Heineken Cup stakes are high for Saracens against Toulouse

With the quarter-finals in sight, Sarries prepare for a season-defining club tie, Harlequins face a tough test against Clermont Auvergne and Leigh Halfpenny takes centre stage in Nice

The Six Nations championship is only three weeks away but Europe's top players currently have more urgent priorities. Impress over the next two weekends and a place in the last eight of the crisis-torn Heineken Cup can be safely secured. Allow their level of performance to slip and national coaches from across Europe will all take a keen interest.

Nowhere will the stakes be higher than Toulouse, where the Premiership leaders Saracens are heading for one of the season's defining club fixtures. Victory on Sunday would put Sarries within sight of a home quarter-final draw and, given the multitude of French internationals in the Toulouse side, cause a Gallic flutter ahead of the Six Nations opener between France and England in Paris on 1 February.

With seven members of England's Six Nations squad involved against a powerful-looking Toulouse pack, Stuart Lancaster will be praying for a morale-boosting result and a clean bill of health, not necessarily in that order. Saracens have made only one change to the side that walloped Gloucester last week, drafting in Chris Wyles at centre in place of the injured Marcelo Bosch. Their starting line-up will also include James Johnston, who will be facing his big – not to mention older – brother Census.

Harlequins' home game against Clermont Auvergne, arguably the side to beat in this year's competition, is similarly significant. The French side currently head Pool Four by four points but Quins could yet stage a remarkable comeback to top the group, after losing their opening two games, if they can win well on Saturday and deny Clermont a bonus point. Defeat, alternatively, will end their hopes. "Your next game is always your biggest but this is do or die," confirmed Harlequins's director of rugby, Conor O'Shea. "We have fought tooth and nail over the last few months to get ourselves where we want to be and it comes down to this game. We'll approach this by going for it. If you try any other way against them you will die a slow death."

Morgan Parra's surprisingly early return from injury should help the visitors but Julien Bonnaire will be missing for between six and eight weeks, having fractured his right forearm. Clermont will also be missing the scrum-half Thierry Lacrampe, who has a knee problem. Quins will give Nick Kennedy his first start for the club, while Ugo Monye, Danny Care and Luke Wallace all return to the starting XV.

There should be some more vigorous pre-Six Nations sparring in Swansea, even though Ospreys can no longer qualify for the quarter-finals. Dylan Hartley vs Richard Hibbard, Courtney Lawes vs Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric vs Tom Wood are all major forward collisions to savour, with Northampton back in contention following their remarkable victory over Leinster in Dublin last month.

Gloucester's home game against Munster has a rather different feel to it, with the Cherry and Whites currently stretching the patience of their supporters. The England squad winger Jonny May finds himself at outside-centre, with Ben Morgan, who picked up a knock against Saracens last weekend, only on the bench. The most interesting choice, though, is this week's decision to invite the former Gloucester legend Mike Teague to deliver an impassioned motivational team talk. "We spent a lot of time going through the wreckage of Saracens and anybody who saw the game will know we just didn't turn up," said the director of rugby, Nigel Davies.

"We've looked to do things differently for Munster. Mike Teague is coming in to say a few words and present the jerseys and that will add gravity to the situation. More than anything else, it's about staying tight as a group. We're the only ones who can put things right." Munster, who along with their Irish counterparts Leinster and Ulster currently top their group, will be guaranteed to top Pool Six if they win.

Elsewhere, Leigh Halfpenny will be the centre of attention in Nice, where Cardiff Blues take on a Jonny Wilkinson-led Toulon. Halfpenny has been strongly linked with a move to the European champions, who have switched this particular fixture from their usual base at Stade Félix Mayol. They will hope to deliver a more impressive performance than they did last weekend in losing at home to Grenoble in the Top 14.

Exeter Chiefs, meanwhile, have set themselves the target of qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Amlin Challenge Cup by winning their final two games against Glasgow and Cardiff Blues. They have retained only four players from the starting XV that lost narrowly to Wasps last Sunday. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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