All six Guinness Six Nations squads have now been picked with the Championship just two weeks away, but first the European club rugby group stages must be decided.
There are Guinness Six Nations stars wherever you look hoping to impress their respective coaches and earn their spot ahead of the Championship’s opening round starting on February 4.
Here, we talk through five Guinness Six Nations stories to look out for this weekend as the European knockout stage becomes clear.
1. Which Smith can lay down a marker for Borthwick?
With Owen Farrell named as captain and his recent form in the No.10 jersey, there is a good chance he will start at fly-half, but one feature of Steve Borthwick’s Leicester Tigers side was the importance of a quality alternative to change the game.
For Tigers it was Freddie Burns, now for England it is a battle of the Smiths.
Harlequins’ Marcus Smith will be the favourite for the role with 17 caps to his name already and with the ability to create something out of nothing, but the form of Northampton Saints’ new fly-half Fin Smith cannot be overlooked.
This weekend will give us a great look at both young fly-halves in extremely difficult matches in their final pool matches of the Heineken Champions Cup.
Harlequins go up against a Cell C Sharks team full of South African internationals, while Fin Smith’s Saints face reigning champions La Rochelle.
Whoever delivers this weekend could put themselves in the perfect position to make Borthwick’s first England 23 against Scotland.
2. Can Russell help Racing past Leinster?
Finn Russell is always a man to keep an eye on, and last week he played a key role in Racing 92’s 30-29 victory over Harlequins.
This week, he has an altogether tougher challenge – facing Leinster in Dublin.
The Parisian side likely need a win to reach the last 16 and Scotland fly-half Russell will be hoping to produce his best form to impress Gregor Townsend.
He will have support either side of him from two players looking to put their hands up for Fabien Galthié – uncapped scrum-half Nolann Le Garrec and centre Gaël Fickou.
The task for Racing will be far from easy – Leinster are almost at full strength even when missing Johnny Sexton and Tadhg Furlong who are nursing themselves back to full fitness, with 14 of their starting 15 included in Andy Farrell’s squad for the upcoming Championship and only Jamie Osborne yet to win a cap.
3. Reffell and Tipuric clash in final audition
Wales have a wealth of back row options, highlighted by the likely fact that one of Tigers’ Tommy Reffell and Ospreys’ Justin Tipuric will not make the starting line-up.
Reffell has been in exceptional form for Tigers in the past 18 months and broke through excellently in the summer against South Africa, while Tipuric has plenty of credit in the bank under Warren Gatland with 89 caps and was captain during the Autumn Nations Series.
What better game to decide who starts at openside than a decisive group encounter packed with internationals on both sides.
Tigers have as many as six England players involved, including newly recalled Dan Cole, while Ospreys have nine Wales stars starting and a welcome sight of George North on the bench.
4. Toulouse look to earn home tie
Five-time winners Toulouse are understandably one of the favourites to earn a sixth star on their jerseys this year and have already booked their place in the last 16 of the Champions Cup.
Led on by their talismanic half-back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, Toulouse host fellow European giants Munster in a critical battle at the Stade Ernest Wallon.
Fellow France squad members Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Anthony Jelonch and Melvyn Jaminet are also starting, while there is also a place at openside flanker for Jack Willis, who is eyeing up a slot in England’s back row in the absence of Tom Curry.
The return of François Cros and Thibaud Flament on the bench, not to mention Ange Capuozzo, will have pleased Galthié and Kieran Crowley.
5. Benetton and Stade Français clash in Challenge Cup
Benetton sealed their place in the last 16 of the Challenge Cup with victory over Bayonne last week, but now face an altogether different test against a high-flying Stade Français team.
Crowley will be keeping a watchful eye over his former side with a whole host of key Italy stars playing, including captain Michele Lamaro starting at No.8 and second row duo Niccolò Cannone and Federico Ruzza.
The key battle involves Crowley’s centre pairing however, comprising of Tommaso Menoncello and Ignacio Brex.
They will have a job on their hands going up against the in-form Julien Delbouis, who has recently been called into the France squad, as they look to get the psychological edge over one and other before Italy and France clash on Sunday February 5.
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