The Champions Cup pool stages really heat up this weekend as round four sees the reverse fixtures of last week’s games. Each team will be desperate to take control of their European group heading into a busy domestic period.
With the Six Nations less than two months away this is one of the last remaining chances for internationals to stake a claim for a starting jersey with their respective countries.
With that in mind, we take a look at those who are set to stand out this weekend.
Jacob Stockdale (Ulster)
The young Ulster winger has been the talk of Irish Rugby over the past couple of months after introducing himself on the international stage in superb, try-scoring fashion.
This season has seen him score nine tries from just nine appearances, including the decisive score last weekend as Ulster beat Harlequins in the Stoop to bridge the gap slightly on runaway leaders La Rochelle.
Stockdale has little to prove judging on his form but will be desperate to continue in this vein with the Six Nations approaching quickly.
At the moment he is nailed on to start against France but considering Andrew Conway’s recent performances for both Munster and Ireland along with the return of Keith Earls from injury, expect Stockdale to be razor-sharp on Friday evening.
Josh van der Flier (Leinster)
With the incredible depth of talent in the Irish back-row, Josh van der Flier has become somewhat of a forgotten man by some, with injuries hampering his progress.
He will get his chance against Exeter on Saturday with Rhys Ruddock ruled out through injury and the young flanker will be eager to display his credentials to Leo Cullen and Joe Schmidt.
As a natural openside, Van Der Flier has massive competition from Sean O’Brien for both Ireland and Leinster. Bearing in mind O’Brien’s own injury struggles, the Wicklow man will want to remind everyone of his talents.
Although he does not possess the ball carrying skills of some of his teammates, his ability over the ball will be essential against Exeter in what could be the deciding of the pool.
Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs)
The Exeter Chiefs winger embodies everything that is good about the team. After promotion to the Championship at the start of the decade, they reached the promised land of the Premiership last summer.
Not blessed with many superstars, the Chiefs are a hardworking, expressive outfit who suffered their first home loss in a year against Leinster the last time out. They will be desperate to avenge that loss in the Aviva this weekend and Nowell will be key to that.
The Lions flyer is coming back from injury and could only make a cameo from the bench last weekend as Leinster secured the highly impressive victory.
However, in his brief time on the pitch, Nowell displayed all that is good about his game. Strong in the air, despite his short stature, he plays at a very high tempo, putting defences on the back foot immediately.
Leinster will have to be alert to the winger who is named from the start for this weekend’s crucial clash.
Peter O’Mahony (Munster)
Although Sam Arnold was awarded the Man of the Match in Munster’s brilliant 28-7 victory over Leicester last weekend, the general consensus was that Peter O’Mahony was the main man in the triumph.
The Cork man, who’s just committed his future to the province, signing a three-year deal, displayed to Munster, and indeed the IRFU, just how important he is. With Rory Best coming towards the twilight of his career, the Munster man is captain-in-waiting for Ireland.
O’Mahony is unrivalled in his position in Ireland and brings a set of skills that no one else can match. Brilliant at getting over the ball in the ruck, his lineout prowess is also a superb outlet for his country.
He will be key this weekend as Munster seek to firmly take control of their pool. Last year Munster defeated Leicester 38-0 in Thomond Park before being beaten the following week by the Tigers.
O’Mahony will be keen to amend the wrongs of last year so expect him to lead by example on Sunday evening.
Manu Tuilagi (Leicester)
The Leicester and England centre returns to the fold for the
Tigers on Sunday after recovering from a knee injury that has seen him out
Tuilagi is no stranger to injuries and has seen limited
game time in the past number of years, suffering from a mix of knee and
Yet, on his day, the bruising centre is a world-class operator.
Blessed with blistering speed and a powerful frame, he is a defender’s nightmare. The 26-year-old was part of the successful Lions squad in 2013, coming on as a substitute
in the final Test victory against Australia.
Sam Arnold was brilliant at centre last week for Munster but he, alongside
Rory Scannell, will have their hands full in trying to stop the Samoa-born England international at Welford Road.
He will also have his own Six Nations aspirations and will look to
impress Eddie Jones.