The Autumn Internationals get underway this weekend as five of the six countries in the Six Nations enter the fray.
And with the 2019 Six Nations just around the corner, it is the perfect opportunity to gauge where the teams stand heading into that campaign, not least because there will be two dress rehearsals for next year’s Championship. Wales v Scotland 2.45pm The action begins in Cardiff where there will be a repeat of the opening round of the 2018 Championship when Wales face off against Scotland in the Doddie Weir Cup.
The last time the two sides met, it was Wales who ran away with it, weathering an early Scottish storm before running out 34-7 victors.
There have been plenty of changes on both teams compared to the sides that met in February, not least debutant Luke Morgan starting on the wing for Wales.
The former Sevens star has made an immediate impact in XVs, and takes his place in a three-quarters line that also welcomes back Jonathan Davies after a year out of the international game.
Gareth Anscombe has been in flying form domestically and starts at fly-half, with club colleague Jarrod Evans waiting in the wings for a debut off the bench.
And Warren Gatland is expecting a physical battle against Gregor Townsend’s side.
He said: “It will be a proper Test on Saturday.
“I can guarantee that. We are not going out there to play festival rugby. We want to play attractive rugby but smart and winning rugby.
“It is going to be tough, physical encounter.”
For Scotland, Adam Hastings is not quite a debutant, but after getting the nod on the summer tour, he starts again at Principality Stadium, looking to build on a brilliant start to the season with Glasgow Warriors.
Blair Kinghorn fills in for the injured Stuart Hogg, getting a chance at full-back having previously broken through on the wing at Test level.
And on the bench it is worth keeping an eye out for uncapped Darcy Graham, the former Scotland Under-20s winger who could make his full debut.
Townsend admits his team need to produce the same form on the road as they have at home, starting in Cardiff this weekend.
He said: “Every game is a challenge.
“We have bigger challenges and obviously the stats show that in the Six Nations we’ve not done nearly as well away as we have at home.
“I don’t believe there is an away game approach and home game approach in which our performance differs.
“But I do believe there is a performance change when we’re favourites.” England v South Africa 3pm Co-captains Dylan Hartley and Owen Farrell will lead England against South Africa in the first of four internationals at Twickenham.
England will go up against all of the Southern Hemisphere Big Three, as well as Japan, this November, with Eddie Jones’ side hoping to get off to a good start on Saturday.
With a number of absentees the team has a relatively unfamiliar feel to it, although Ben Te’o’s return provides a carrying threat at 12 and Chris Ashton’s late inclusion on the bench in place of Manu Tuilagi gives the experienced winger a chance to add to his 39 caps.
It’s a big game for Exeter Chiefs loosehead props, Alec Hepburn making his first start for England, while Ben Moon is set to make his debut off the bench.
That is also true of Zach Mercer, the former England Under-20s star who will act as back row cover behind a starting trio of Brad Shields, Tom Curry and Mark Wilson.
Jack Nowell is also back fit to start on the wing, while Henry Slade is rewarded for his fine domestic form at 13, while perhaps the most intriguing decision is Farrell’s switch back to fly-half after playing much of his international rugby at inside centre under Jones.
And the Australian is excited at the young talent at his disposal ahead of the clash with the Boks.
He said: “We’ve got a chance to do something special here with a young team.
“We’ve had a really good preparation and the team has gelled well. The players have worked hard off the field to get organised. The coaching staff have been excellent so we’ve had a terrific preparation.”
South Africa have picked a very experienced pack, including Duane Vermeulen on the flank, with the teams meeting for the fourth time this year after the Springboks won the June series 2-1. Ireland v Italy 8pm (3pm local time) Ireland return to Chicago, the site of their memorable victory over New Zealand two years ago. This time they will face Championship rivals Italy.
The teams met in February in Dublin, with Ireland running out 56-19 winners thanks to doubles from Robbie Henshaw and Jacob Stockdale.
The latter, the 2018 Player of the Championship, is one of just four survivors from that team who start at Soldier Field, alongside Jack Conan, Jack McGrath and Bundee Aki.
Andrew Porter came on after just four minutes in that game and this time gets his first start at tighthead, while Joey Carbery will link up in the half-backs with Luke McGrath in a new-look pairing.
There are two uncapped players on the bench with Leinster’s Ross Byrne and Ulster’s Will Addison set to make their international bows.
And Joe Schmidt was particularly excited about how Carbery would get on after a good start to life at Munster following his summer move.
“Joey’s an affable character and a fierce competitor so it’s not overly surprising that he’s fitted in well at Munster, especially because he knew so many of the players before he went there,” Schmidt said.
“His running game is a strength as is his work ethic, so that’s always a good starting point.
“At the same time, being new into an environment and having to run the game is a challenge but I think he’s doing a good job of it and he seems to be getting increasingly comfortable with it.”
Italy also have a much-changed team to the side that lost in Dublin, with just three players remaining from that starting XV.
Johan Meyer will make his debut after being named in the back row, while Tito Tebaldi and Carlo Canna get the nod as the half-back pairing.
Michele Campagnaro will captain the Azzurri for the first time after being named at outside centre, combining with Luca Morisi in the midfield.
There is another uncapped player on the bench where Jimmy Tuivaiti could make his Test debut, while it could be a special day for Ian McKinley, set to play against the country of his birth for the first time.
O’Shea has urged Campagnaro to lead by example as he takes on the captaincy for the first time.
He said: “I want him to be captain on the pitch and to lead the team through his actions rather than his words.
“We have got people like Luca Bigi, Georgie Biagi and Carlo Canna who will be able to help him.”