Match 1: Ireland v Wales, Saturday 2.15pm
Ireland will hand a debut to Connacht winger Mack Hansen on Saturday, with his impressive form and eye for scoring tries putting him ahead of other options like Jordan Larmour, Keith Earls and another young talent, Rob Baloucoune, in the pecking order. Otherwise, it is a very familiar side that head coach Andy Farrell has gone with, as the likes of Hugo Keenan, Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Josh van der Flier will all start. Jamison Gibson-Park is preferred to Conor Murray at scrum-half, whilst Johnny Sexton will win his 102nd cap as the other half-back.
Wales have named Josh Adams at outside centre for this game (he is normally a winger), partnering Saracens’ Nick Tompkins, whilst Tomos Williams is given the nod at scrum-half ahead of Gareth Davies. The back row is made up of Ellis Jenkins, Aaron Wainwright and Taine Basham, whilst former Wasps lock Will Rowlands comes in to partner Adam Beard in the second row. Northampton Saints’ Dan Biggar will captain the team for the first time from fly-half.
Keep an eye on….
Set-pieces. These will be very interesting in this game, with both Ireland’s and Wales’ locks generally strong in the air, meaning that lineouts should be well-contested. Scrums will also be important, with the individual battle between Ireland tighthead Tadhg Furlong and Wales loosehead Wyn Jones particularly worth watching, as both are excellent at driving forwards. Having dominance over these areas of the game could be what decides, on paper at least, a close match.
Match 2: Scotland v England, Saturday 4.45pm
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend has named a strong starting XV for the opening round Calcutta Cup clash at Murrayfield, looking to get off to the best possible start. Exeter Chiefs lock Jonny Gray has recovered from injury and will partner Grant Gilchrist in the second row, whilst the successful back row combination of Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson (last year’s Player of the Tournament) and Matt Fagerson is deployed again. Ali Price and Finn Russell will add creativity from the middle, whilst Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe will provide pace and a try threat from the wings, and Gloucester’s Chris Harris will make it hard for England to break through the defence from outside centre.
Sale Sharks flanker Tom Curry will captain England for the first time when England travel to Edinburgh for Saturday’s game, and will be joined in the back row by Exeter star Sam Simmonds, who will need to be at the top of his game to ensure England take their opportunities when they arrive. Elliott Daly, normally a full-back or a winger, partners Henry Slade at centre, whilst Marcus Smith starts at fly-half alongside Leicester Tigers’ scrum-half Ben Youngs, in a mix of experience and youthfulness at half-back. Nick Isiekwe, also of Saracens, will make his return to the England setup too, starting at lock, whilst Alex Dombrandt has been named among the substitutes.
Keep an eye on….
The two fly-halves. The win in this game will rely on their kicking abilities and creativity, which will stem from the middle of the field. Marcus Smith and Finn Russell are unquestionably two of the best in the game, and their accuracy in finding spaces behind the opposition could be what forces mistakes to be made by the opposition. Maintaining control of the game could well come down to whichever 10 has the better game.
Match 3: France v Italy, Sunday 3pm
Scrum-half Antoine Dupont will captain France on Sunday, and will be joined by his regular half-back partner Romain Ntamack in the middle of the pitch. Julien Marchand will start at hooker after missing France’s win over New Zealand last autumn, and will be joined in the front row by Cyril Baille and Uini Atonio. Locks Cameron Woki and Paul Willemse have both proven to be deadly from short distances, so will carry a try threat that Italy will need to be wary of, whilst the inclusion of back rowers Anthony Jelonch and Gregory Alldritt will ensure that France can gain ground with every push forward. Key starters in the backs include the highly influential Gael Fickou, who will start at centre, and Damian Penaud, who has been in good form for Clermont on the wing.
Italy have a new look to their XV, with plenty of names left out of the squad by new head coach Kieran Crowley, including long-term captain Luca Bigi and experienced back Carlo Canna. Flanker Michele Lamaro will lead the side from the back row, where he will be joined by Sebastien Negri and Toa Halafihi, whilst the backs will carry a good amount of threat going forwards, especially winger Monty Ioane, who was arguably Italy’s best player last year.
Keep an eye on….
The two half-back partnerships. Both have developed into their country’s first-choice combinations over the last few years, so it will be interesting to see how they approach this game, as it will give us a better idea of both teams’ tactics. Stephen Varney and Paolo Garbisi are still young, at just 20 and 21 years old respectively, but have demonstrated that they can create opportunities for teammates with clever movements, whilst Dupont and Ntamack are arguably two of the best players in the world at the moment and always pose an attacking threat. Whichever of these two duos is on the best form could decide who wins this encounter, so it will be essential for them to be accurate when moving the ball around the pitch.