Club rugby’s hottest weekend may not begin in earnest until Saturday, when the three-time European champions Leinster meet Bath on Champions Cup knockout business in front of 50,000-plus supporters in Dublin, but the raging intensity of the current Anglo-Irish rivalry means there will be enough spice in Friday night's second-tier Challenge Cup quarter-final between Gloucester and Connacht at Kingsholm to melt an ice cap.
Most fascinating of all will be the confrontation at inside centre, where Robbie Henshaw, widely lauded for his contribution to Ireland’s successful defence of their Six Nations title, will attempt to drive a coach and horses through Billy Twelvetrees’ credentials as a World Cup option for England. Given the ever-growing list of candidates for the red-rose midfield, the Gloucester captain simply cannot afford a high-profile misfire between now and August, when the squad is finalised.
Twelvetrees did not have the happiest time of it when England lost in Dublin last month – his performance off the bench was anything but error-free – and he now finds himself in the thick of a pitched battle for four centre places. Luther Burrell, Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt, Jonathan Joseph, Kyle Eastmond and the uncapped Henry Slade all have claims on a place. There are even those who think the rugby league convert Sam Burgess will make it.
Gloucester have made five changes following last weekend’s Premiership defeat at Sale. They will be stronger outside the scrum for the return of Steve McColl at full-back, Billy Meakes in midfield and the Scotland captain, Greig Laidlaw, at scrum-half; up front, they have picked Dan Murphy at loose-head prop ahead of Nick Wood, while Gareth Evans resumes at No 8.
“Our big performances this year have been in Europe – we managed to raise our game sufficiently to qualify for this knockout stage as No 1 seeds – but this is a big test for us,” said David Humphreys, the rugby director. “Connacht always based their game around their physical edge, but they’ve moved past that now. They have a squad with real depth.”
Northampton, preparing hard for Saturday’s quarter-final test at Clermont Auvergne in the elite competition, announced that George North, their international wing, will be out of rugby for at least a month after suffering the latest in a series of concussions during the Premiership victory over Wasps a week ago. He will be reassessed by a neurologist at the end of April.
“We have listened to the advice we sought and George will be taking some time away from the field,” said Jim Mallinder, the boss at Franklin’s Gardens. “Throughout this process, it is important that his welfare comes first, that he is dealt with patiently and calmly, and returns to action only when the medical team are happy for him to do so.” Mallinder added that North would not participate in any form of on-field training during his recovery.
Meanwhile, Wasps have decided to appeal against the three-week suspension imposed on their No 8 Nathan Hughes, whose collision with North left the Wales and Lions back unconscious. Hughes was found guilty of reckless play, although the disciplinary panel agreed that no malice was intended.
Harlequins have lost their talented young tight-head prop Kyle Sinckler to a season-ending knee injury, a heavy blow, given that their other front-line No 3, Will Collier, is also on the long-term casualty list with a similar complaint.
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