European Rugby Challenge Cup preview: Red-rose pair's return boosts Saracens' hopes of qualification

A look ahead to this weekend's fixtures

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The Independent Online

Saracens v Munster (Saturday, 1pm)

Both clubs have an eye on knockout qualification, but only one has much to celebrate on the fitness front. While the two-time champions from Ireland will be without Conor Murray – the best scrum-half in Europe has a neck injury that is still under review and may threaten his Six Nations prospects – Saracens welcome Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt back into midfield. They will surely make a difference, although the absence of the young England lock George Kruis through suspension is less than helpful.

Kruis would have relished the chance of taking on Paul O’Connell, rugby’s version of the Lion in Winter. Instead, the Londoners have paired Alistair Hargreaves and Jim Hamilton in the boilerhouse, in the hope that they will combine to cramp the great man’s style.

Harlequins v Wasps

(Saturday, 7.45pm)

What used to be a London derby is suddenly something very different, Wasps being Midlanders now. But the age-old enmity is still there and this will be enhanced by some personal squabbles, with the visiting captain, James Haskell, looking to make a pre-Six Nations statement against both the current England captain Chris Robshaw and some bloke by the name of Nick Easter, whose brilliant future does not appear to be quite so far behind him as everyone thought.

It will also be interesting to see how Marland Yarde and Christian Wade compare as right wings, and how the in-form Joe Simpson sets about reasserting his Test credentials against the vastly more decorated Quins No 9 Danny Care, who also has an international point to prove.

Toulouse v Bath

(Sunday, 3.15pm)

It is commonly said Toulouse are not what they were, but they can still pick themselves a decent side. Toby Flood, Luke McAlister, Yoann Huget, Vincent Clerc, Maxime Médard... and that’s just in the back line. Bath are also fully armed outside the scrum – Sam Burgess, struggling for fitness, is not involved – so the super-smart moves that marked the West Country club’s early-season form should be on the agenda once again. It could be a classic.

Ospreys v Northampton

(Sunday, 5.30pm)

The Welshmen, struggling qualification-wise, are still throwing the kitchen sink at this one. Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric... all the available class acts will be on view. Northampton’s chances of a home quarter-final may depend on them taking something away from Swansea, hence the restoration of Dylan Hartley, Christian Day, Samu Manoa and Ken Pisi. Still no Courtney Lawes, though.

Sale v Clermont Auvergne

(Saturday, 5.30pm)

Sale fell off the back of the European peloton long ago yet they fancy a proper tilt at the powerful French club and are fielding all the hot shots, from Sam Tuitupou and Danny Cipriani behind the scrum to Nathan Hines and Dan Braid up front. Clermont are not mucking about either: they have Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez at half-back, Wesley Fofana and Aurélien Rougerie at centre and the new Fijian-born Frenchman Noa Nakaitaci on the wing.

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