With less than 12 months to go until the 2019 World Cup, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales get their first taste of autumn international rugby on Saturday.
Players will be determined to prove themselves worthy of that flight to Japan, which should make for some thrilling games this weekend in Cardiff, London and Chicago.
Wales to win by 1-10 points @ 31/20
All the action kicks off at 2.45pm on Saturday as Scotland head to the Principality Stadium to face Wales in the inaugural Doddie Weir Cup.
The Scots have found Cardiff to be an unhappy hunting ground as their last success in the Welsh capital was back in 2002.
With the game falling outside of the international window, exiled players plying their trades in foreign lands are unavailable but that does give up-and-coming stars the chance to impress.
For Wales, Luke Morgan will earn his first cap on the wing, while Gareth Anscombe is given a rare start at fly-half.
Anscombe’s battle with Scotland fly-half Adam Hastings should be an intriguing one, with both players determined to impress their respective head coaches.
With the Scots only having two professional teams, they will be missing a number of big names who play in other leagues.
Greig Laidlaw, Finn Russell and Sean Maitland are three players that will be missing from the Scotland back-line along with injured full-back Stuart Hogg.
Head coach Gregor Townsend has been vocal about the disappointment he had in his side’s last visit to Cardiff after they suffered a 34-7 defeat in their opening game of the Six Nations.
Loose play and costly errors ultimately made the Scots pay in what was an uncharacteristic performance from a side which went on to beat France, England and Italy in the tournament.
Away games have been the real Achilles’ heel for the Scots in recent years and Wales boss Warren Gatland has named a strong side for this one.
Gatland has been particularly pleased with comments from the Scotland camp that they got their preparation wrong for their last trip to the Welsh capital.
The Kiwi tactician feels his side should have been given more credit for their performance, so that should add to what will already be a pretty feisty encounter between the two Celtic nations.
The Welsh should have enough to win this game on home soil but it might not be as one-sided as their encounter earlier this year, so Wales by 1-10 points could be the way to go.
England to win with -3.5 handicap @ 4/5
Eddie Jones’ England had a Six Nations to forget earlier this year but they have a chance to get back on track against new-look South Africa on Saturday.
The Red Rose only finished above Italy in the 2018 Six Nations and followed that up by a series defeat to the Springboks over the summer.
This international window won’t have any effect on the England as only players playing in the Gallagher Premiership are picked anyway.
However, this does not work so well for the Boks and none of their European-based players have been selected.
South Africa have announced a side with seven changes to the starting XV which started against New Zealand three weeks ago, so that will play into England’s hands.
The Boks did manage a remarkable victory over the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship this year and will be serious contenders when the World Cup rolls around.
However, they will be missing many of those players that stared in Wellington and gave the reigning world champions one of their biggest shocks in years.
As for the English, the determination to get back to winning ways at Twickenham will be strong and, with Owen Farrell back in the number 10 jersey, the Saracens star should be able to guide the hosts to victory.
England’s new back-row might be a bit of a concern, with the likes of Billy Vunipola and Chris Robshaw both absent.
There were hopes to see Manu Tuilagi back in an England jersey but after initially being named on the bench for Saturday, he has been replaced by the returning winger Chris Ashton.
Again, this could be a fairly tight game in London but England look a good price on the handicap and should be able to get the job done.
Italy to win with +29.5 handicap @ 4/5
Saturday throws up a unique encounter as Ireland and Italy prepare to do battle at Soldier Field in Chicago.
The venue will certainly hold happy memories for the Irish as it was the scene of their one and only victory over New Zealand back in 2016.
As for Italy, they will be looking to make incredible memories of their own as they prepare for the trip Stateside, hoping to continue their development under Irish coach Conor O’Shea.
This will not be the same Ireland that demolished all before them in the last Six Nations on the way to the Grand Slam.
Firstly, captain and vice-captain, Rory Best and Jonathan Sexton, have both been rested for the trip to the United States, with the duo set to feature in the highly-anticipated showdown with the All Blacks next week.
Munster playmaker Joey Carbery has been handed a rare start at fly-half and will be eager to catch the eye of head coach Joe Schmidt and prove he is worthy of the back-up spot behind Sexton.
Not enough can be said for the influence Leinster star Sexton has on the way Ireland play and that could allow a new-look Italy to make this a slightly closer game than the handicap would suggest.
O’Shea does have a number of new faces in his side and Ireland should win comfortably. However, Italy might just be able to make it close enough to fall on the right side of the handicap.
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