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

This week's European preview has had its horizons broadened, quite literally, with club action taking place on three continents and five bodies of land. PRO14 rugby will be played on South African soil for the first time, while Saracens and Newcastle have taken their Aviva Premiership clash to the U.S. and Philadelphia.

Ahead of a busy few days our experts predict which teams are set for a big weekend, which players will shine and where your attention should be trained across all three leagues -- and the various time zones.

Player to watch

Premiership (Martyn Thomas): Marcus Smith. Demetri Catrakilis' throat injury should ensure another start for the precocious Harlequins teenager. Smith endured a mixed debut against London Irish at Twickenham on the opening weekend but came off the bench to good effect against Gloucester, kicking 10 points to help steer his side to a 28-17 victory. Up next is Wasps, and the chance to measure himself against Danny Cipriani.

PRO14 (Cillian O Conchuir): Ross Byrne. With injuries preventing Joey Carbery and Johnny Sexton from playing in the opening games, Byrne has flourished at fly-half. While Carbery is named in the Leinster squad for South Africa, the absence of Rob Kearney and Isa Nacewa could see him play at 15. That would mean Byrne continuing at 10 and as Carbery found out last year, injury can catapult a relative unknown into an Ireland shirt pretty quickly.

Top 14 (James Harrington): Guilhem Guirado. The France captain is set to make his first start of the Top 14 season this week. Toulon coach Fabien Galthie has wrapped him in cotton wool so far, giving him 48 minutes of action in two outings from the bench. That's no surprise. Guirado has been well used by club and country over the past 12 months -- grafting for 2,172 front-row minutes across 36 matches, 32 of which he started.

Game of the weekend

Prem: Northampton vs. Bath, Friday, 7.45 p.m.

Bath have started the season in flying form. Taulupe Faletau and Matt Garvey have been outstanding in a formidable back row while Rhys Priestland is playing his best rugby for a few years, and Semesa Rokoduguni and Anthony Watson are two of the biggest attacking threats in the Premiership. Saints were hugely improved in victory over Leicester last weekend and if they can channel that same aggression once more this will be a colossal encounter.

PRO14: Ulster vs. Scarlets, Friday, 7.35 p.m.

Scarlets have been irresistible, scoring 13 tries in their opening two games. But the reigning champions face the biggest challenge of their new season when they travel to Belfast. For Ulster, who start Tommy Bowe on the bench, Christian Lealiifano has been in impressive form and will look to spark the backline -- who were restricted to three tries against Treviso in round two -- into action.

Top 14: Montpellier vs. Toulon, Sunday, 3.50 p.m.

No contest. The final match of the Top 14 weekend, and must-see rugby. The hosts are three for three, have 14 points out of a possible 15, and are brimming with confidence. But an equally star-studded Toulon should offer Montpellier their biggest challenge to date. Even better, both have rediscovered the lost art of thrill rugby under new coaches. It should be a humdinger.

Potential upset

Prem: Newcastle vs. Saracens, Saturday, 10 p.m.

Players from both sides have enjoyed their time Stateside -- there have been nights at the baseball and photos by the Rocky statue -- but will the trip take its toll on the European champions? Newcastle are no longer the pushover they once might have been and if their top-six aspirations are to be realised, then these are the games in which they need to start picking up results.

PRO14: Cheetahs vs. Zebre, Saturday, 6.30 p.m.

It is debatable whether Zebre beating the Cheetahs would be considered an upset given the number of points the South Africans have shipped in the opening two rounds. But the Cheetahs were more competitive in Super Rugby in Bloemfontein and have given fans free tickets for the game. Can Carlo Canna and co put a dampener on proceedings?

Top 14: Pau vs. Castres, Saturday, 5 p.m.

Castres, champions in 2013, have a reasonably justifiable reputation as bad travellers, and let slip what should have been an opening-day victory at Racing 92 in their only other away match of the season so far. But with their pack in rare form, they could sneak this one -- if they can kick their goals, which they failed to do last weekend against Montpellier.

Big weekend for...

Prem: Worcester Warriors. Ahead of the new campaign director of rugby Gary Gold implored his side to earn the respect of their Premiership rivals -- but what they need right now is points. There were positives in defeat to Wasps last Sunday, although they ultimately finished with nothing to show for their effort. Exeter visit Sixways on Friday night, and the games don't get any easier from there. Worcester face Gloucester, Saracens and Bath before the start of the European season in October -- they need a win.

PRO14: The Dragons. Bernard Jackman's side would extend their losing streak to 12 PRO14 matches should Connacht leave Rodney Parade with a win. They have been here before, having lost 11 consecutive league games two seasons ago, and new coach Jackman will not want to be the man who leads the Welsh region to an unwanted piece of history.

Top 14: Toulon's pack. A usually reliable scrum creaked badly against Toulouse last weekend, unexpectedly coughing up four penalties and spending plenty of time on the back foot. Things were so out-of-the-ordinary that forwards coach Marc Dal Maso compared his charges' performance to toothache and promised better this week. They will need to be. Montpellier's own much-vaunted pack took a pounding last week at Castres, and will be out to prove a point in front of an expectant home crowd.