The Leicester centre has had well-publicised fitness and disciplinary issues over the past couple of years but he has played the Tigers’ last four Premiership games and looks to have found his form. That will be put to the test on Sunday when Leicester host Wasps live on TV.
PRO14 (Cillian O Conchuir): Sean O’Brien. The Leinster and Ireland back row has been very unfortunate with injury since the British & Irish Lions tour last summer, having missed Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning Six Nations campaign. Leinster could use his brilliance on the pitch with a Champions Cup quarterfinal against Saracens to come on April 1. This weekend could prove his fitness test.
Top 14 (James Harrington): Louis Picamoles. Speculation is mounting after the Edinburgh incident that Picamoles’ international days are over. Only one person can put that thinking to bed. Peak Picamoles for the remaining weeks of the Top 14 should be enough for King Louis to force his way back into Jacques Brunel’s reckoning for the June tour of New Zealand.
Game of the weekend
Prem: Leicester vs. Wasps, Sunday, 3 p.m.
Three Premiership wins in a row have catapulted Leicester into the top five and contention for the end-of-season playoffs. A fourth straight Tigers victory, at home to Wasps, on Sunday would cause the top four to concertina even further. Second-placed Wasps have not lost a Premiership match since Jan. 7, meaning this could be a classic. Elsewhere, fourth-placed Newcastle are relocating to St James’ Park for one week only as they host Northampton with more than 25,000 tickets sold.
PRO14: Munster vs. Scarlets, Saturday, 5.30 p.m.
A huge clash for Munster who will be missing a host of their Grand Slam-winning Ireland stars. Defeat for Johann van Graan’s side against in-form Scarlets could let the Cheetahs — currently seven points behind Munster — inch closer to the second-placed Irish province in Conference A. The fight for an easier playoff quarterfinal is on.
Top 14: Toulon vs. Clermont, Sunday, 3.50 p.m.
This match, on the Sunday before both sides face unimportant Champions Cup quarterfinals, was originally scheduled for 8 p.m. UK time. But Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal, who had already threatened to forfeit Sunday matches after one too many earlier in the season, kicked up a fuss. So it was moved forward four hours, which will clearly work wonders for player recovery. In fact, it will be interesting to see the make-up of the two sides that take to the Stade Mayol pitch.
Prem: London Irish vs. Gloucester, Saturday, 3 p.m.
Declan Kidney and Less Kiss are not expected to save London Irish this season, theirs is a long-term project, but if the Exiles are to have any chance of avoiding relegation then Saturday’s clash with Gloucester represents a winnable fixture. A bumper crowd will descend on the Madejski Stadium for the club’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, and what better way for Kidney and Kiss to announce their arrival — and the players to say farewell to former boss Nick Kennedy — than with victory.
PRO14: Ospreys vs. Leinster, Saturday, 7.35 p.m.
Ospreys need nothing short of a miracle to get into next season’s Champions Cup, but a bonus-point win against Leinster is a must if they are to retain any chance of making that happen. Ospreys have won their last two, against the Cheetahs and Southern Kings. They need another big performance on Saturday.
Top 14: Pau vs. Oyonnax, Sunday, 5.45 p.m.
What a difference a Six Nations period makes. Before the championship kicked off, Oyonnax seemed destined for the ProD2. Now, after four straight wins, including last weekend’s late, late win over Toulon, they’re off the foot of the table in 13th. With current basement side Brive at home to 12th-placed Agen, however, they’ll need to maintain recently discovered winning ways against Pau — a side that, until last weekend’s steam-rollering at Clermont boasted a 100 percent winning record in 2018.
Big weekend for…
Prem: Premiership Rugby. Following the Six Nations break, England’s top flight is back with a bang as Saracens face Harlequins at a sold-out London Stadium and Newcastle take on Northampton at St James’ Park. Both games are being shown live on TV, with the former on free-to-air Channel 5 in the UK. When you factor in London Irish’s St Patrick’s party against Gloucester at the Madejski Stadium, it is a big opening weekend on the Premiership Rugby board for ex-RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie.
PRO14: Conor Murray and Rob Kearney. Having been pictured in Dubai, the Six Nations Grand Slam winners probably won’t be making an appearance in their respective province’s weekend fixture, as Munster take on Scarlets and Leinster travel to the Ospreys. With internationals being rested again ahead of Champions Cup quarterfinals, the player management system in Ireland comes to the fore once more.
Top 14: Toulon. Dressing-room tensions are to the fore, with senior players and coaches not quite seeing eye to eye. Meanwhile, club boss Mourad Boudjellal publicly criticised head coach Fabien Galthie for picking Six Nations punditry duty over travelling to Oyonnax with his team. And Fabrice Landreau, Marc Dal Mason and team manager Tom Whitford were all summoned to meetings following last weekend’s defeat. The latter was reportedly hauled over the coals for ignoring an instruction to cancel the team’s flight after a mad Mourad ordered everyone to make their own way back home. A win won’t solve these problems, but it might soothe a few ruffled feathers.