Forwards Gethin Jenkins, Ross Ford and Sergio Parisse (pictured) and USA back Martin Iosefo are all set to reach major milestones on an action-packed weekend of international rugby where vital World Rugby Rankings points are at stake for the top nations ahead of the RWC 2019 Pool Allocation Draw in May. For others, the qualification for the tournament will be an achievement in itself and that process continues throughout Europe and Africa.
Wales loose-head prop Jenkins will become the most-capped front-row forward of all-time (133) when he takes to the field against Argentina at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, while for number eight Parisse there would be no better way to mark his record 120th test appearance than with a first-ever win against the All Blacks at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Parisse currently shares the Italian caps record with Martin Castrogiovanni.
For Scotland hooker Ford, Saturday's game against Australia at Murrayfield will be his 100th in a dark blue jersey. He is only the third Scot to achieve the feat, joining Chris Paterson and Sean Lamont in reaching three figures.
Iosefo, meanwhile, will become the 500th player to be capped by the US Eagles when he takes his place on the left wing against Romania in Bucharest.
If the opening round of November internationals proved anything, it is that records are there to be broken. We take a look at this week's match-ups.
Rankings in brackets
ENGLAND (2) v SOUTH AFRICA (4)
Wasps player Elliot Daly gets his first start in an England jersey after being named at outside-centre in place of Jonathan Joseph, who is carrying a slight groin injury.
In the absence of James Haskell, Tom Wood returns to the England team at flanker after a one-year absence with Jonny May also back on the left wing following a lengthy injury lay-off. Potential debutants Kyle Sinckler and Nathan Hughes are on the replacements bench, as is uncapped centre Ben Te’o.
Courtney Lawes will win his 50th cap alongside Joe Launchbury in the second row.
South Africa hand Francois Venter his test debut at centre, after an impressive showing in the 31-31 draw with the Barbarians at Wembley last week.
Venter is one of only five players to retain their spots with the others being prop Tendai Mtawarira, makeshift flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit and half-backs Rudy Paige and Pat Lambie.
Lood de Jager returns from a one-match suspension to take du Toit’s place in the second row, while captain Adriaan Strauss is up against his opposite number Dylan Hartley at hooker.
- England have gone 12 matches without a win against South Africa
- Eddie Jones is England's fourth head coach since Andy Robinson's side prevailed 23-21 in this fixture in 2006
- England are defending a nine-match winning run under Jones
- South Africa have won 11 of their 19 test matches at Twickenham
- Second-row Eben Etzebeth will play in his 31st consecutive test and is one of only three players to have been an ever-present under Allister Coetzee. Strauss and Mtawarira are the other two.
Failure to win could cost England second place in the rankings. For this to happen, Australia would also need to beat Scotland at Murrayfield by more than 15 points. Those two results combined would see Australia move on to 87.84 rating points, with England’s total reduced to 87.73 points.
England could even drop as low as fourth if they lose by more than 15 points and Australia get a positive result against Scotland.
Second place is potentially South Africa’s for the taking. They’d need to win by more than 15 points and hope Australia slip up against Scotland in Edinburgh for that to happen.
ITALY (13) v NEW ZEALAND (1)
Parisse has been handed a record 120th cap by Azzurri head coach Conor O'Shea, who takes charge of his first match on home soil. Veteran hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini also comes into the side, with Australian-born Luke McLean at inside-centre.
Blending experience with youth, O'Shea has opted for the uncapped scrum-half Giorgio Bronzini to partner Carlo Canna at half-back.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has picked a youthful-looking side showing 12 changes to the team that lost to Ireland last time out.
With Kieran Read rested, Sam Cane will captain the side at openside while Steven Luatua steps in at number eight for the first time in his test career. Luatua’s inclusion ends a two-year exile from the team as he won the last of his 14 caps back in October 2014.
Second-row Scott Barrett is rewarded for his try-scoring debut off the bench in Chicago with a first test start. Replacement hooker Liam Coltman and winger Rieko Ioane, a star for the All Blacks Sevens team, are set to make their test debuts off the bench.
- New Zealand have won all 12 of their tests against Italy, scoring 686 points in the process with 118 against
- Five of those dozen meetings have come at Rugby World Cups, including the tournament’s first-ever match at Eden Park in Auckland in May 1987
- New Zealand’s record score against Italy is 101 points (RWC 1999)
- Italy haven’t won a test match on home soil for two years (24-13 v Samoa in November 2014 in Ascoli Piceno). You have to go back even further to March 2013 (22-15 v Ireland) to discover their last win in Rome.
Italy are not guaranteed to move up the rankings from their present position of 14th even if they follow in Ireland's footsteps and beat the All Blacks for the first time in their history. A draw between Georgia and Japan, the sides ranked immediately above them, would prevent that happening. Should either of those sides lose, they will drop below a history-making Italy.
New Zealand cannot increase their lead at the top of the rankings with victory given the 13 places and 22.34 rating points between them and Italy, but they'd lose at least two rating points in defeat.
SCOTLAND (9) v AUSTRALIA (3)
Either side of centurion Ford (pictured) in the Scotland front-row are two players at the other end of the experience spectrum – rookie props Zander Fagerson and Allan Dell. Fagerson has made one appearance off the bench, but this will be Dell’s test debut.
Elsewhere, openside flanker Hamish Watson’s superb form for Edinburgh has seen him recalled to the team for the first time in 15 months in preference to club team-mate, John Hardie.
Israel Folau and Nick Phipps are both set to play their 50th tests for Australia at Murrayfield, with starting full-back Folau having missed just three tests since his 2013 debut. Phipps has to be content with a place on the bench, however, after head coach Michael Cheika’s decision to bring Will Genia straight back in at scrum-half. Genia’s inclusion is the only change to the XV that accounted for Wales in such scintillating fashion last weekend.
- This RWC 2015 re-match is on target to be played in front of a home record crowd for the fixture, surpassing the previous highest attendance set more than 10 years ago (64,120)
- Six points or less have separated the sides in the last four meetings, with two wins apiece
- Ross Ford joins Chris Paterson (109) and Sean Lamont (105) in bringing up three figures for Scotland in capped appearances
Scotland stand to gain at least three places if they beat Australia – unless Argentina overturn Wales at the Principality Stadium. A record high of fifth is even within their grasp if a convincing win of more than 15 points is accompanied by either a draw or a Wales win in Cardiff and a shock defeat for Ireland against Canada. Scotland cannot drop any lower than their present position of ninth even if they suffer a third straight defeat to the Wallabies.
To supersede England in second place, Australia need to win well at Murrayfield and hope England slip up at home to the Springboks.
WALES (7) v ARGENTINA (6)
Rob Howley welcomes back the experienced quartet of Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies, who all missed last weekend’s disappointing 32-8 loss to Australia. Gareth Davies and Tomas Francis both earn starts as Howley makes a total of six changes for the visit of Los Pumas.
Jenkins (pictured) will continue to lead the side in what will be a record-breaking 133rd test appearance for the loose-head prop as he becomes the world’s most capped front-row forward of all time (128 for Wales and five for the Lions) .
Fly-half Dan Biggar will win his 50th cap for Wales.
Argentina head coach Daniel Hourcade makes three changes to the team that started last weekend’s 54-20 win over Japan. Pablo Matera for Tomas Lezana is the only change in the pack, while Juan Martin Hernandez and Ramiro Moyano take the place of Jeronimo de la Fuente and Santiago Cordero at inside-centre and on the left wing respectively.
- Rob Howley was head coach of Wales when they lost 26-12 at home to Argentina in the 2012 November internationals
- That win in 2012 was only the second time Argentina have beaten Wales in 10 previous tests in the Principality
- Wales marked Gethin Jenkins’ 100th cap with a record 40-6 win the last time the sides met in November 2013
- Joaquin Tuculet, Javier Ortega Desio, captain Agustin Creevy, Martin Landajo, Tomas Cubelli and Julian Montoya have featured in all 10 of Argentina’s games in 2016.
A convincing win for Wales by more than 15 points would lift them up to sixth unless the margin of victory is matched by Scotland in their game against Australia. In that case, Wales would stay seventh. Any form of victory would be enough to improve Wales' ranking if Scotland fail to win.
Wales have never been ranked outside the world's top 10 before but a heavy loss by more than 15 points would leave them looking over their shoulders. A drop to ninth is possible although they'd still hold a sizeable cushion – at least three points – between themselves and the 10th-placed side Fiji, who take on the Barbarians in a non-cap international on Friday.
Argentina stand to gain nearly two full rating points but they can only improve on their current ranking of sixth if the giant-killer gets slayed themselves and Ireland fall victim to a shock result against Canada.
FRANCE (8) v SAMOA (14)
Yoann Huget (pictured) returns to the Les Bleus line-up for the first time since the knee injury that cut short his involvement at RWC 2015. Scott Spedding and Virimi Vakatawa make up the back three. Wesley Fofana and Rémi Lamerat form an all-Clermont midfield while Maxime Machenaud and Francois Trinh-Duc are chosen at half-back.
Hooker Guilhem Guirado will lead from the front in a pack that includes vastly-experienced campaigners like Louis Picamoles and Yoann Maestri.
The Samoan front-row of Zak Taulafo, Manu Leiataua and Census Johnston remains intact from their last outing – a 30-10 Pacific Nations Cup win against Tonga – but the rest of the pack has been overhauled due to the availability of overseas stars.
Christopher Vui and Teofilo Paulo are selected in the second row, while Alafoti Faosiliva, vice-captain Jack Lam and Genesis Mamea-Lemalu form a powerful back row.
In-form Bath scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i and Patrick Fa’apale make up the half-back combination. Rey Lee-Lo is partnered in midfield by George Pisi while David Lemi captains the side from left wing with Paul Perez named on the other flank and Paul Williams at full-back.
- This is only the fourth meeting between the sides since the first fixture in 1999. France have won all three
- David Lemi scored a try in the last meeting which ended in a 22-14 win for France, at the Stade de France in November 2012
No rating points can be gained by France because of the six-place and, when home advantage is factored in, more than 10 rating point differential in the rankings between themselves in eighth and Samoa in 14th. But, with such fine margins between the nations in their section of the rankings, they could climb up two places to sixth if Wales and Ireland fail to win and consequently lose rating points.
If Samoa make history and beat France for the first time they will gain two full rating points – three if the margin of victory is more than 15 points. A climb of two places to 12th is the most they can hope for.
IRELAND (5) v CANADA (18)
Sean O’Brien returns to the international arena for the first time since he badly injured his hamstring against France in February. O’Brien packs down in a new-look back row that features another returnee, captain Peter O’Mahony, and debutant Jack O’Donoghue, one of three new caps in the starting XV. Mahony hasn’t played since Ireland crashed out of the RWC 2015 quarter-finals to Argentina.
Second-row Billy Holland and highly-rated Leinster centre Garry Ringrose will make their first senior appearances with five more potential debutants on the bench.
Captained by Aaron Carpenter, Canada’s match-day squad features a wealth of experience including the return of DTH van der Merwe, Brett Beukeboom, Conor Trainor and Connor Braid to the starting line-up.
The familiar trio of Djustice Sears-Duru, Ray Barkwill and Jake Ilnicki form Canada’s front row with Beukeboom joining Newcastle Falcon Evan Olmstead in the second row. Kyle Baillie and Lucas Rumball start at flanker while Carpenter will earn his 75th test cap from number eight, leaving him one cap behind Al Charron’s Canadian record of 76.
Gordon McRorie starts at scrum-half while Braid gets the nod at fly-half. Van der Merwe and Taylor Paris will man the wings with Trainor and Ciaran Hearn starting in the centres. Cornish Pirate Matt Evans starts at full-back.
- Canada coach Mark Anscombe makes a swift return to Ireland where he coached the likes of Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy at Ulster
- These two nations met for the first time ever in a full international at the inaugural World Cup in 1987 as Ireland overwhelmed Canada 46-19 in Dunedin
- Ireland have won six of the seven meetings between the two, with Canada managing a 27-27 draw in 2000
- The last game, in Pool D at RWC 2015, ended in a 50-7 win for Ireland in Cardiff
Ireland are unable to boost their points tally beyond their current total of 83.67 as they start the game the best part of 20 rating points better off than their opponents.
A Canada win, however, comes with a reward – two full points and a one-place rise to 17th. Canada could fall one place in if Uruguay manage to beat Germany by more than 15 points in Frankfurt.
GEORGIA (11) v JAPAN (12)
Georgia head coach Milton Haig has made eight changes to his last run-on team as the Lelos look to build on their historic unbeaten tour of the Pacific.
Two of Georgia’s most well-known players are back in the fold with Vasil Lobzhanidze returning to the scrum-half berth after he missed the summer internationals because of his involvement at the World Rugby U20 Championship in Manchester. Talisman and captain Mamuka Gordgodze is back at number eight.
Outside-centre David Kacharava and goal-kicking full-back Merab Kvirikashvili will win their 96th caps.
Japan coach Jamie Joseph has made six changes to his starting XV for his second match in charge of the team. Four of the changes come in the pack with Shunsuke Nunomaki set to win his first cap at openside flanker. Heiichiro Ito comes in to anchor the scrum at tight-head prop, while Kotaro Yatabe and Malgene Ilaua are promoted from the bench as second-row and flanker respectively.
In the backs, Timothy Lafaele is rewarded for a bright display from the bench against Argentina with a start at outside-centre, while RWC 2015 hero Karne Hesketh comes back into the side on the left wing.
- Japan have won three of the four previous meetings with Georgia, the most recent a 13-10 win for the Brave Blossoms in a RWC 2015 warm-up match
- The 54-20 loss to Argentina in Tokyo last week was the first time Japan had conceded 50 points in a test since they were beaten by New Zealand in November 2013
- Merab Kvirikashvili scored a try and kicked 10 points the last time these sides met in Tbilisi – a 35-24 win for Georgia
- Georgia are on a seven-match winning run at home. Tonga were the last team to win there.
Georgia will be ranked in the world’s top 10 for the first time in their history if they beat Japan as even the narrowest of victories would be enough to lift them above Fiji. Tenth-place will be Japan’s for the taking if they are able to come away from Tbilisi with a win of more than 15 points.
ROMANIA (16) v USA (17)
Romania's record points scorer Florin Vlaicu will win his 94th cap alongside New Zealand-born Jack Umaga in the Oaks' midfield. Umaga made his bow during this summer's World Rugby Nations Cup after qualifying on residency.
South African-born Jody Rose gets the nod at fly-half and is partnered at half-back by Florin Surugiu. The back three positions are taken by wings Ionut Dimitru and uncapped Tongan convert Tangimana Fonovai. Catalin Fercu occupies the full-back berth.
Stelian Burcea captains the side from number eight and is joined in the back row by Viorel Lucaci and Vasile Rus. The front-row comprises Mihaita Lazar, Eugen Capatana and Alexandra Tarus and the second rows are Johan van Heerden and Marius Antonescu.
Martin Iosefo will become USA Eagle No.500 as four players earn their international test debuts for John Mitchell's squad against Romania at the Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf in Bucharest.
Bryce Campbell, Nick Civetta, and sevens captain Madison Hughes will also receive caps after making their senior debuts for the Eagles against the Maori All Blacks in Chicago last week. Todd Clever captains the side from openside.
- USA’s only defeat in six previous tests against Romania was at RWC 1999 when the Oaks edged the Eagles 27-25, at the old Lansdowne Road
- The first meeting between these nations was at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris where the USA went on to win the gold medal
- USA came away with a 27-17 victory on their last visit to Bucharest in 2014
- Ranked one spot ahead of the USA in 16th, Romania have won seven of eight matches throughout 2016, the most recent against an Argentina XV in the Nations Cup
Romania would need Tonga to be held to a draw or lose to Spain in Madrid to stand any chance of moving up one place to 15th. An away victory would see USA leapfrog Romania into 16th.
CUP OF NATIONS
The four-team competition sees hosts Hong Kong, 2015 champions Russia and Zimbabwe return for another year but Portugal drop out and are replaced by tournament newcomers Papua New Guinea.
Russia, the highest ranked team in the competition at number 21 in the world, are returning in good form, having maintained an active test schedule since last year’s appearance.
Hong Kong, runners-up in 2015, are the second highest ranked team, at 25th in the world, while Zimbabwe are 37th. Papua New Guinea are 69th in the world, having not played a test in more than a year.
Russia kick-off the defence of their title with a game against Zimbabwe, while Hong Kong play PNG on Friday.
Hong Kong coach Leigh Jones has dual objectives over the next eight days. “We want to win of course, but we are also looking to further broaden our depth and enhance our experience against teams from outside of the region. In the long-term, we are increasing our exposure to teams that we could potentially meet in Rugby World Cup qualification,” he said.
Neither Russia nor Hong Kong stand to gain any rating points if they win given the large differential between themselves and their opponents in the rankings.
PNG could gain as many as seven places if they pull off a shock win, while Zimbabwe’s fortunes are dependent on results from elsewhere although victory would certainly improve their current position.
RWC 2019 QUALIFICATION
Tunisia host Senegal in the Africa Cup Division 1B final in the coastal city of Monastir. The winner of the game will win promotion to the top division and keep their RWC 2019 qualification hopes alive.
Tunisia start favourites as they are ranked 38th in the world while Senegal are 47th. Senegal would take 38th place off Tunisia, however, if they were to win by more than 15 points.
This weekend’s Rugby Europe matches also double as RWC 2019 qualifiers, with Ukraine travelling to Moldova in the Trophy competition knowing that a third straight defeat would effectively end their hopes of appearing in Japan in three years’ time.
Czech Republic take on Lithuania in Conference 1 North and Cyprus play Israel in 1 South.
World Rugby’s commitment to improving the playing schedule of all member unions has produced three new international fixtures on Saturday.
Germany come up against RWC 2015 participants Uruguay for the first time in test history, and the same is true of Spain and Tonga, who meet in Madrid, and Chile and Korea.
Chile and Korea, ranked 27th and 28th, will play the first of their back-to-back tests in Santiago at the Univeridad Catolica Rugby Club before facing each other again, seven days later, at Old Grangoinians RFC.
The one remaining fixture brings together two familiar foes, with Portugal and Belgium celebrating the 50th anniversary of their first meeting in 1966 with a game in the Portugese fishing town of Setubal.