Rugby’s greatest Championship is back with a bang this weekend, as defending champions Ireland welcome Wales to the Aviva Stadium while Scotland and England renew their fierce Calcutta Cup rivalry at BT Murrayfield.
Ireland v Wales, 3pm Sunday
Last year’s ‘Super Saturday’ seems a long time ago, and Europe’s recovery has to start somewhere following a disappointing World Cup for the Northern hemisphere giants.
Warren Gatland’s Wales represent perhaps the greatest threat to Joe Schmidt’s side as the men in green go for a historic third straight Six Nations title – a feat that has never been achieved in the history of the competition.
Since dominating between 2008 and 2013 Wales have not cracked the top two in consecutive years, and with England, Scotland and France all in a transitional phase this term, Warburton and co will be hoping to put that right.
This fixture however has been one of the hardest to predict; there have been four victories apiece in their last eight Six Nations meetings and in the last 35 clashes since 1983, the home side has only won on 11 occasions.
It was Wales who ended Ireland’s Grand Slam hopes last year with a stunning defensive performance to win a Cardiff classic 23-16, but their match-winner on that day – centre Scott Williams – is still out with an anterior cruciate ligament injury sustained against England in the World Cup.
So Rory Best might have hoped for an easier start to his tenure as Ireland skipper, but Gatland made a couple of surprise selections to his starting line-up when his squad was announced on Wednesday morning.
Record cap holder Gethin Jenkins has been dropped to the bench in place of Scarlets prop Rob Evans, while skipper Sam Warburton will start on the blind-side with in-form Ospreys flanker Justin Tipuric at open-side and Dan Lydiate on the bench.
There is also room for New Zealand-born full-back Gareth Anscombe who starts with Leigh Halfpenny still out injured, and his Cardiff Blues teammate Tom James is preferred to Alex Cuthbert on the wing – almost six years after his last cap.
Ireland meanwhile lost Luke Fitzgerald to injury earlier this week after he sustained a knee ligament injury in training, and he joins Ulster wing Tommy Bowe on the long-term casualty list.
Otherwise Schmidt has a full squad to choose from with talisman Jonathan Sexton recovering from concussion.
But Ireland go into the Championship without either of their stalwarts Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell for the first time since 1999, and will need Best and the new leadership group to fill the void.
Scotland v England, 4.50pm Saturday
Scotland’s revolution under Vern Cotter so nearly yielded a Rugby World Cup semi-final spot that would have been unthinkable 18 months ago, and based on their performances in the autumn many will be anticipating Scotland to improve on last season’s wooden spoon.
With the majority of their side coming from Scotland’s two Pro12 teams, Cotter has cohesion in his ranks, and aside from niggles to Tim Visser and Mark Bennett, Grant Gilchrist is the only high profile absentee.
But up first are the auld enemy in England, and the Red Rose will be rejuvenated from the introductions of Eddie Jones, Paul Gustard and Steve Borthwick after their disastrous World Cup campaign.
England have been runners-up every year since 2011, but have been made tournament favourites ahead of the BT Murrayfield clash and have only lost twice to their north-of-the-border rivals in 15 years.
France v Italy, 3.25pm Saturday
Having finished in the bottom half of the Six Nations table for the last four years under Philippe Saint-Andre, many feel former Toulouse boss Guy Novès was appointed too late.
The 61-year-old won 14 French titles and four European Cups in his 20-year reign in the south of France, and still has plenty of fire in his belly having made significant changes to the squad.
A new captain in hooker Guilhem Guirado replaces Thierry Dusautoir, who has retired from Test rugby, and Novès has backed up his promise for a new era of free-flowing rugby by dropping powerhouse Toulon centre Mathieu Bastareaud.
So France arguably come into the tournament with the most to prove, and will view Saturday’s clash against a very inexperienced Italy squad as a chance to put down a statement.