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Sinckler to skipper while Saracens recall their Lions cavalry

Sinckler to skipper while Saracens recall their Lions cavalry

The European qualification picture should be a lot clearer after this weekend.

The second half of the Christmas double headers will make and break many teams’ campaigns and there are fascinating fixtures wherever you look.

SINCKLER DONS THE ARMBAND

It all starts at the Stoop where Harlequins are out for revenge over an unbeaten Ulster.

John Cooney’s last-gasp penalty saved the province in Belfast last weekend but Quins have rung the changes this time out.

That means that Kyle Sinckler will captain the side for the first time in his career.

That is an amazing rise for the British & Irish Lions prop whose temperament has got him into trouble before but now makes him one of Quins’ senior stars in the eyes of Paul Gustard.

Meanwhile, Ulster are persisting with Jacob Stockdale at full-back for the clash and a win would put them within touching distance of a quarter-final berth.

Also on Friday, Racing 92 welcome the Ospreys to Paris and while Finn Russell is rotated to the bench, Simon Zebo starts at full-back for the French side against a youthful Ospreys side chasing their first win in Europe this season.

ENGLAND CONTINGENT BACK FOR SARRIES

Saturday’s action begins at the Sportsground where Bundee Aki and Connacht are hoping to keep their hopes alive with a revenge win over a much-changed Gloucester side who appear to have resigned themselves to a group-stage exit.

But the big game is undoubtedly at Allianz Park where the defending champions Saracens are fighting for their Champions Cup lives.

They must win to keep their quarter-final chances intact and Mark McCall has named a near full-strength side as a result.

Maro Itoje misses out but Owen Farrell is back in European action for the first time this season, as captain and fly-half, while the Vunipola brothers, George Kruis and Jamie George are all in the starting pack.

The back-row battle will be compelling, with the Munster trio of Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander all still in place after last week’s narrow win at Thomond Park.

Meanwhile at the Aviva Stadium, Leinster can secure their quarter-final spot with two rounds to spare if other results go their way and they dispatch Northampton Saints in similar style to last weekend.

Ross Byrne will wear No.10 with Johnny Sexton injured but keep an eye out for Caelan Doris at No.8, who looks the heir apparent to Jamie Heaslip in the blue of Leinster.

Glasgow Warriors can also give their quarter-final hopes a massive boost with back-to-back wins over La Rochelle.

Tommy Seymour – who this week announced his international retirement – starts again at full-back while Huw Jones comes into midfield and Adam Hastings is paired with Ali Price in the half-backs.

HOGG READY TO MAKE HIS MARK

Exeter Chiefs can also put themselves into the last eight – for only the second time in their history – if they can see off Sale Sharks for the second time in a week and other results go their way.

Two-time British & Irish Lion Stuart Hogg had an amazing impact in only 17 minutes on the pitch last weekend in Salford, and will hope to be on the pitch for longer in the rematch.

He joins Jack Nowell in the back three while up front England internationals Alec Hepburn, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Harry Williams and Sam Simmonds are all hitting top form.

For the Sharks, their hopes hang by a thread and Steve Diamond has cut his cloth accordingly, youngster Cameron Redpath gets a go a full-back while Byron McGuigan and Denny Solomona come onto the wings but the Curry brothers Tom and Ben remain in situ in the back row.

Last but by no means least, Bath head to Clermont on Sunday afternoon looking for a first European win of the season and have Freddie Burns back at fly-half while Sam Underhill has to settle for a spot on the bench.

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