Key storylines ahead of the weekend

Date published: December 23 2016

Christmas is only two days away but there is plenty of rugby to digest over the coming days, along with that turkey.

Below are some of the highlights to look out for from now until December 27.

1) How will Danny Cipriani and Kurtley Beale bond together at Wasps

Wasps made the pages when they brandished their cheque book to buy some big-name, attacking players before the beginning of the season, only for them all to suffer injuries earlier on. But the likes of England play-maker Danny Cipriani and Wallabies livewire Kurtley Beale will play at fly-half and full-back on Saturday respectively and should bring some heat to an already fiery line.

It would not be a surprise to see Dai Young get these players to feed off each other, so expect Beale to enter the line fairly often so that the offensive brain trust of Beale and Cipriani can create plenty of opportunities for the outside backs, as they did for the Rebels.

Wasps, and their opponents this weekend Bath, are neck-and-neck for top of the table just behind Saracens, with Wasps just one point behind the table leaders. A win would put them in the driving seat just before the season’s halfway mark which would give the men from Coventry a great psychological boost going into the rest of the campaign. And the attacking acumen of Beale and Cipriani could make that happen.

2) Leinster’s weakened XV at Thomond Park

Given that the last team to topple Munster in Limerick a year ago were guess who, Leinster, the lack of a first-choice XV is somewhat of a disappointment. Then again, Leo Cullen’s decision to instead focus on the New Year’s Eve home game against Leinster seems a smart option.

Much like in previous years, the Irish derbies over the festive period seem set to play in a major role in the outcome of the play-offs by the end of the season, and when matching up the two starting XVs and factoring that Leinster are missing their two best options at fly-half, the outcome seems clear.

Then again, anything less than an accomplished performance from Munster given their strength of their side will raise some eyebrows. The hosts will be under pressure to deliver.

3) Bristol’s best chance of a Premiership win

The ambitious West Country outfit started the year so poorly that it might come as a surprise to hear that now at Christmas, Bristol are only six points adrift at the bottom table. Back-to-back wins in the Challenge Cup should have also given acting head coach Mark Tainton and his players plenty of confidence.

Which is why the visit of Worcester couldn’t come at a better time, the same being said for the return to fitness of Tusi Pisi who starts at inside centre, and former Ulster lock Dan Tuohy as he makes his debut. Maybe this is the weekend Bristol win in the Premiership at Ashton Gate for the first time since 2007.

4 Can the Scarlets’ winning run continue?

Excellent fact – the Scarlets are currently on their best winning run in the PRO12, having triumphed in seven straight matches and in the process climbing into the top four, five points behind joint leaders Munster and Leinster.

Our analyst broke down earlier this week how well the Scarlets’ tight five worked in defence and the attacking strides made by Rhys Patchell at his new region in the win over Toulon. Keeping the triumphant run going away to the Ospreys however might be tricky, when you consider that the Ospreys have gained a maximum 25 out of 25 available league points at home this season, the best record in the league.

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