The Six Nations returns this weekend with Ireland looking to extend their perfect run and boost hopes of a Grand Slam swoop. They face second-placed Scotland in a key clash on Sunday, who have surprised many so far in the tournament with eye-catching displays spearheaded by the box-office Finn Russell.
England, gradually improving under Steve Borthwick, face holders France as both sides look to recover from earlier blips to mount a charge towards the top of the standings. Les Bleus surprisingly sit fourth in the Six Nations standings heading into the weekend's slate of fixtures, and whoever comes off worse in the match will likely see their tournament dwindle to an uneventful conclusion.
After their third successive loss in the tournament, Wales boss Warren Gatland said: "The last thing you want to do is get the wooden spoon do you?"
That is exactly what is to play for this weekend.
Wales face Italy on Saturday with the loser looking set to finish at the bottom of the table. Despite Kieran Crowley's side showing encouraging signs of improvement, they have only chalked up one point so far. Wales, meanwhile, have zero points from their three games as their ongoing contract dispute with the Welsh Rugby Union continues to overshadow their tournament.
Italy vs. Wales, Saturday March 11, 2.15 p.m. GMT, Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Scrum-half Rhys Webb will make his first start for Wales this year in their clash with Italy, while fly-half Dan Biggar has been ruled out with a back injury as coach Warren Gatland goes for broke in the crunch game in Rome.
Webb will partner No.10 Owen Williams, while rookie centres Mason Grady and Joe Hawkins continue their partnership, and Rio Dyer is on the wing. The latter four have only 15 test caps between them.
"We're trying to get a handle on where we are and what we have to do," Gatland told reporters. "For a number of players, this could be their last year in a Wales jersey so there has to be that transition going forward."
Meanwhile, Tommaso Allan will play at fullback for Italy, taking over from the injured Ange Capuozzo, whose loss for the remainder of the competition is a bitter blow for coach Kieran Crowley.
It is the only change from the side that won praise in their 34-20 loss to Ireland last time out, and the first time regular fly-half Allan starts at fullback for the Italians.
Italy: Tommaso Allan; Edoardo Padovani, Juan Ignacio Brex, Tommaso Menoncello, Pierre Bruno; Paolo Garbisi, Stephen Varney; Danilo Fischetti, Giacomo Nicotera, Simone Ferrari, Niccolo Cannone, Federico Ruzza, Sebastian Negri, Michele Lamaro (captain), Lorenzo Cannone.
Replacements: Luca Bigi, Federico Zani, Marco Riccione, Edoardo Iachizzi, Giovanni Pettinelli, Manuel Zuliani, Alessandro Fusco, Luca Morisi.
Wales: Liam Williams; Josh Adams, Mason Grady, Joe Hawkins, Rio Dyer; Owen Williams, Rhys Webb; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens (captain), Tomas Francis, Dafydd Jenkins, Adam Beard, Jac Morgan, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Scott Baldwin, Gareth Thomas, Dillon Lewis, Rhys Davies, Tommy Reffell, Tomos Williams, George North, Louis Rees-Zammit.
England vs. France, Saturday March 11, 4.45 p.m. GMT, Twickenham, London
England captain Owen Farrell has been dropped for their Six Nations clash against reigning champions France with coach Steve Borthwick making the bold decision to start Marcus Smith at fly-half.
Farrell, who has 104 caps and has been England captain since 2019, drops to the bench with prop Ellis Genge set to lead an otherwise unchanged team that beat Wales 20-10 in Cardiff in the previous round.
"The players selected to face our visitors are again a reflection of what I see to be the right balance of personnel for the challenge we face in this game," Borthwick said.
"Marcus Smith starts at flyhalf and Dave Ribbans returns to the matchday 23," he added, dispensing with the twin playmaker role that former coach Eddie Jones had hoped would come good.
Meanwhile, France centre Jonathan Danty will make his comeback after being named in the starting lineup on Thursday.
Danty, who had suffered a serious knee injury, is back earlier than expected and is "red hot" for the Test, coach Fabien Galthie told a news conference. Danty will pair up with Gael Fickou, pushing Yoram Moefana to the bench for Saturday's clash.
France have not won at Twickenham in the Six Nations since beating England 21-15 in 2007.
England: Freddie Freddie Steward, Max Malins, Henry Slade, Ollie Lawrence, Anthony Watson, Marcus Smith, Jack van Poortvliet, Ellis Genge (captain), Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Ollie Chessum, Lewis Ludlam, Jack Willis, Alex Dombrandt.
Replacements: Jack Walker, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, David Ribbans, Ben Curry, Alex Mitchell, Owen Farrell, Henry Arundell
France: Thomas Ramos, Damian Penaud, Gael Fickou, Jonathan Danty, Ethan Dumortier, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont (captain); Gregory Alldritt, Charles Ollivon, Francois Cros, Paul Willemse, Thibaud Flament, Dorian Aldegheri, Julien Marchand, Cyril Baille.
Replacements: Peato Mauvaka, Reda Wardi, Sipili Falatea, Romain Taofifenua, Sekou Macalou, Maxime Lucu, Yoram Moefana, Melvyn Jaminet.
Scotland vs. Ireland, Sunday March 12, 3 p.m. GMT, Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Ireland coach Andy Farrell will field a strong line-up for Sunday's Six Nations trip to Scotland as several players return from injury, with captain Johnny Sexton, tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong and centre Garry Ringrose fit again.
Sexton, who suffered a leg injury in the 32-19 win over France last month, missed the Six Nations leaders' victory over Italy. The 37-year-old is in line to overtake compatriot Ronan O'Gara atop the Six Nations' all-time points scorer charts.
British & Irish Lion Furlong missed the opening three games with a calf injury, while Ringrose also returns after missing the trip to Italy.
Robbie Henshaw, Jamison Gibson Park and Cian Healy, who are coming back from longer term injuries, are on the bench.
Conor Murray, who dropped to the bench for the win over Italy, has been named to the starting line-up.
Meanwhile, lock Jonny Gray and No. 8 Jack Dempsey have been drafted into the Scotland team as fullback Stuart Hogg becomes the fourth player to reach 100 caps for the side.
Coach Gregor Townsend has made two changes from the team that lost 32-21 in France last time out, with Gray to partner his brother Richie in the second row as Grant Gilchrist misses out through suspension.
Dempsey earns a first start of the championship at the back of the scrum as captain Jamie Ritchie moves to openside flanker and Matt Fagerson is on the blindside.
The front row comprises hooker George Turner, who will have props Pierre Schoeman and Zander Fagerson either side of him.
The backline remains unchanged for the fourth game in a row as Hogg reaches his century of caps having made his debut in 2012.
Ireland, who top the standings on 15 points after three matches, will hope to still be in line for a grand slam when they host England a week later in their final game.
Scotland are second with 10, ahead of England and France on points difference.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Kyle Steyn, Huw Jones, Sione Tuipulotu, Duhan van der Merwe, Finn Russell, Ben White, Pierre Schoeman, George Turner, Zander Fagerson, Richie Gray, Jonny Gray, Matt Fagerson, Jamie Ritchie, Jack Dempsey.
Replacements: Fraser Brown, Jamie Bhatti, Simon Berghan, Scott Cummings, Hamish Watson, Ali Price, Blair Kinghorn, Chris Harris.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe, Johnny Sexton (captain), Conor Murray, Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Peter O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.
Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Tom O'Toole, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Jamison Gibson Park, Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw.