Key Storylines ahead of the Champions Cup

Date published: December 9 2016

Europe's premier club competition takes centre stage this weekend with the year's international action done and dusted.

Only Saracens in Pool 3 and Clermont in Pool 5 hold clear leads at the top of their respective groups following the first two rounds of action in the Champions Cup, with plenty riding on the next two weeks.

Here are four narratives to follow over the weekend.

1) Ireland's future at Franklin's Gardens

Credit to Joe Schmidt, he tried to calm down the hype surrounding the prospect of a Robbie Henshaw-Garry Ringrose combination as much as he could during November. But the fact is everyone is waiting to see how Leinster's star signing and their latest homegrown talent gel together.

The ingredients are there for a balanced partnership, with Ringrose impressing in his first caps for his country last month, but there are a handful of other rising Irish stars packed into Leinster's side for the trip to Franklin's Gardens – Joey Carbery at fly-half, Josh van der Flier in the back row, Tadgh Furlong at prop.

Adam Byrne on his Champions Cup debut is another to monitor out on the wing. Their efforts on Friday, against an off-colour Northampton, will be worth keeping an eye on.

2) Composure test for Clermont

First place in the Top 14, five points clear in Europe… things are surely going too well for les Jaunards given their track record (not wanting to jinx them by the way). Even after coming off second best in a high-scoring defeat to Pau last weekend Clermont still look like the team to beat in France, and the return of a number of top stars in the backline for Saturday's trip to Belfast is another reminder of their depth.

Losing at Kingspan Stadium though would raise some questions; a problematic fixture that good teams find a way to win, and one where those pretending to be good sides get found out. Few grounds are as unforgiving. That said, Clermont were outstanding in Round 1 when they went to Sandy Park and swept aside Exeter.

Travelling to Ulster feels like a game where Clermont would slip up in the past, hence the trepidation in backing them as favourites to win the title, but the depth of Clermont's XV heading to Belfast – France's centres from November, Wesley Fofana and Rémi Lamerat, are paired in midfield – is awe inspiring. Time to make a statement and prove this crop are not as flaky as the past.

3) The Lions scrum-half audition in Limerick

One thing we forgot to stress when settling on our Team of the November Tests was just how tight the call was for who to pick at scrum-half between Conor Murray and Ben Youngs. The England nine got the nod – after all he has been in excellent form, and his sniping and dummying played a big role in defeat first South Africa and then Australia.

But Murray delivered the single-best scrum-half performance of the year in Chicago against the All Blacks, one that has in all likelihood put him into the number nine shirt for the Lions once the Test series rolls around barring injury or Youngs leaving another 15-20 defenders staring at the turf after another one of those dummies.

All which sets Saturday's duel between Munster and Leicester up rather nicely. Youngs played out of his skin for England in November and will need to do again with Leicester on the road, even if the Tigers won at Thomond Park last season. Murray and Munster will take some stopping, and Warren Gatland will be paying close attention.

4) Kurtley Beale's long-awaited debut

Wasps supporters have been patiently waiting for Kurtley Beale to get back to full fitness, and now arguably the biggest signing of the year will make his first appearance for the ambitious Premiership club up against Connacht this weekend.

The injury in the first place was a terrible piece of luck, tearing his patella tendon 24 hours after Wasps announced his blockbuster move to England. It has been a long and thorough rehab, first in Sydney with the Waratahs before continuing with his new club's medical staff.

Paired up this weekend in midfield with Alapati Leiua, his partnership with Elliot Daly once the England back returns from his suspension is going to be quite something. Even Connacht fans will hope he comes through unscathed.

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