A potentially explosive clash awaits as England and Wales get this year's tournament underway in Cardiff on Friday evening, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
WALES vs ENGLAND (Friday, 22:05pm, SuperSport 1)
There's a lot riding on this one. Not just for the outcome of the competition at hand, but also for what still lies ahead in 2015. Friday's meeting will be the last between these teams before they clash at Twickenham on 26 September in the pool stage of the World Cup. The stakes couldn't be higher.
A clash between these bitter rivals will always have a bit of spice, but with the added element of an impending World Cup, this one could reach boiling point. The Millennium Stadium, roof or no roof, is an intimidating venue and one that many teams have failed to cope with in the past. On their last visit to Cardiff, the English were overawed, going down 30-3 in the face of a fierce onslaught from the Dragons.
Wales coach Warren Gatland has been able to call on many of the players who did duty that day, naming a settled starting XV for the encounter. He has made just two changes from the side that beat South Africa 23-6 in November. George North has been restored on the wing, while Richard Hibbard starts as hooker.
In stark contrast, England will field a new-look side at the Millennium Stadium. Only nine players remain in the starting XV from their last outing – a victory against Australia at Twickenham. The most notable changes have come in the midfield, where the in-form Jonathan Joseph and Luther Burrell will form yet another centre partnership.
For Joseph it will be a first ever Six Nations match, with Anthony Watson, George Ford, Dave Attwood and George Kruis also getting their first taste of the competition. Danny Cipriani and Nick Easter have been recalled and will provide support from the bench.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Wales 56, England 57, Draw 12
In Cardiff: Wales 36, England 20, Draw 4
Wales – 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun Wyn-Jones, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Subs: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Paul James, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Luke Charteris, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Liam Williams.
England – 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 George Kruis, 4 Dave Attwood, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Subs: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Tom Croft, 20 Nick Easter, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.
ITALY vs IRELAND (Saturday, 4:30pm, SuperSport 1)
The defending champions get their campaign underway with a tricky trip to Rome to face the Azzurri. They'll be looking to avoid the fate that befell the last Irish side to visit the city, when an injury-plagued team went down 22-15 in front of a fervent home crowd.
This year's incarnation are not without a few injury absentees of their own, as senior trio Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip and Jonathan Sexton have all failed to make the trip. Flanker Sean O'Brien has been rushed back into Test action, while Ireland will be looking to Ian Keatley to fill the void left by World Rugby Player of the Year nominee Sexton.
Italy will be hoping to put last year's disappointing campaign behind them. They failed to pick up a Six Nations win, while their victory over Samoa was their sole success during a miserable year. Coach Jacques Brunel has named an experienced side, boasting 660 Test caps among them. Martin Castrogiovanni, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Matias Aguero are expected to put pressure on the Irish scrum while, in captain Sergio Parisse, the Italians have one of the form players in European rugby.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Italy 4, Ireland 19
In Italy: Italy 3, Ireland 6
Italy – 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Luca Morisi, 11 Luke McLean, 10 Kelly Haimona, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Francesco Minto, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 George Biagi, 4 Joshua Furno, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Matias Aguero.
Subs: 16 Andrea Manici, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 Marco Fuser, 20 Marco Barbini, 21 Gulgielmo Palazzani, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Giovanbattista Venditti.
Ireland – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Jack McGrath.
Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 James Cronin, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Tommy O'Donnell, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones.
FRANCE vs SCOTLAND (Saturday, 19:00, SuperSport 1)
Scotland have experienced something of a renaissance under the guidance of coach Vern Cotter. Since signing on following yet another disappointing Six Nations campaign, the New Zealander has masterminded two victories over Argentina, while their narrow loss to the All Blacks suggests there is more to come from this side.
They'll head to Paris on Saturday confident of ending 16-year drought in the French capital. The hosts remain a work in progress, as exhibited by their results during the November Tests. Following good wins over Fiji and the Wallabies, the French were lethargic and uninspired in their defeat to Argentina. Coach Philippe Saint-André needs to find answers, and fast.
Teddy Thomas and Scott Spedding will get the opportunity to build on some good performances on their Six Nations debut, as will Rory Kockott, whose selection has been met with strong resistance in France.
Scotland will field a similarly settled team, with the return of Euan Murray and a start for Mark Bennett their only changes from the team that impressed in November.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: France 50, Scotland 34, Draw 3
In France: France 30, Scotland 22, Draw 1
France – 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Teddy Thomas, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Rory Kockott, 8 Bernard le Roux, 7 Damien Chouly, 6 Thierry Dusautoir, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Alexandre Menini.
Subs: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Eddy Ben Arous, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Morgan Parra, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Rémi Lamerat.
Scotland – 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Alasdair Dickinson.
Subs: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Alasdair Strokosch, 21 Sam Hidaldo-Clyne, 22 Peter Horne, 23 Dougie Fife.
Photo: Tommy Hindley/Getty Images