Bledisloe Cup rivals Australia and New Zealand are among the teams in action this weekend as a packed period of international rugby gets underway.
Rugby World Cup 2019 hosts Japan welcome the Wallabies to Oita for what should be an enthralling test match while the All Blacks are in the USA for the first time in five years, to face the Eagles.
With Rugby Europe tournaments also continuing, there should be plenty of action to keep fans of international rugby occupied.
Ahead of the weekend, we take a look at five things to keep an eye on.
A new dawn for Japan?
Pieter Labuschagne will lead out Japan for the first time as permanent captain in Oita, having taken over from Michael Leitch ahead of the end-of-year internationals.
Labuschagne won each of his three appearances as interim captain – including the famous 19-12 defeat of Ireland at RWC 2019 – and he will be keen to maintain that impressive record.
Leitch, Japan’s second-most capped skipper, has been relieved of the leadership duties by coach Jamie Joseph in a bid to enhance his chances of playing at Rugby World Cup 2023.
The back-row forward has been selected on the replacements’ bench for the match against Australia, with debutant Ben Gunter handed the number six jersey he has worn with distinction for so long.
Gunter is one of two Brave Blossom players who will make their test debut against the country of their birth. His Panasonic Wild Knights team-mate Jack Cornelsen, son of former Wallaby Greg, will also start for Japan, in the second row.
On-form Wallabies hope to fire in Oita
The Wallabies return to the site of their RWC 2019 quarter-final defeat to England hoping to continue their fine recent form under coach Dave Rennie.
So far in 2021, Australia have secured a series win against France and beat both South Africa and Argentina twice to finish second in the Rugby Championship.
Quade Cooper will continue in the number 10 jersey following an impressive return to the international arena, but Rennie is without the injured Samu Kerevi or Marika Koroibete, who opted to stay at home after the birth of his third child.
Hunter Paisami, who made his debut in the 16-16 draw with New Zealand 12 months ago, has been selected in midfield while Tom Wright is preferred to Jordan Petaia on the left wing.
Australia have not lost to Japan in five previous meetings, although only two players – captain Michael Hooper and Reece Hodge – remain from the last team to face the Brave Blossoms in 2017. The Wallabies won 63-30 on that occasion as Hodge kicked 19 points.
Birth of a new trophy
International rugby is home to a plethora of trophies. For example, Australia and New Zealand contest the Bledisloe Cup, England and Scotland the Calcutta Cup while Georgia and Romania compete for the Antim Cup.
But on Saturday a new trophy will come into existence when the USA take on the All Blacks at FedEx Field in Washington, DC with the inaugural 1874 Cup on the line.
Named in honour of the year in which rugby was first played in the USA – a collegiate match between McGill and Harvard University – the 1874 Cup “celebrates the long and ever-growing history the United States has with the game”.
Although the teams first met in California in 1913, Saturday’s meeting will only be the fourth time the Eagles have faced the All Blacks.
The visitors have won each of the previous three matches between the sides, winning the most recent encounter 74-6 in Chicago in 2014.
USA, New Zealand attempt to bounce back
The 1874 Cup offers both the USA and the All Blacks an immediate opportunity to regain some confidence following defeat in their previous match.
Hosts USA suffered a second-leg loss to Uruguay in their Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification play-off two weeks ago that cost them a place in Pool A in France, alongside New Zealand.
The Eagles now face a two-legged Americas 2 play-off against Chile and will hope to put a smile back on the faces of their fans with an improved performance in front of what should be a bumper crowd in Washington.
New Zealand, meanwhile, lost to a late Elton Jantjies penalty against South Africa at the beginning of the month. Although already confirmed as Rugby Championship winners prior to defeat to the world champions, the All Blacks will be keen to get back to winning ways.
Many of the visiting squad will also want to put in a good performance to honour the memory of Sean Wainui, who died when his car hit a tree on Monday. Codie Taylor broke down on Tuesday when discussing how Wainui’s death had impacted on the players, many of whom were team-mates of the Maori All Blacks and former Crusaders and Chiefs player.
Rugby Europe Trophy continues
The Rugby Europe Trophy 2021-22 continues on Saturday when Ukraine visit Lithuania.
Ukraine narrowly lost their opening match of the campaign, 27-24 against Poland at the Yunist Stadium in Lviv two weekends ago.
As they attempt to get their challenge back on track, they will not be keen to run into Donatas Vilimavicius in Siauliai.
On their previous visit to Lithuania, Ukraine outscored their hosts two tries to one, but it was Vilimavicius’ boot that proved decisive. The fly-half kicked 17 points to help secure a 22-12 victory for his country.