The wait is almost over as the powerhouses of northern hemisphere rugby prepare for the opening round of the 2023 Six Nations.
Starting off with an all-Celtic showdown in Cardiff, before a Calcutta Cup clash in London, it’s action in Rome that concludes an intriguing first round of games in this year’s tournament.
|What||Wales v Ireland|
|Where||Principality Stadium, Cardiff|
|When||14:15, Saturday 4th February|
|How to watch||BBC One|
|Odds||Wales 11/5, Draw 22/1, Ireland 5/12|
This is a rivalry that has grown over the last couple of decades, especially since coach Warren Gatland swapped the green of Ireland for the red of Wales.
Back in the hot seat with Wales for a second spell after the departure of fellow New Zealander Wayne Pivac, Gatland is looking to bring the good times back to the Dragons.
Shock defeats to Italy and Georgia in a forgettable 2022 saw the end of Pivac’s tenure and Gatland has gone back to experienced players for the arrival of the Irish.
Ken Owens was named Wales’ oldest captain before the tournament at the age of 36 and he’ll have 37-year-old Alun Wyn Jones with him in the forwards this weekend.
Gatland has stuck with 12 players who last featured under Pivac in their 38-34 defeat to Australia, so the continuity does remain as Wales build towards the World Cup later this year.
As for Ireland, they head into this competition brimming with confidence after an outstanding year in 2022.
Responding to missing out on the Six Nations title, the Irish went on to secure a first Test series win in New Zealand, before beating both Australia and South Africa in the autumn.
Much like Wales, Ireland are a team with plenty of experience, with 37-year-old skipper Johnny Sexton set to play a key role once again.
Ireland have dominated this fixture in recent years, winning five of the last six meetings, however they did suffer a 21-16 defeat on their list visit to Cardiff in 2021 and will be looking to avenge that loss.
Ireland are deserved favourites going into this one and could fall on the right side of a -6 handicap at 10/11.
|What||England v Scotland|
|When||16:45, Saturday 4th February|
|How to watch||ITV1|
|Odds||England 4/15, Draw 28/1, Scotland 16/5|
Following the shock departure of Eddie Jones, England begin a new era with head coach Steve Borthwick the man at the helm at the start of a World Cup year.
Having successfully guided Leicester Tigers to the Premiership title last season, Borthwick and defence coach Kevin Sinfield have been brought in to bring the feel-good factor back to English rugby.
First up is the no small matter of a Calcutta Cup clash with oldest rivals Scotland, who have had some joy in this fixture of late. Holding the Calcutta Cup for four of the last five years, Scotland’s last defeat at Twickenham came back in 2017.
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend has gone with an attacking side, with centre Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones selected outside fly-half Finn Russell. In-form Luke Crosbie earns a start in the back-row, alongside Matt Fagerson and skipper Jamie Ritchie.
Both Zander Fagerson and Hamish Watson have returned from injuries just before the tournament, but the trip south of the border has come slightly too soon for the pair, who should feature against Wales at Murrayfield in round two.
A positive start will be important for the Scots in their hopes of silencing the Twickenham crowd.
With Borthwick looking to put his own stamp on this England side, it will be interesting to see what changes there are from Jones’ tenure.
Scotland have been handed a generous +9 lead in the handicap market and that could be the way to go at 1/1.
|What||Italy v France|
|Where||Stadio Olimpico, Rome|
|When||15:00, Sunday 5th February|
|How to watch||ITV1|
|Odds||Italy 11/1, Draw 50/1, France 1/25|
Despite a 13-game winning streak going into the tournament, 15/8 France have been edged out by Ireland as the Six Nations Outright favourites.
With the championship looking set to go down to the wire, every point matters and France will be determined to make sure they get all five available on their trip to Italy.
The French have an excellent record against the Azzurri, having won 43 of the 46 encounters between these two nations and on the back of their outstanding form in 2022, France should hit the ground running in this encounter.
As for Italy, they will be looking to build on a couple of impressive results last year, as they managed to secure a win in Cardiff before beating Australia in the autumn.
There’s plenty of excitement about what full-back Ange Capuozzo can do in this Six Nations after an impressive tournament last year.
He was the architect of the winning try in the 22-21 win over Wales last season and the Toulouse star comes into this campaign on the back of decent form.
The biggest test on Sunday will be for Italy’s forwards, as they look to compete with a formidable French pack that will look to dominate the contest.
It’s hard to look past the reigning Six Nations champions in this one and it is likely to be a case of by how many and not if they win this weekend.
Overcoming a -21 handicap for France at 1/1 would have landed in all of their last three meetings and looks more than achievable for Les Bleus at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday afternoon.