Key storylines ahead of the weekend

Date published: December 30 2016

Can Bristol move off the bottom? How about the Ospreys going top of the PRO12? Here are the big storylines to keep an eye on.

1) Bristol’s big chance to go 11th

There’s no other way of looking at, last weekend’s win over Worcester was enormous for Bristol’s hope of survival as they finally got the monkey off their back with a first league win of the season.

We have outlined already this week how being bottom around Christmas/halfway through the season doesn’t necessarily mean that team is destined for the drop, but, to get out of 12th place now would not only pile the pressure on Worcester, who are the closest candidates for relegation as things stand, but also set up a thrilling second half of the season where two teams are scrapping for survival.

Worcester as well seem to be in freefall, having won just one game out of their last 15 in the league and up against a Harlequins outfit this weekend who are beginning to turn the corner and welcome back Chris Robshaw.

With Bristol having been bottom since September, this might be the weekend where everything changes.

2) Ospreys’ big chance to go top

From the depths of one league to the heights of another, as the Ospreys head into the weekend with a golden chance to go top of the PRO12.

Much like leaders Munster they are on the road – Ospreys at Dragons, Munster at Connacht – but the absence of a number of key starters for Munster combined with what a tough venue the Sportsground in Galway has become for teams to visit mean that Steve Tandy’s side could find themselves in first place come Sunday evening.

The 2012 champions have climbed up the table thanks to not only eight wins from 11 matches, but also having accumulated more bonus point than any other side in the league with eight.

Anything else other than a victory over Newport Gwent Dragons would come as a major shock, particularly with Dan Biggar in great form at fly-half and having recentlly passed 2,000 points for the region. The centre partnership of Josh Matavesi and Kieron Fonotia also has huge potential.

3) Time for Toulouse to prove themselves

Consider this game on Saturday as a test of Toulouse’s capabilities this season. The great European side have slipped down the pecking order and trail leaders Clermont by 12 points.

So, if Ugo Mola are his side are to be taken seriously again, it’s time to start producing big wins. The visit of Clermont is exactly one of those games where Toulouse need to prove they can still compete with the best.

Maxime Médard makes a welcome return at full-back and a backline featuring Gaël Fickou, Yoann Huget and Sébastien Bezy should always be able to fire.

4) George North’s return to action

To be clear, while the whole process surrounding North’s concussion has felt like a prolonged mess, the sight of him back on the field will be a good thing.

Has it come too soon? Every medical precaution has been taken to make sure North is fit and ready. And you can bet that any minor indication of North struggling will be instantly recognised and dealt with after last time.

More importantly, all of Northampton, Wales and the British and Irish Lions need North back at his best. There was a time where he was considered among the top two or three wingers in the world. He doesn’t turn 25 until April. The best might just still be to come.