The short side: King Charles and Carbery’s comeback

Adam Kyriacou

The short side returns to Planet Rugby as we study the major talking points ahead of this weekend’s action in the Premiership and PRO14.

Premiership game to watch – Sale Sharks v Exeter Chiefs

It’s quite a match to kick off the round as Sale and Exeter look to return to winning ways after losing to Harlequins and Northampton last week. Heading into this weekend’s fixture at the AJ Bell Stadium, the two sides are separated by just six points and both have plenty to play for in the standings.

Sale will be looking to halt a two-game losing slide, which has seen them fall outside the top four. Although they have struggled against Exeter in the past – losing five of their last six against Rob Baxter’s men – they will head into the clash in Greater Manchester with confidence as they are capable of beating any team.

The Chiefs’ form has been somewhat patchy in recent weeks with Baxter’s outfit winning just three of their last six league matches, so they need to improve.

Despite a number of players being away on international duty, both teams will feature star studded line-ups with Dan du Preez facing off with Sam Simmonds while the other Simmonds brother, Joe, takes on AJ MacGinty in the battle of the fly-halves. Also keep an eye on Faf de Klerk going up against Jack Maunder at nine.

PRO14 game to watch – Cardiff Blues v Munster

Fourth will take on first in Conference B of the PRO14 as Cardiff Blues look to claim a scalp with a victory over high-flying Munster. The Irish province are currently 20 points clear of the Welsh outfit but do have Connacht and Scarlets breathing down their neck as we approach the business end of the competition.

It will be an extra special fixture for Blues captain Josh Turnbull as he makes his 150th appearance for the region while for Munster there’s a first outing since January 2020 for fly-half Joey Carbery. The Ireland international starts on the bench and all eyes will be on him when he comes onto the field.

This promises to be a fast-paced clash on the artificial surface and even with several players away on Six Nations duty, expect an absorbing game on Friday.

Player to watch – Charles Piutau (Bristol Bears)

At times last Sunday the former Blues and All Blacks star was playing a different game against London Irish. Piutau glides across the grass and appears to be jogging when in possession but don’t be fooled, he’s going at a pace and in this kind of form he’s going to be difficult to contain for Leicester on Saturday.

His combination with winger Siva Naulago for this score was almost like men against boys and while Tigers are improving with every game under Steve Borthwick, keeping this duo and the rest of Bristol’s threats contained is a big ask. If Piutau impacts the game like he did against Irish, Leicester are in real trouble.

One-v-one battle to watch – John Cooney (Ulster) v Rhys Webb (Ospreys)

Two international standard scrum-halves meet on Friday when Cooney and Webb face off. Many believe Cooney should be involved with Ireland in some capacity and likewise Webb for Wales, but being snubbed is unfortunately part of sport and both know that proving a point in their club shirt is the only way to bounce back.

Cooney has been a real leader for Ulster in recent seasons but his attacking game has taken a slight dip of late compared to last season. Webb, meanwhile, needs to recapture the kind of form that saw him selected for the British & Irish Lions, with this the perfect chance for both players to stamp their name on a game.

Subplot to watch – Pressure mounts for George Skivington

Although relegation has been scrapped, Gloucester can’t escape the embarrassment of being rock bottom after 10 games. Despite bringing in a number of players, including England wing Jonny May, the Cherry and Whites have found themselves unable to buy a win all campaign as questions about Skivington’s future persist.

Gloucester last claimed victory in the Champions Cup against Ulster on December 19. In the Premiership their last victory came on November 28 against Wasps, nearly three months ago, so Skivington desperately needs a win to alleviate mounting pressure and against 11th placed Worcester, it is a fantastic opportunity.

Best of the rest

On Friday there are two other fixtures taking place in the PRO14 with Benetton playing host to Connacht and Ospreys travelling to face Ulster. Then on Saturday Edinburgh face Scarlets and the Dragons head to Italy to meet Zebre, with Leinster hosting Glasgow Warriors on Sunday in a decent contest to finish the weekend.

In the Premiership, the other fixtures taking place are current league leaders Bristol Bears versus Leicester Tigers, Newcastle Falcons facing Harlequins and Wasps hosting London Irish. Northampton and Bath round off the weekend with a clash at Franklin’s Gardens, with Saints coming into it on the back of beating Exeter.