Five games take place in the Champions Cup on Saturday in what should be an entertaining day, starting with Ulster facing La Rochelle.
Ulster v La Rochelle
Craig Gilroy and Louis Ludik return to the Ulster backline after missing the PRO14 interprovincial derby with Leinster last week, while John Cooney returns to start at scrum-half following a replacement appearance in the RDS Arena.
Christian Lealiifano, who will be playing in his last home match for Ulster before returning to the Brumbies later this month, will partner Cooney at half-back.
Ludik joins Stuart McCloskey in midfield, while Gilroy, Jacob Stockdale and Charles Piutau, who leads the way for metres made in this year’s tournament (454), will make up the back three.
Alan O’Connor is re-instated in the second-row, where he is paired with Iain Henderson. Academy player Nick Timoney will pack down at number eight, with Matty Rea and Sean Reidy named as the other loose forwards.
Rory Best will again lead the side and he will combine with Callum Black and Rodney Ah You in the front-row.
La Rochelle, who are two points clear of Ulster at the pool summit, name a strong side as they push to finish as one of the top seeds going into the knockouts.
Alexi Bales and Jérémy Sinzelle are their half-backs this week while Pierre Aguillon and Geoffrey Doumayrou form a strong midfield combination.
Up front former All Black Victor Vito packs down at eight with Kevin Gourdon and Levani Botia his flankers in a formidable back-row trio.
Ulster: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Louis Ludik, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 John Cooney, 8 Nick Timoney, 7 Sean Reidy, 6 Matty Rea, 5 Iain Henderson, 4 Alan O’Connor, 3 Rodney Ah You, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Callum Black
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Kyle McCall, 18 Ross Kane, 19 Kieran Treadwell, 20 Chris Henry, 21 Dave Shanahan, 22 Johnny McPhillips, 23 Darren Cave
La Rochelle: 15 Kini Murimurivalu, 14 Gabriel Lacroix, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Pierre Aguillon, 11 Vincent Rattez, 10 Jérémy Sinzelle, 9 Alexi Bales, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Kevin Gourdon, 6 Levani Botia, 5 Mathieu Tanguy, 4 Jason Eaton, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Pierre Bourgarit, 1 Dany Priso
Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Vincent Pelo, 18 Mohamed Boughanmi, 19 Gregory Lamboley, 20 Afa Amosa, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Benjamin Nobles, 23 Paul Jordaan
Venue: Kingspan Stadium
Kick-off: 13:00 GMT
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: JP Doyle (England), Matthew O’Grady (England)
Television match official: Geoff Warren (England)
Exeter Chiefs v Montpellier
Having made 10 changes in personnel ahead of last weekend’s loss at Newcastle, Exeter head coach Rob Baxter is buoyed by the return of a number of his frontline stars for Saturday’s game.
Up front, Ben Moon, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Harry Williams form a new-look front-row, Jonny Hill is back at lock alongside Mitch Lees, while the back-row is boosted by the return of England international Don Armand.
In the back division, Henry Slade is recalled to the centre alongside Sam Hill, meaning Ian Whitten moves to the wing with James Short the man to miss out. The other change sees Lachie Turner, who missed last weekend’s game due to the birth of his son, return at full-back.
“There is still lots to fight for in terms of Europe and that is what we will do this weekend,” said Baxter. “We will fight for everything until it’s gone.
“We’ve had lots of emotional performances here before and that’s what we will need again on Saturday. We’ve kept it simple to the players this week, we’ve just told them to turn up in the right frame of mind, lay every bit of emotion they have out onto the field and what will be, will be.”
Meanwhile, Montpellier have named a star-studded side that includes Aaron Cruden, Jan Serfontein, Frans Steyn and Nemani Nadolo in their backline.
Up front Bismarck du Plessis starts at hooker while Louis Picamoles packs down at the base as the French side look for a win that would keep pool leaders Leinster under pressure.
Exeter: 15 Lachie Turner, 14 Ian Whitten, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Sam Hill, 11 Olly Woodburn, 10 Gareth Steenson (c), 9 Nic White, 8 Sam Simmonds, 7 Don Armand, 6 Dave Ewers, 5 Jonny Hill, 4 Mitch Lees, 3 Harry Williams, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 1 Ben Moon
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Toby Salmon, 20 Matt Kvesic, 21 Will Chudley, 22 Joe Simmonds, 23 Phil Dollman
Montpellier: 15 Henry Immelman, 14 Gabriel N’gandebe, 13 Frans Steyn, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Gela Aprasidze, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Yacouba Camara, 6 Julien Bardy, 5 Konstantine Mikautadze, 4 Nicholaas Van Rensburg, 3 Johannes Jonker, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Mikheil Nariashvili
Replacements: 16 Romain Ruffenach, 17 Grégory Fichten, 18 Mohamed Haouas, 19 Julien Delannoy, 20 Kelian Galletier, 21 Jesse Mogg, 22 Joe Tomane, 23 Benjamin Fall
Venue: Sandy Park
Kick-off: 15:15 GMT
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Craig Evans (Wales), Wayne Davies (Wales)
Television match official: Neil Hennessy (Wales)
Harlequins v Wasps
There are five changes to the Harlequins side that lost out by the narrowest of margins to Sale Sharks last weekend. Mike Brown returns as vice-captain while James Lang will make his European debut in place of Marcus Smith, who signed a long-term contract with the club this week.
In the forwards Lewis Boyce and Renaldo Bothma come in, while Archie White is named at openside flanker as Chris Robshaw picked up a minor knock in training this week.
Occupying either wing, Charlie Walker (five) and Tim Visser (four) will look to continue their fine form with the two wingers combining for nine tries since the start of December.
Ahead of the match, Harlequins director of rugby John Kingston said: “While we still have a number of players missing, we have finally managed some continuity of availability, over the last few games, and I am keen to build on that.
“There are always areas of our game which need working on, and the next two matches – starting on Saturday against Wasps – will give us that opportunity against top class opposition.”
Joe Launchbury, Kyle Eastmond and Simon McIntyre all return to Wasps’ starting line-up in the crucial Champions Cup pool one meeting.
Club captain Launchbury has recovered from a heavy cold to partner James Gaskell in the engine room, while last week’s skipper Ashley Johnson joins McIntyre and Jake Cooper-Woolley in the front-row.
England international Eastmond combines with Brendan Macken in the centre, while Guy Armitage who made a good impression from the bench against Saracens last week, retains the 23 shirt.
Elsewhere, director of rugby Dai Young has named unchanged back-row, half-back and back three combinations for a third consecutive week.
This means Christian Wade makes his 150th appearance on the right wing, while James Haskell represents Wasps for a 50th time in Europe from the blindside flank.
A black-and-gold bench featuring plenty of experience includes Joe Simpson, Guy Thompson, Kearnan Myall and Rob Miller, who collectively have made 500 Wasps appearances.
Harlequins: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Charlie Walker, 13 Alofa Alofa, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Tim Visser, 10 James Lang, 9 Danny Care, 8 Renaldo Bothma, 7 Archie White, 6 James Chisholm, 5 Ben Glynn, 4 George Merrick, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Dave Ward (c), 1 Lewis Boyce
Replacements: 16 Elia Elia, 17 Mark Lambert, 18 Phil Swainston, 19 Charlie Matthews, 20 Mat Luamanu, 21 Dave Lewis, 22 Marcus Smith, 23 Ross Chisholm
Wasps: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Christian Wade, 13 Brendan Macken, 12 Kyle Eastmond, 11 Marcus Watson, 10 Danny Cipriani, 9 Dan Robson, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Thomas Young, 6 James Haskell, 5 James Gaskell, 4 Joe Launchbury (c), 3 Jake Cooper-Woolley, 2 Ashley Johnson, 1 Simon McIntyre
Replacements: 16 Tom Cruse, 17 Ben Harris, 18 Marty Moore, 19 Kearnan Myall, 20 Guy Thompson, 21 Joe Simpson, 22 Rob Miller, 23 Guy Armitage
Kick-off: 17:30 GMT
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Thomas Charabas (France), Vincent Blasco (France)
Television match official: Eric Briquet Campin (France)
Northampton Saints v Clermont
Tom Stephenson, Kieran Brookes and Christian Day have all come into Northampton’s starting line-up to take on Clermont in the Champions Cup.
Technical coaching consultant Alan Gaffney and interim head coach Alan Dickens have made three changes to the side that began last week’s triumph over Gloucester, as the Saints take on the Top 14 champions at Franklin’s Gardens.
Northampton opened up 2018 in style against the Cherry and Whites, scoring a last-minute penalty try to win 22-19 and end a run of frustrating results in the Premiership – and will now smell blood with nothing to lose in the competition against Clermont.
The only change to the backline is caused by the ankle injury that saw Luther Burrell hobble off against Gloucester.
Stephenson comes in to replace him in the midfield after a tenacious showing off the bench last weekend, and the inside centre will celebrate his 50th appearance for the club.
Nic Groom and Harry Mallinder will continue to build their half-back partnership, with Ahsee Tuala staying at full-back and Ken Pisi – who scored on his return to the side against Gloucester – and Ben Foden remaining on the wings.
Brookes also continues his comeback from a hand injury with his first start since November, joining skipper Dylan Hartley and Campese Ma’afu in the front-row.
And with Day coming into the second-row alongside Api Ratuniyarawa, Courtney Lawes shifts to blindside flanker.
Despite struggling in the Top 14, Clermont are riding high in Europe and will hope to make it five wins from five on Saturday.
They name Morgan Parra and Luke McAlister as their half-backs while Rémi Lamerat and Peter Betham link up in midfield.
Up front Benjamin Kayser starts at hooker, Sébastien Vahaamahina and Flip van der Merwe are two hulking locks while the impressive Fritz Lee is at number eight.
Northampton: 15 Ahsee Tuala, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 Rob Horne, 12 Tom Stephenson, 11 Ben Foden, 10 Harry Mallinder, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Teimana Harrison, 7 Tom Wood, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 Christian Day, 4 Api Ratuniyarawa, 3 Kieran Brookes, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Campese Ma’afu
Replacements: 16 Mikey Haywood, 17 Francois van Wyk, 18 Jamal Ford-Robinson, 19 Michael Paterson, 20 Mitch Eadie, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 James Grayson, 23 Nafi Tuitavake
Clermont: 15 Isaia Toeava, 14 Nick Abendanon, 13 Peter Betham, 12 Rémi Lamerat, 11 Remi Grosso, 10 Luke McAlister, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Alexandre Lapandry, 6 Damien Chouly, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Etienne Falgoux
Replacements: 16 Yohan Beheregaray, 17 Raphael Chaume, 18 Davit Zirakashvili, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Arthur Iturria, 21 Charly Trussardi, 22 Scott Spedding, 23 Viktor Kolelishvili
Venue: Franklin’s Gardens
Kick-off: 17:30 GMT
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Sean Gallagher (Ireland), Leo Colgan (Ireland)
Television match official: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland)
Ospreys v Saracens
Ospreys have named Sam Davies at full-back for their Champions Cup clash with Saracens at the Liberty Stadium.
Davies starts at 15 with Dan Evans on the left wing while Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar will form an all-international half-back combination.
Ospreys are currently second in Pool 2, one place ahead of Saracens, and know they must win or risk being cut adrift in the race for the knockout stages.
Meanwhile, Saracens wing Liam Williams returns to the starting line-up for the first time since being sidelined with injury back in November while Sean Maitland starts on the opposite wing.
Elsewhere in the backs Marcelo Bosch comes in at outside centre with Brad Barritt and Alex Goode continuing at inside centre and full-back respectively.
Up front Jamie George is the only change to the front row from last weekend, coming in for Christopher Tolofua who rotates to the bench. Will Skelton partners Maro Itoje in the second-row with Michael Rhodes, Jackson Wray and Billy Vunipola completing the Sarries pack.
Ospreys: 15 Sam Davies, 14 Jeff Hassler, 13 Ashley Beck, 12 Owen Watkin, 11 Dan Evans, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Rob McCusker, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Olly Cracknell, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Dmitri Arhip, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Nicky Smith
Replacements: 16 Scott Otten, 17 Gareth Thomas, 18 Ma’afu Fia, 19 Adam Beard, 20 Will Jones, 21 Tom Habberfield, 22 Kieron Fonotia, 23 Dafydd Howells
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jackson Wray, 6 Michael Rhodes, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Christopher Tolofua, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Juan Figallo, 19 George Kruis, 20 Calum Clark, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Alex Lozowski, 23 Chris Wyles
Venue: Liberty Stadium
Kick-off: 19:45 GMT
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant referees: David Wilkinson (Ireland), Eddie Hogan O’Connell (Ireland)
Television match official: Kevin Beggs (Ireland)