The 2019 Guinness Six Nations starts a week today. The squads have been named and training camps are long since underway.
But still the final auditions continue as players aim to prove their form and fitness ahead of Rugby’s Greatest Championship.
BIG GAME ROB RETURNS
All eyes on Friday night will be on the RDS – particularly if you are Joe Schmidt.
That is because Rob Kearney – Ireland’s go-to man at full-back for the majority of the Schmidt reign – is back in action for Leinster.
A leg injury ruled him out of his side’s European clashes earlier this month but he is back and will captain his province tonight as they take on the Scarlets.
That means the British & Irish Lion was not in Portugal training with Ireland this week but will be eyeing the Aviva Stadium next week and Ireland’s opener against England.
With the effervescent Jordan Larmour pushing hard for his No.15 jersey, Kearney’s big-match experience will need to impress tonight.
There is more good news as Jack McGrath will also start – his second game back following hip surgery – and the loosehead prop will be keen to show what he can do.
Darren Sweetnam’s return from injury did not come quick enough to see him included for Ireland’s opening squad but he too gets a chance to shine on the right wing for Munster when they welcome the Dragons.
The one disappointment for Schmidt is that flanker Dan Leavy remains on the sidelines after failing to prove his fitness in time for the Scarlets clash.
Warren Gatland will also be an interested observer of that Friday night game at the RDS as lock Jake Ball aims to prove his fitness.
In England, the league is on a rest week but the Premiership Rugby Cup rolls into town with three games on Saturday.
And Chris Robshaw, not yet fit when England’s initial squad was named but still in Eddie Jones’ thoughts for later in the Championship, is back in action for Harlequins.
The former England skipper and blindside flanker will co-captain his side as they take on Saracens at the Stoop.
And after Brad Shields and Mark Wilson caught the eye in the autumn, Robshaw knows it is up to him to prove he is worth a recall as the Championship progresses.
Up against Robshaw in the Sarries side are both Nick Isiekwe and Alex Lozowski.
The lock and centre both appeared for Jones’ England in 2018 but find themselves on the outside looking in at the moment.
Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors are both in action as well this weekend in the Guinness PRO14 and Gregor Townsend will be an interested observer after releasing a number of his internationals in search of game time.
For Edinburgh, playing in Port Elizabeth against the Southern Kings, David Cherry, Luke Crosbie and Chris Dean are all in action.
Meanwhile Rob Harley, Matt Smith and Adam Ashe all get the nod for Glasgow Warriors as they take on the Ospreys.
Tim Swinson has also been released to play in the second row as has Nick Grigg who will line up in the centres.
BEST OF THE REST
Conor O’Shea looks to be closer to making his selection calls for the Azzurri as Carlo Canna has been released for Zebre’s trip to Bloemfontein to take on the Cheetahs.
The same game sees Italy lock George Biagi make his 100th appearance for the club.
Meanwhile in-form Benetton Rugby face Ulster with Luca Sperandio and Ian McKinley both in the backline at full-back and fly-half respectively.
Federico Ruzza is also called up into the second row and O’Shea will be watching on with interest.
Sergio Parisse will also be back in action for Stade Francais’ clash with Toulon but no French players will be released from Marcoussis for club duty.