The Champions Cup is closest the club game gets to Test level intensity and there will be a clutch of players looking to impress over the next two weekends
By Alex Shaw
The European Rugby Champions Cup makes its 2016-17 bow this weekend and as early as round one, offers up a mouth-watering array of match-ups.
Intensity is ratcheted up as Europe’s best go head-to-head and it’s the closest replica of Test rugby that you will find outside of the international arena.
As a result, it’s the perfect proving ground for players who are intent on making a positive impression ahead of the looming Test window.
We take a look at some of the players who could have an international agenda this weekend.
James Davies and Scott Williams, Scarlets and Wales
As the only region in the Champions Cup, Wales’ pool of players to watch is a little smaller than usual, but no less significant. The Scarlets have had a miserable start to the season as they attempt to try and rediscover their 2015-16 form, but with their tight five struggling, it’s been a difficult season for the back row and back line.
With Sam Warburton injured and in a race against time to be fit for the Test window, Davies has an opportunity against Sale this weekend to put down a marker for his inclusion. If Warburton cannot return to fitness in time, Davies will have to contend with Justin Tipuric and Ellis Jenkins for the jersey and the Champions Cup gives him the platform to make his claim.
Life isn’t too much fun for an inside centre when the tight five can’t get you on the front foot but Williams will be hoping the Scarlets can buck that trend against Sale and let him showcase his ability on Saturday. He will be up against Jamie Roberts for selection and causing Sale problems defensively will do his international ambitions no harm at all.
Courtney Lawes, Northampton Saints and England
The hard-hitting second row is beginning to get back to his best following a year of frustrating injuries in the 2015-16 season. With all indications suggesting Eddie Jones will move Maro Itoje to openside for the duration of the November Tests, there is potentially an opening arising in England’s engine room.
Barring injury or unforeseen circumstances, it would seem to be a head-to-head competition between Lawes and Joe Launchbury and a strong showing against the formidable Montpellier pack could see Lawes sneak ahead of the Wasps lock. Lawes’ ability to disrupt – at both the lineout and in the opposition midfield – is a rare trait and there is no doubt that Jones enjoys the edge that the Northampton second row plays with.
If Lawes can find success against Jake White’s Montpellier pack, he could be in line to face White’s countrymen at Twickenham next month.
Garry Ringrose, Leinster and Ireland
It’s almost a certainty that Ringrose’s midfield colleague Robbie Henshaw will start for Ireland next month but who he is partnered with is still up for debate.
The chemistry between Henshaw and Ringrose has been encouraging since Henshaw made the move from Connacht earlier this year and the duo coped particularly well with the pressure of the derby match against Munster at the weekend.
If Ringrose can take that form into this weekend’s match with Castres and continue to dovetail well with Henshaw, then there’s no reason why he cannot make his Ireland bow in November. The Castres defence has been one of the most reliable and efficient units in the Top 14 so far this season, so the challenge won’t be easy for Ringrose but if he’s successful, it will further boost his fast-rising profile.
Nathan Hughes and Elliot Daly, Wasps and England
A year ago, it seemed as if Hughes’ selection would be automatic for England once he qualified no residency, but the continued high-level performances of Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola have cast some doubt on that. Throw in Hughes being used off the bench a number of times this season by Wasps and it feels like he needs a big game or two to really push for selection.
As for Daly, Jonathan Joseph seems well-entrenched at outside centre but with Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell both suffering injuries, he could be an option on the wing, having experience of playing there for Wasps and a booming boot that would certainly be of benefit to England’s tactical kicking game.
A dominant display against Zebre on Saturday probably would not be enough on its own, but if they can back it up a week later when they head to Toulouse, it could be enough to get Jones thinking.
Lewis Wynne, Glasgow Warriors and Scotland
Could Wynne become the youngest flanker to be capped by Scotland in 48 years?
The 19-year-old has certainly caught the eye with his performances for Glasgow so far this year and is following in the footsteps of teammate Zander Fagerson by making an impact at Pro12 level as a teenager. With Gregor Townsend set to take over the reins with Scotland in the near future, the Glasgow coach would likely not be averse to seeing one of his brightest charges given an early call-up to the international arena.
Glasgow welcome Leicester to Scotstoun and head to Thomond Park to take on Munster over the next two weekends and if Wynne can impress against those two powerful packs, then international rugby is not out of the question.