After all the chatter, press conferences and debates, it is time to cast all eyes to the pitch as the nations do battle with the return of the Natwest Six Nations this weekend.
Yes, that’s right, northern hemisphere’s premier competition is upon us and with defending champions England chasing a historic hat-trick of titles, while Ireland and Scotland look set challenge their hex on European rugby, it promises to be a special tournament.
Wales 14:55 Scotland
The opening match of the 2018 edition of the competition sees Warren Gatland’s Wales welcome to a Scotland team with much expectation on their backs to Cardiff’s Principality Stadium on Saturday afternoon, for an encounter which will be played under a closed roof.
Would you believe news of the roof being open or closed in Cardiff received more hits online than the team selections? Well, there is no doubt – especially for Wales fans, with their squad being so decimated by injury.
Worcester Warriors winger and top Aviva Premiership try-scorer Josh Adams has been named in the Wales starting XV to make his debut, but Scotland look an attractive prospect with a potent back three comprising of Byron McGuigan, Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg.
Under the tutelage of Gregor Townsend, Scotland are revived and come into the Six Nations with expectation to contend, and facing Wales first up in Cardiff – albeit a depleted squad – will offer an excellent marker as to their credentials in the competition.
France 16:45 Ireland
Stade de France
After a disappoint couple of Six Nations campaigns, Ireland will aim to get their 2018 bid underway in style as they travel to the Stade de France to face a rejuvenated France side in Paris on Saturday evening.
Ireland were back-to-back Six Nations winners in the years before England took control with successive titles and victory over the champions in 2017 could only prevent a Grand Slam, with crown already having been sealed by Eddie Jones’ men, but the men in emerald green will launch a strong bid for the crown this term.
France, now with former Italy coach Jacques Brunel at the helm, have a youthful squad – in fact eight players in the squad share just 16 caps, while Ireland have talismanic experience in the forms of Cian Healy, Rory Best, Peter O’Mahony, Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray, while the exciting youth of Jacob Stockdale could set their tournament alight.
In recent years France have been sporadic, meaning you never know which version of the team will turn out and with so many unknown quantities to the international stage, you can expect the same again, but Ireland are desperate to get back on top of Europe and will also be out to right the wrongs of their last visit to the Stade de France, which saw them lose in 2016.
Italy 15:00 England
Reigning kings of Europe England will launch their title defence in Rome on Sunday afternoon as they lock horns with Conor O’Shea’s Italy – a year on from the fiasco which saw the Azzurri use runaround tactics to throw the defending champions into confusion.
Last year it was a Twickenham test which England eventually saw off, but this time around it is the Stadio Olimpico which plays as the backdrop as Italy seek a first ever Test victory over England, albeit highly unlikely with the tourists having won all 23 clashes since 1991.
England have an exciting squad assembled with Exeter Chiefs back-row Sam Simmonds stepping up to the plate at No 8 and Courtney Lawes, usually a lock is posted at flanker with Chris Robshaw fit to join them at No 7, while George Ford takes the fly-half berth with Ben Te’o returning from injury to take his place in Eddie Jones’ midfield alongside Owen Farrell.
A strong start is crucial to gathering momentum for England and Jones will settle for nothing less than a comprehensive victory in Rome, while Italy will once again do their best to make things hard work for England and disrupt their rhythm.