In just one month’s time players from Ireland and Wales will run out onto the Aviva Stadium pitch to get the men’s Six Nations 2022 under way.
Predicted to be one of the closest Championships in living memory, Wales face a stern challenge as they attempt to defend the title they won in 2021.
England, France and Ireland were each unbeaten during the end-of-year test window, while Scotland continued their progress and Italy beat the in-form Uruguay.
Ahead of the return of the Championship we have gone through the fixture schedule and picked out five matches that you will want to mark on your calendar.
Ireland v Wales, Aviva Stadium, 5 February (kick-off: 14:15 GMT)
This year’s tournament should begin with a bang as defending champions Wales take on Ireland, one of the world’s in-form teams, at the Aviva Stadium.
Wales endured a mixed end to 2021 as they lost to New Zealand and South Africa before beating Fiji and Australia, and they have not tasted victory in Dublin since 2015.
Justin Tipuric scored Wales’ only try in that 16-10 win seven years ago and the flanker could yet return from injury in time to bolster Wayne Pivac’s back-row options.
Ireland beat Wales twice in Dublin in 2020 – 24-14 in that year’s Six Nations and then 32-9 in the Autumn Nations Cup – but were undone by tries from George North and Louis Rees-Zammit in Cardiff 11 months ago.
Andy Farrell’s side ended 2021 on an eight-match unbeaten run, which included defeats of England, Scotland and New Zealand, and the hosts will hope to launch their own Championship challenge in 2022 following three successive third-place finishes.
France v Ireland, Stade de France, 12 February (KO: 16:45 GMT)
Ireland face a tough start as they bid to win a first Championship in four years. Having hosted Wales on the opening weekend, the team ranked fourth in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini then head to Paris in round two.
France finished second behind Wales in 2021, having denied Pivac’s men a Grand Slam but followed up victory with defeat to Scotland in their postponed fixture against Scotland.
Les Bleus ended 2021 on a high, beating the All Blacks 40-25 at the Stade de France to make it three wins from three in November.
But the hosts have won only two of their previous six encounters with the Irish in Paris since 2012. The sides drew 17-17 that year, and Ireland have gone on to win three of the next five.
Their last meeting in Paris came in October 2020, when current World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year Antoine Dupont set Les Bleus on their way to a 35-27 victory.
Scotland v France, Murrayfield, 26 February (KO: 14:15 GMT)
By round three, which follows the first fallow week, we should have a better idea of which teams remain in the hunt for the Championship.
Scotland made strides on the pitch last year, ending long winless runs in London and Paris but paying the price for narrow home defeats to Ireland and champions Wales.
In 2022, Gregor Townsend and his team will want to turn improved performances and results into a charge up the Six Nations table, however, and a fifth victory in six against Les Bleus at Murrayfield would certainly help.
Not least as Scotland face an unenviable start, with the France fixture coming on the back of an opening match against England in Edinburgh and a trip to face Wales in Cardiff.
Whatever the state of play in the Championship by the time that Les Bleus rock up at Murrayfield, the thought of Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg, Duhan van der Merwe and Co. taking on a team containing Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Damian Penaud should set pulses racing.
England v Ireland, Twickenham, 12 March (KO: 16:45 GMT)
Ireland ended their Six Nations 2021 campaign with a 32-18 defeat of England at the Aviva Stadium that arguably could have been bigger had it not been for Bundee Aki’s second-half red card.
Victory was Ireland’s first against England in five attempts and although it had little bearing on the final Championship table, the form of the two teams since suggests they will be in the hunt for this year’s title.
England finished a disappointing fifth in last year’s Six Nations, but the Rugby World Cup 2019 finalists have since embarked on a five-match winning run, which included a modicum of revenge against Webb Ellis Cup holders South Africa.
With the likes of Marcus Smith and Freddie Steward bedding into Eddie Jones’ team, and growing in confidence on the international stage, during an unbeaten November, England will be keen to improve this time around.
One of two home matches on the schedule in 2022, England will know victory is essential if they are to travel to Paris on the final weekend with any hope of regaining the Championship title. Ireland, meanwhile, will want to spoil the party.
France v England, Stade de France, 19 March (KO: 20:00 GMT)
Arguably the biggest match of this year’s Championship has been saved for last as France and England headline Super Saturday in Paris on 19 March.
Whether it is a shootout for the title will largely depend on the sides’ away form, as Les Bleus face trips to Edinburgh and Cardiff in rounds three and four respectively, while England open with away days in Scotland and Italy.
England hold the upper hand in the fixture in recent times, winning seven of the last 10 meetings between the sides. That run dates back to the final match of the 2015 Championship, when Ben Youngs and Jack Nowell each scored a brace of tries in a 55-35 victory for the hosts at Twickenham.
France, though, have been on an upward trajectory under Fabien Galthié. Les Bleus won ‘Le Crunch’ the last time it was played in Paris, during the 2020 Six Nations, and the two defeats the team suffered subsequently in the fixture were each by just three points.
The next installment of the rivalry, which could pit Smith against Ntamack for the first time on the test stage, promises to be one not to be missed.