International rugby returns with a bang this weekend as all six Guinness Six Nations sides take centre stage in huge heavyweight match-ups for the summer Test series.
Italy kick-off the action under the Friday night lights in Bucharest against Romania before France take on Japan and Ireland face New Zealand early on Saturday morning.
Saturday also sees England begin their three-Test series with Australia in Perth while Wales lock horns with the formidable South Africa and Scotland go up against Argentina.
Ahead of what promises to be an indulgent feast of international rugby, here’s a look a some of the key talking points and areas to watch out for across the Tests this weekend.
Can Italy build on momentum?
Kieran Crowley’s side concluded the 2022 Guinness Six Nations with a famous victory over Wales in Cardiff, Paolo Garbisi converting Edoardo Padovani’s try to seal a 22-21 triumph.
But having ended their seven-year wait for a Championship win, the Azzurri will now be focused on building on that momentum and making winning a habit on the international stage.
Italy have already had one run out already this summer, beating Portugal 38-31 last weekend, but their performance left plenty of areas for improvement as they turn their attention to Romania.
Crowley admitted his side made life difficult for themselves in Lisbon and insisted they need to be better at defending the gain line, something he will hope to see in Bucharest on Friday.
Italy: 15 Ange Capuozzo, 14 Edoardo Padovani, 13 Tommaso Menoncello, 12 Marco Zanon, 11 Pierre Bruno, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Alessandro Garbisi; 1 Ivan Nemer, 2 Gianmarco Lucchesi, 3 Simone Ferrari, 4 Niccolò Cannone, 5 Marco Fuser, 6 Federico Ruzza, 7 Manuel Zuliani, 8 Toa Halafihi
Replacements: 16 Giacomo Nicotera, 17 Cherif Traore, 18 Ion Neculai, 19 David Sisi, 20 Michele Lamaro, 21 Renato Giammarioli, 22 Manfredi Albanese, 23 Paolo Garbisi
Thrills await France in Japan
Fresh from their 2022 Guinness Six Nations Grand Slam triumph, France will be keen to use their tour to Japan as an opportunity to test the death of their squad.
With a home World Cup on the horizon, Fabien Galthie’s men appear to be the team to beat and have opted to rest star men Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack.
Uncapped lock Thomas Jolmes and flanker Yoan Tanga will both make their debuts at the Toyota Stadium on Saturday morning while Charles Ollivon returns to captain Les Bleus.
But Japan are more than capable of springing a surprise and after recording back-to-back wins over Uruguay, the Brave Blossoms’ exciting brand of rugby promises to provide plenty of thrills.
France: 15. Melvyn Jaminet, 14. Damian Penaud, 13.Virimi Vakatawa, 12. Yoram Moefana, 11. Matthis Lebel, 10. Matthieu Jalibert, 9. Maxime Lucu; 1. Jean-Baptiste Gros, 2. Péato Mauvaka, 3. Demba Bamba, 4. Thibaud Flament, 5. Thomas Jolmes, 6. Charles Ollivon, 7. Dylan Cretin, 8. Yoan Tanga
Replacements: 16. Pierre Bourgarit, 17. Dany Priso, 18. Sipili Falatea, 19. Thomas Lavault, 20. Christopher Tolofua, 21. Sékou Macalou, 22. Baptiste Couilloud, 23. Antoine Hastoy
Ireland target historic success
While the past largely favours the All Blacks, Ireland have won three of the last five encounters between the two sides – although they have never tasted victory in New Zealand.
Andy Farrell’s side appear to be a team on the up though and followed up their Autumn Nations Series success over the All Blacks with a second-place finish in the Guinness Six Nations.
Yet with the World Cup around the corner and after so many false dawns in their history, the time has come for this current crop of Irish talent to really lay down a marker.
Ireland’s 32-17 defeat to the Maori All Blacks was far from ideal preparation but with the likes of Johnny Sexton and the rest of the front-liners recalled, this series opener could be a classic.
Ireland: 15. Hugo Keenan, 14. Keith Earls, 13. Garry Ringrose, 12. Robbie Henshaw, 11. James Lowe, 10. Johnny Sexton (C), 9. Jamison Gibson Park; 1. Andrew Porter, 2. Dan Sheehan, 3. Tadhg Furlong, 4. Tadhg Beirne, 5. James Ryan, 6. Peter O’Mahony, 7. Josh van der Flier, 8. Caelan Doris
Replacements: 16. Dave Heffernan, 17. Finlay Bealham, 18. Cian Healy, 19. Kieran Treadwell, 20. Jack Conan, 21. Conor Murray, 22. Joey Carbery, 23. Bundee Aki
Which England will show up Down Under?
There are more questions than answers surrounding England as they return to Australia for the first time since that memorable 3-0 series whitewash back in 2016.
Off the back of a fifth-placed finish in the 2022 Guinness Six Nations, Eddie Jones is under pressure to provide evidence this squad is heading in the right direction.
The return of the Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell 10-12 partnership headlined the team news ahead of the first Test, along with the recall of Danny Care from the international wilderness.
Jones’ selection suggests England plan on showing a lot more attacking intent than we’ve seen in recent years, backed up by a formidable forward pack that includes Billy Vunipola again.
England: 15. Freddie Steward, 14. Jack Nowell, 13. Joe Marchant, 12. Owen Farrell, 11. Joe Cokanasiga, 10. Marcus Smith, 9. Danny Care; 1. Ellis Genge, 2. Jamie George, 3. Will Stuart, 4. Maro Itoje, 5. Jonny Hill, 6. Courtney Lawes (C), 7. Tom Curry, 8. Billy Vunipola
Replacements: 16. Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17. Mako Vunipola, 18. Joe Heyes, 19. Ollie Chessum, 20. Lewis Ludlam, 21. Jack van Poortlviet, 22. Guy Porter, 23. Henry Arundell
Wales out to prove their critics wrong
What a difference a year can make. Twelve months after lifting the 2021 Guinness Six Nations, Wales suffered a shock defeat to Italy as they finished fifth in the Championship table.
That has resulted in many seeing their three-Test series in South Africa going one way against the reigning world champions, who showed their might in defeating the Lions last summer.
But as Adam Beard has said in the build up, Wales often perform at their best when considered underdogs and Wayne Pivac’s side contains no shortage of international talent.
The return of George North and Dan Lydiate after injury lay-offs is certainly cause of optimism while a backline of Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit and Josh Adams can beat anyone.
Wales: 15. Liam Williams,14. Louis Rees-Zammit, 13. George North, 12. Nick Tompkins, 11. Josh Adams, 10. Dan Biggar (C), 9. Kieran Hardy; 1. Gareth Thomas, 2. Ryan Elias, 3. Dillon Lewis, 4. Will Rowlands, 5. Adam Beard, 6. Dan Lydiate, 7. Tommy Reffell, 8. Taulupe Faletau
Replacements: 16. Dewi Lake, 17. Rhys Carre, 18. Tomas Francis, 19. Alun Wyn Jones, 20. Josh Navidi, 21. Tomos Williams, 22. Gareth Anscombe, 23. Owen Watkin
Time for Scotland to lay down a marker
Another promising start to the Guinness Six Nations earlier this year ultimately came to nothing as Scotland’s title chances faded away once again despite high expectations.
Now they turn their attention to a Test series with Argentina as Michael Cheika’s reign begins against a Scotland side without influential duo Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg.
Gregor Townsend’s side looks strong on paper even without their star men, with their absence allowing the likes of Rory Hutchinson and Blair Kinghorn a chance to impress.
Kinghorn, in particular, has his doubters at fly-half but a good showing against the Pumas could really boost his World Cup chances as Scotland look to get back on track.
Scotland: 15. Rory Hutchinson, 14. Darcy Graham, 13. Mark Bennett, 12. Sam Johnson, 11. Duhan van der Merwe, 10. Blair Kinghorn, 9. Ali Price (VC); 1. Pierre Schoeman, 2. George Turner, 3. Zander Fagerson, 4. Grant Gilchrist (C), 5. Jonny Gray, 6. Magnus Bradbury, 7. Luke Crosbie, 8. Matt Fagerson
Replacements: 16. Ewan Ashman, 17. Rory Sutherland, 18. Javan Sebastian, 19. Sam Skinner, 20. Rory Darge, 21. Ben White, 22. Ross Thompson, 23. Sione Tuipulotu