ESPN's rugby predictions: Games of the week, potential upsets & more

After a fortnight of European action, the focus returns to the domestic leagues for the latest round of matches. There is a relegation dogfight in the Aviva Premiership, derby weekend in PRO14 while Racing 92 are under the microscope in the Top 14.

ESPN's experts predict which teams are set for a big weekend, which players will shine and where your attention should be trained across the three competitions.

Player to watch

Premiership (Martyn Thomas): Manu Tuilagi (Leicester). The England centre made his long awaited return from a series of injuries against Munster last weekend, and gave a glimpse of his undoubted ability as he made 52 metres with ball in hand. Having been cleared of a dangerous tackle by an independent disciplinary committee midweek, he is free to continue his comeback against Saracens Sunday. Tigers fans will hope he is able to pile on their visitors' recent misery.

PRO14 (Cillian O Conchuir): CJ Stander (Munster). After the drawn out saga involving his contract, Stander finally put pen to paper on a new deal that keep him in Ireland until 2021 Thursday. Now he will need to show why he's deserving of the lucrative contract. He has been one of the standout performers in the PRO14 this season and the idea that the IRFU could've let him slip through their grasp now appears farcical.

Top 14 (James Harrington): Arthur Iturria (Clermont Auvergne). A number of players are close to a comeback from long-term injury -- including Richie Gray and Cyril Baille for Toulouse. But Clermont lock Iturria returns to action against Pau this weekend after six months out with multiple injuries, including a broken bone in his foot and a dislocated shoulder that both needed surgery -- plus a concussion.

Game of the weekend

Worcester vs. London Irish, Friday, 7.45 p.m.

The stakes could not be higher for London Irish as they travel up to Sixways Friday night. A 10th successive league defeat would leave them marooned at the foot of the table and push their hosts -- a place and six points above them ahead of kick off -- to within touching distance of safety. Nothing is decided in December, of course, but no team since Wasps in 2011 has needed more than 24 points to survive. Victory would leave Worcester with at least 18 already.

Munster vs. Leinster, Tuesday, 3.15 p.m.

The fiercest rivalry in Irish rugby returns to Thomond Park for the latest installment. No love lost and whatever may be said about the standard of the PRO14, this is a game not to be missed. The stars should be out in force, the intensity should border on Test level and in the end, if there was only one fixture either team won over the Christmas period, they would pick this one.

Bordeaux vs. La Rochelle, Saturday, 3 p.m.

Eighth versus first would not normally make a game of the weekend -- but this is no ordinary eighth versus first match. It's the Atlantic coast derby between two sides for whom attack is the favoured form of defence. There's no wonder that the game has been moved from Bordeaux's usual Chaban Delmas home to the nearby 42,000-seat Matmut Atlantique.

Potential upset

Prem: Wasps vs. Gloucester, Saturday 3 p.m.

Gloucester head to the Ricoh Arena on the back of six straight wins in all competitions and just one defeat in their last nine outings. Congestion at the top end of the Premiership means they need another victory in order to consolidate their place at the head of the chasing pack, and although the game comes at the end of a testing week off the pitch for the Cherry and Whites they will back themselves against hosts stripped of both Elliot Daly and Nathan Hughes.

PRO14: Connacht vs. Ulster, Saturday 7.35 p.m.

It hasn't been the best of periods for Connacht, but the respite the Challenge Cup offered has given the men from the west some momentum. But if they are to challenge for a place in next season's Champions Cup, they need to start winning in the PRO14. That begins against Ulster, in a mouthwatering clash in what are normally not-very-pleasant weather conditions.

TOP14: Racing 92 vs. Toulouse, Friday, 7.45 p.m.

Racing's first match at the U Arena sees them entertain a high-tempo Toulouse side who are just one point and two places behind them in the Top 14 table. It's a match the hosts should win. But their occasional unfortunate habit of playing like 15 individuals rather than a team means Toulouse have a chance to consign them to defeat as they christen their new home.

Big weekend for...

Prem: The obvious answer would be London Irish who, as detailed above, face a must-win trip to Worcester. However, it is also a colossal weekend for Gloucester, their coach Johan Ackermann and his son, Ruan. A police investigation is ongoing into allegations the pair were involved in an incident at a Cheltenham nightclub last weekend. The club has unequivocally stood by its men and they will want to repay that faith with a performance in Coventry.

PRO14: Italian teams pushing for Europe. Meritocracy means that Zebre (sixth in Conference A) and Treviso (fifth in Conference B) have a battle on their hands if they are to have any chance of making the Champions Cup next season. They go into the back-to-back games against each other knowing that they must both take two wins to keep their hopes alive.

TOP14: Jacky Lorenzetti. Racing 92's billionaire owner wrote an open letter apologising for a range of off-pitch problems -- from lighting to hospitality -- at the U Arena when France played Japan in November. He promised the issues would be solved when the first Top 14 match kicked off at the 32,000-seater stadium. That deadline is this Friday. A mention, too, for Bordeaux coach Jacques Brunel, who could be named interim France coach as early as this weekend if FFR President Bernard Laporte decides Guy Noves is no longer right for the job.