After a strong set of results for the northern hemisphere's leading lights in the November test window, this year's Six Nations is expected to be one of the most competitive yet.
Can World Rugby Team of the Year Ireland back up their achievements in 2018 and storm to another title, or will one of the other nations step forward and lay down a marker ahead of the Rugby World Cup later this year?
Many believe the destiny of the title will be decided in the third and final game of the opening weekend when world number two team and defending Six Nations champions Ireland take on England, the side ranked fourth. However, history has taught us to expect the unexpected in the game's oldest championship and France and Wales, who have the honour of kicking off the Championship in Paris on Friday night, and Scotland and Italy, who come together at Murrayfield in the first leg of Saturday's doubleheader will no doubt have something to say about that.
Read on to find out selected team news, interesting stats and facts and how the weekend's results could affect the World Rugby Rankings.
France (9) v Wales (3)
France have named 19-year-old centre Romain Ntamack ahead of experienced Mathieu Bastareaud at centre. Ntamack, a star of France’s triumphant World Rugby U20 Championship campaign last summer, is one of two uncapped players in Les Bleus’ ranks. South African-born second-row Paul Willemse, who qualifies for his adoptive country on residency grounds after spending more than three years with Top 14 clubs Montpellier and Grenoble, is the other rookie in the starting XV. La Rochelle’s Grégory Alldritt is named on the bench and could be the third debutant for Les Bleus in the encounter. At half-back, Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez are reunited for France for the first time since the 2015 Championship.
Wales have made only three changes to the side that defeated South Africa in November as they try and take their winning momentum into the Six Nations. Coach Warren Gatland has handed scrum-half, Tomos Williams, a first Championship start, lining up alongside Cardiff Blues team-mate, Gareth Anscombe. Meanwhile, Alun Wyn Jones captains the side in his 49th Six Nations appearance, and he is partnered in the second row by Adam Beard. Josh Navidi returns from injury to start in the back row alongside Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty.
- In 19 Six Nations meetings, France have won 10 and Wales have won nine games. However, France have only beaten Wales once in the past seven years
- Wales have triumphed in two of their last three matches in the French capital, and have a 44 per cent win record away to Les Bleus in the Six Nations
- Wales beat France 14-13 in the 2018 Six Nations, the lowest total number of points required to win a game between the sides in the competition’s history
- The teams have been separated by seven or fewer points in three of their last four Six Nations meetings
- Wales have won nine in a row - their longest unbeaten run since 1999 (a 10-game streak)
- Ken Owens becomes Wales' most capped hooker on his 61st appearance
- Gareth Anscombe kicked all five of his shots at goal in last year’s competition, the only player to be 100 per cent with that many attempts or more
- It is not possible for Wales to climb any higher than their current position of third
- France will climb above Fiji to eighth if they win
- A heavy defeat (more than 15 points) would see France match their all-time low of 10th
Scotland (7) v Italy (15)
Glasgow Warriors centre Sam Johnson will make his Scotland debut in this Saturday’s Six Nations opener against Italy. The Australia-born midfielder is one of three uncapped players named in the match-day 23, with hooker Jake Kerr and back-rower Gary Graham, son of former international George, on the bench. Johnson is one of six personnel changes to the team that started Scotland’s final home November test win over Argentina. Wing Tommy Seymour replaces Sean Maitland, who has failed to recover sufficiently from a hamstring injury sustained while representing his club side Saracens, while the four remaining changes come in the pack. Hooker Stuart McInally, second-row Ben Toolis, and back-row forwards Sam Skinner and Ryan Wilson start in place of injured trio Fraser Brown (knee), Jonny Gray (shoulder) and Hamish Watson (hand), and Josh Strauss, who moves to the bench.
Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldhini will become the eighth Italian player to reach a century of caps when he runs out at Murrayfield. The 34-year-old is accompanied by another of the celebrated group in the Azzurri pack in number Sergio Parisse, Italy's most-capped player and captain having recovered from the injury that kept him sidelined throughout November. In winning his 135th cap and his 66th in the Six Nations, Parisse overtakes Brian O'Driscoll's Championship record for appearances. David Sisi makes his first as the only uncapped player in the team, while full-back Jayden Hayward makes his first Championship start in this his 13th cap. Luca Morisi and Angelo Esposito return to the backline at centre and wing respectively.
- Scotland are on a 10-match winning streak against Italy dating back to 2012
- Six of those wins have been by four points or less, including two by a one-point margin
- Defeat at Murrayfield would see Italy set a new Championship record for games without a victory (18)
- It is not possible for Scotland to climb any higher than their present position of seventh
- A win of more than 15 points would put Italy 11th, their highest ranking for over five years (Nov 2013)
Ireland (2) v England (4)
Leinster's Robbie Henshaw starts at full-back instead of his accustomed place at centre - his first appearance in the position for Ireland since winning his test debut at 15 against the USA in June 2015 - due to fitness concerns over Rob Kearney. Henshaw's last start at full-back at any level was for former club Connacht against Munster in April 2016. Elsewhere for Ireland, Johnny Sexton is fit enough to start at fly-half having not played since 29 December and is joined at half-back by scrum-half Conor Murray for the first time since June - Murray having missed out in November due to a neck complaint. The forward pack has a familiar look to it with Cian Healy, captain Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong in the front row, Devin Toner joining James Ryan in the second row, while Josh van der Flier joins Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander in the back row after holding off competition from Sean O'Brien at openside. O'Brien, who has recovered from a broken arm, takes his place on the bench.
Centre Manu Tuilagi will make his first start since 2014 in the England team to face defending champions Ireland. The 27-year-old Leicester player, who has suffered a string of injuries over the past few seasons, starts at 12, outside of captain Owen Farrell, in the absence of injured Ben Te'o. Brothers Mako and Billy Vunipola will play for England for the first time this season having last featured in the test series against South Africa in June 2018.
Sale's Tom Curry and Mark Wilson of Newcastle Falcons will make their Six Nations debuts having been named at openside and blindside flanker respectively. Dan Robson is set to make his England debut having been named as Ben Youngs' deputy at scrum-half.
- Ireland have won 11 of the 19 Six Nations clashes, while England have won just eight games
- Ireland have held England to 15 points or less in five of their last six meetings in the Six Nations
- England captain Owen Farrell failed to score any points in his last Six Nations game (v Ireland). It was the first time that he failed to score in a Six Nations match (29th appearance)
- Maro Itoje has played in all of England's last 10 tests, missing just 10 minutes of game time
- Ireland cannot overtake New Zealand as the world’s number one team even with an emphatic victory
- A win of more than 15 points would see them close the gap on New Zealand to 1.06 rating points
- England can replace Ireland as the world’s number two team if they win by more than 15 points
AMERICAS RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP
Chile (29) v USA (12)
Chile head coach Pablo Lemoine hands test debuts to six players for his first game in charge of Los Condores at the Americas Rugby Championship. Back-rower Martin Sigren, who has four caps to his name, captains the side for the first time. In the front row, rookie props Francisco Pizarro and Nicolas Ovalle pack down either side of Los Condores most experienced players in hooker Tomas Dussailant, a veteran of all three ARC campaigns to date. The new-look second row consists of debutant Bastien Burguener and Clemente Saavedra, who makes his first start, while Sigren is joined in the back row by uncapped number eight, Jaden Laing, and Ignacio Silva, who is entering his ninth year of test rugby. In the backs, wing Gonzalo Lara and centre Christian Huerta are set to win their first caps, while Huerta's midfield partner, Vicente Ayarza, makes his ARC bow. Full-back Tomas Ianiszewski, one of the most recognisable names in the otherwise unfamiliar starting line-up, needs three points to become the third highest point-scorer in Chile's history.
AJ MacGinty makes his long-awaited return from injury to take his place at fly-half in an Eagles side light on caps. With 40 test appearances to his name, number eight Cam Dolan is the most experienced member of the starting line-up with outside centre Bryce Campbell next on 21. Tadgh Leader provides the back-up to fellow Irish native MacGinty at 10 and is set to win his first cap off the bench.
- Defending two-time champions, the US Eagles, swept all before them in last year's ARC and enjoyed a record nine-matching winning run in 2018
- USA's only defeat in five tests against Chile was a 21-13 loss in Santiago in August 2002
- Chile are on a 14-game losing run in the competition, having not won since they beat Brazil 25-22 in the opening round of the inaugural competition back in 2016
- In their last three meetings with Chile, the USA are averaging 55 points per game
- Chile won their last test 96-0, against Paraguay.
- The USA cannot climb any higher than their present position of 12th
- A drop of three places to 15th will occur if the Eagles are beaten by more than 15 points
- Chile can climb two places to 27th if they win by such a margin
Uruguay (17) v Canada (20)
Uruguay coach Esteban Meneses has made six changes and one positional from the team that beat Romania 27-20 last time out for the clash with Canada. A hugely experienced forward pack contains five players who have each reached a half-century of caps including record appearance holder, second-row Diego Magno, who wears the famous light blue jersey for the 84th time this weekend. Mario Sagario and German Kessler come into a strong-looking front row, at tight-head and hooker respectively, with Mateo Sanguinetti at loose-head. Behind them, Magno partners Ignacio Dotti, while Juan Manuel Gaminara captains the side from number six. Fellow flanker, Juan Diego Ormaechea and number eight Alejandro Nieto retain their places. Juan Manual Cat moves from outside centre to partner scrum-half Santiago Arata at half-back. Andres Villaseca, a two-try hero when Uruguay last met Canada, lines up in midfield alongside Joaquin Prada. Nicolas Freitas and Federico Favaro are restored to the wings with Rodrigo Silva still commanding the full-back role.
With stars of Canada's RWC 2019 repechage absent, such as DTH van der Merwe, coach Kingsley Jones has taken the opportunity to give game time to promising youngsters like wing Kainoa Lloyd. Eric Howard also gets a rare outing in the number two jersey in place of veteran Ray Barkwill. Indeed, the game in Montevideo will be only his second start in 18 internationals. Saturday could see two debutants on Canada’s team, as 20-year-old scrum-half Will Percillier and 22-year-old forward Nakai Penny have been named on the replacements bench. Canada's captain is Toronto Arrows’ flanker Lucas Rumball, who, at just 23-years-of-age, has already racked up 26 test caps and scored four tries.
- Uruguay beat Canada home-and-away in 2018 to claim the Americas 2 spot at RWC 2019
- Los Teros have consecutive third-place finishes in the ARC, after coming fourth in 2016
- Canada's best finish was third in ARC 2016
- Uruguay recorded a historic win in Romania in their last test (27-20)
- Canada have won their last three tests, all at the RWC 2019 repechage, to qualify for the tournament in Japan
- The overall head-to-head stands at eight wins to Canada and four to Uruguay, but Los Teros have won the last three
- Uruguay cannot improve their position with any form of victory
- A Canadian victory by more than 15 points would see the nations trade places, with Canada moving up to 17th – their highest position for two-and-a-half years (June 2016) – and Uruguay dropping to 20th.
The remaining match in the opening round of #ARC2019 between Argentina XV and Brazil does not count towards the rankings.