The Six Nations may be in its 21st year but the start of the 2020 Championship is just as keenly anticipated as ever.
A changing of the guard at the top of four of the six coaching teams has added another layer of intrigue ahead of the opening round, which comes just three months after the conclusion of Rugby World Cup 2019.
England temporarily moved to the top of the World Rugby Men's Rankings for the first time in 16 years during their run to the final under Eddie Jones and they go into the Championship as favourites. Scotland are the only other team to have the same man at the helm in Gregor Townsend.
Wales have swapped one New Zealander for another as Wayne Pivac attempts to fill the big shoes vacated by Warren Gatland, France have turned to former captain Fabien Galthié and Italy's interim head coach Franco Smith has been handed the top job, for now, which leaves Ireland and promotion from assistant coach for Andy Farrell.
Andy Robinson (Romania) and Patrice Lagisquet (Portugal) will also be making their coaching debut in the Rugby Europe Championship, and this year's competition will be the first without Milton Haig at the helm of Georgia in eight seasons. The defending champions are being led on a caretaker basis by the former defence coach under Haig, Levan Maisashvili.
Whether there is as much fluidity in the rankings as there has been recently on the coaching front remains to be seen but there is the potential for plenty of movement for many of the competing nations this weekend.
Three teams – Wales, Ireland and France – could end the weekend in fourth, while a record-equalling fifth is within Scotland's grasp. As for the Rugby Europe Championship, Spain have a historic high of 15th in their sights, while a big win for Romania over Georgia will take them above the Lelos in the rankings for the first time in more than six years.
Ready for the 2020 Championship yet? 😊 pic.twitter.com/jz6HrhDPzA— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) January 30, 2020
WALES (4) v ITALY (12) (Saturday)
Played: 27 – Wales leads 24-2 with one draw
Points scored: Wales 912 / Italy 436
Average score: Wales 33-16 Italy
First meeting: 12 October, 1994 – Wales 29-19 Italy (Cardiff Arms Park)
Most recent meeting: 9 February, 2019 – Wales 26-15 Italy (Stadio Olimpico, Rome)
Six Nations 2019 finishing positions: Wales (Champions, Grand Slam winners), Italy (sixth)
George North lines up at centre for only the fifth time in his international career in a backline featuring uncapped Scarlets player Johnny McPhillips. Centre Nick Tompkins is also set to make his debut if called upon from the bench. There is also a welcome return to a Welsh jersey for number eight Taulupe Faletau, who makes his first appearance for his country since 2018 following a succession of injuries. Alun Wyn Jones leads out the team.
Italy have also elected for an experimental midfield. Carlo Canna starts his first test at centre, having made all 17 previous starts with number 10 on his back, which allows Tommaso Allan to continue where he left off as the Azzurri's starting fly-half at RWC 2019. Second-row Alessandro Zanni wins his 118th cap as he closes in on Martin Castrogiovanni in second place in Italy's all-time appearance list behind Sergio Parisse. Zanni's Benetton team-mate Niccolo Cannone wins his first cap, while another international rookie is named on the bench in the shape of Zebre prop Danilo Fischetti. Matteo Minozzi returns at full-back, two years after being nominated for the Player of the Championship award following five electrifying performances.
- The sides have met in the opening round of the Six Nations on three occasions, with Italy claiming victory back in 2003 before a pair of Welsh wins in 2014 (23-15) and 2017 (33-7)
- Wales have won the last 13 meetings between the teams since a 23-20 win for the Azzurri at the Stadio Flaminio back in March 2007; Alun Wyn Jones is the only survivor from the Wales team that lost that day
- Wales are unbeaten in 14 home fixtures against Italy, winning 13 and drawing one: 18-18 in March 2006
- Wales’ average winning margin at home against Italy is 22 points
- One more win would see Wales equal their best-ever run in the Guinness Six Nations, notching eight wins on the bounce - something they managed between 2007 and 2009 - a run which featured a Grand Slam.
- Italy are on a record run of 22 consecutive matches without a win in the Championship dating from March 2015
- Italy have collected the wooden spoon in 14 of the 20 Championships they have competed in
- The record number of tries scored by Italy in a single Championship is 12 (2003 and 2018)
- Of the six Wales head coaches to have had the role on a permanent basis in the professional era, three have started their reigns with wins (Warren Gatland, Mike Ruddock and Kevin Bowring)
- George North failed to score in last year’s 26-15 win in Rome but has eight tries from eight starts against Italy, one short of Shane Williams’ record
- With no rating points awarded to them for a win, Wales cannot climb any higher
- Defeat for Wales – in tandem with an Ireland win – would see them drop to fifth
- Wales will drop another place to sixth if France also beat England by more than 15
- Italy cannot improve their position, even with a win by more than 15 points, as they trail Fiji by nearly four rating points
IRELAND (5) v SCOTLAND (9) (Saturday)
Played: 136 – Scotland leads 67-64 with five draws
Points scored: Ireland 1,574 / Scotland 1,431
Average score: Ireland 11-10 Scotland
First meeting: 19 February, 1877 – Ireland 0-0 Scotland (Ormeau, Belfast)
Most recent meeting: 22 September, 2019 – RWC 2019 – Ireland 27-3 Scotland (Yokohama, Japan)
Six Nations 2019 finishing positions: Ireland (third), Scotland (fifth)
Andy Farrell has picked uncapped number eight Caelan Doris for his first match in charge, while Ronan Kelleher is in line to make his debut off the bench at hooker. Jonathan Sexton captains the side from fly-half, outside Connor Murray, with in-form Ulster scrum-half John Cooney having to settle for a place on the bench. By and large, Farrell has opted for continuity in his selection with 13 of the 15 players who started the Rugby World Cup 2019 pool victory over Scotland in Yokohama included. Rob Herring replaces retired hooker Rory Best, while Peter O’Mahony is benched.
Nick Haining wins his first cap for Scotland alongside Edinburgh team-mates Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie. Haining, who can play second row or back row, is named at number eight in a side led by Scotland's new captain, full-back Stuart Hogg. Rory Sutherland wins his fourth cap at loose-head and his first since 2016, while Huw Jones returns to the midfield after missing out on RWC 2019. Stuart Cummings makes his first Championship start in the second row.
- The Six Nations head-to-head is all-square at 60 wins each so whoever comes out in top this weekend will take the lead
- Ireland have won 11 of the last 15 contests and 19 of the last 25 meetings in all competitions since the turn of the Millennium in 2000
- Scotland have not won in Dublin since 2010, and that 23-20 victory came at Croke Park; that remains their only victory in the Irish capital in the Six Nations era
- Scotland were slow starters in last year’s Championship, conceding 42 per cent of their points in the opening quarter
- Nearly two-thirds of Ireland 14 tries originated from lineout possession
- Johnny Sexton has a 100 per cent record as captain, having won his only test match in charge – the 35-0 win over Russia at RWC 2019
- Ireland cannot climb from fifth unless they win, and Wales lose to lower-ranked Italy
- Scotland will climb above their RWC 2019 conquerors Japan in victory – and France if Les Bleus also lose to England
- Scotland could match their highest ranking of fifth if they win by more than 15 points and France lose at home to England
- Ireland would fall to seventh in this instance
FRANCE (7) v ENGLAND (3) (Sunday)
Played: 105 – England leads 58-40 with seven draws
Points scored: France 1,336 / England 1,702
Average score: France 10-16 England
First meeting: 23 March, 1906 – England 35-8 France (Parc des Princes, Paris)
Most recent meeting: 10 February, 2019 – England 44-8 France (Twickenham)
Six Nations 2019 finishing positions: France (fourth), England (second)
Fabien Galthié has named two starting debutants in his first Six Nations selection. The Montpellier pair of tight-head prop Mohamed Haouas and full-back Anthony Bouthier are both included in Les Bleus’ XV, while there could be a further two new caps off the bench, with Racing 92 second-row Boris Palu and Bordeaux back-row Cameron Woki named among the replacements. Also among the replacements is the exciting 21-year-old fly-half Matthieu Jalibert, who hasn’t played since suffering a serious knee injury in a collision with Bundee Aki on his France debut against Ireland in the 2018 Six Nations.
Goerge Furbank's fine form for Northampton is rewarded with a first cap at full-back in a back-three missing the injured Anthony Watson. Tom Curry, shortlisted for the World Rugby Men's 15s Player of the Year 2019 award, packs down at number eight for the first time in his career in a back row featuring Courtney Lawes and Sam Underhill. Lawes' spot in the second row is taken by Bath's Charlie Ewels
- In France, Les Bleus have 27 wins to England’s 23 with two draws
- England’s highest score at the Stade de France is 31 points (Mar 2016)
- England’s 44-8 win in the 2019 Championship was their second biggest in history, falling short of the record winning margin (37-0) set in 1914 by one point
- In the last five fixtures in Paris, France have scored between 22 and 26 points
- England need one try to reach 300 in Six Nations history
- England scored 24 tries last season – 10 more than the next best (Ireland and Scotland)
- Forty per cent of France’s points were scored in the final quarter in last year’s Championship
- Jonny May has scored five tries in six starts v France. Only the pre-WW1 duo, Arthur Hudson and Douglas Lambert, have scored more
- Eddie Jones has won 40 of his 52 matches in charge of England, a success rate of 77% (including two Barbarians non-capped games); Fabien Galthie takes charge of Les Bleus for the first time
- England cannot climb any higher than their present position of third
- They also are guaranteed to remain in third with a defeat by more than 15 points
- France will move about Australia into sixth with victory
- It is possible for France to climb as high as fourth, but this would need them to beat England by more than 15 points and both Wales and Ireland lose at home
- France will fall one place if they lose and Scotland beat Ireland in Dublin
RUGBY EUROPE CHAMPIONSHIP
RUSSIA (20) v SPAIN (16) (Saturday)
Played: 22 – Russia leads 16-6
Points scored: Russia 627 / Spain 487
Average score: Russia 28-22 Spain
First meeting: 10 April, 1994 – Russia 16-9 Spain (Ciudad Universitaria, Madrid)
Most recent meeting: 10 February, 2019 – Spain 16-14 Russia (Estadio Central, Madrid)
REC 2019 finishing position: Russia (fourth), Spain (second)
Number eight Victor Gresev becomes only the second Russian player behind Yury Kushnarev to reach 100 tests for the Bears, while second-row Andrey Garbuzov will only be one test away from joining him in the centurion club as he prepares to run out for the 99th time. A hamstring injury has deprived Russia of the services of Tagir Gadzhiev, one of the standout performers at Rugby World Cup 2019, and he is replaced on the openside by Vitaliy Zhivatov. Full-back Vasily Artemyev retains the captain's armband.
Veteran Brad Linklater, 34, makes his first start at fly-half since November 2015 as Spain look to continue their good recent record against Russia at the Fisht Olympic Stadium. Gautier Gibouin and Thibaut Alvarez return to Los Leones' ranks for the first time in two years, while El Salvador prop Matthew Smith is in line to make his debut from the bench.
- Spain are on a three-game winning run against Russia
- The sides have been separated by seven points or less in the last four meetings
- Spain have won their last seven matches in all competitions dating back to their 24-10 loss to Georgia in last year's REC
- Spain were runners-up in 2019, their best finish since 2012
- Russia have gone 316 minutes without scoring a try
- Russia will remain in 20th whatever the outcome of the match is in Sochi
- Spain can only improve their position – to a new high of 15th – if they win by more than 15 points and Georgia lose by the same margin to Romania
- Spain will drop two or three places, depending on margin of defeat and result in Tbilisi
PORTUGAL (24) v BELGIUM (27) (Saturday)
Played: 14 – Portugal leads 9-3 with two draws
Points scored: Portugal 210 / Belgium 164
Average score: Portugal 15-11 Belgium
First meeting: 24 April, 1966 – Belgium 3-3 Portugal (Brussels)
Most recent meeting: 20 May, 2017 – Belgium 29-18 Portugal (Stade Roi Baudouin, Brussels)
REC 2019 finishing positions: Portugal (DNP - Rugby Europe Trophy winners), Belgium (fifth)
Portugal team yet to be announced
Belgium name three uncapped players in their starting XV as they go in search of a rare win in Lisbon. Lucas de Coninck makes his first appearance on the blindside, while in the backs Ryan Godsmark is handed the fly-half duties and Gaspard Lalli lines up on the left wing. There is still plenty of experience in the Black Devils team, though, as hooker Thomas Dienst and full-back Alan Williams both have a half-century of caps apiece.
- Portugal have won their last three home matches against Belgium
- Belgium's last win in Lisbon was in 1987 (13-7)
- Neither side has scored 30 points or more in any of the past 14 encounters
- Belgium are on a five-match losing streak and haven't won away from home since defeating Poland 21-11 in 2016
- Portugal won their only Rugby Europe Championship title in 2003
- Portugal will climb above Namibia and Canada if they win their first match back in the Rugby Europe Championship
- A win by more than 15 points will also lift them above Hong Kong into 21st
- Belgium will remain in 27th with any margin of defeat
- Portugal will drop below the Netherlands in defeat but also Brazil and Belgium if they lose by more than 15 points
GEORGIA (14) v ROMANIA (19) (Saturday)
Played: 23 – Georgia leads 13-9 with one draw
Points scored: Georgia 435 / Romania 381
Average score: Georgia 18-16 Romania
First meeting: 18 November, 1998 – Romania 27-23 Georgia (Lansdowne Road, Dublin, Ireland)
Most recent meeting: 9 February, 2019 – Georgia 18-9 Romania (Cluj Arena, Cluj)
REC 2019 finishing positions: Georgia (Champions), Romania (third)
Vasil Lobzhanidze wins his 50th cap for the Lelos at the tender age of 23, less than five years after he became the youngest player to appear at a Rugby World Cup. Lobzhanidze achieved the record when he took to the field against Tonga at RWC 2015, at the age of 18 years and 340 days. He is included in a vastly experienced line-up boasting 648 caps and has Biarritz team-mate and another player born in the 1990s, Tedo Abzhandadze at his side. Georgia's most-capped player, centre Davit Kacharava, makes his 120th test appearance, while full-back Lasha Khmaladze clocks up his 80th.
Scrum-half Florin Surugiu captain's Romania for the first time on the occaison of his 82nd cap. The Oaks' record points scorer, Florin Vlaicu, joins him in the backline as he wins cap number 121. Dragos Ser makes his debut at openside and second-row Ionut Muresan makes only his second start, while there are plenty of fresh faces on the bench in Andy Robinson's first selection as the side's head coach.
- Georgia and Romania have won the last 13 titles between them (Georgia 10, Romania three)
- Georgia are bidding for a third consecutive Grand Slam
- Georgia are on a 28-match winning run at home in the competition dating back over 10 years
- Romania have failed to score more than 16 points in the last 10 meetings
- Romania's last win on Georgian soil came in 2003 when they won 19-6 in Tbilisi
- Georgia have only lost one match (eight wins, one draw) in last 10 matches v Romania
- Georgia will climb above Tonga if they begin their title defence with a victory
- Romania cannot fall from 19th even with a heavy defeat
- Georgia will drop below Samoa with a narrow defeat – but could drop as low as 17th in event of a loss by more than 15 points and Spanish win by same margin
- A win by more than 15 points would see Romania become the higher-ranked of the nations for the first time since November 2013
- Romania could go as high as 15th – for the first time in nearly two years – if they win by this margin and Spain triumph by 15 or less in Russia
The World Rugby Men's Rankings update every Monday at 12:00 GMT.