There are less than 50 days to go before the Rugby World Cup’s kick-off on 20 September and the six top-ranked teams in the world have emphasised their determination to win the Webb Ellis Trophy with their involvement in warm-up internationals this weekend.
New Zealand and Australia play in their annual Bledisloe Cup match and Argentina host South Africa in Salta in welcome matches as part of the Rugby Championship on Saturday as further warm-up opportunities, while England will try to restore some pride after their 13-23 loss in the decider of the Six Nations against Wales who will be looking to extend their record 14-match winning run in tests on Sunday (15:00).
In a fourth match featuring the world's top six, Ireland are at home to Italy. Only Argentina (10) and Italy (14) in the above matches are not among the world's leading sides.
Ireland vs Italy
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has selected an under-strength team, probably to determine which players he wants for the World Cup, for the match against Italy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin (Saturday 15:00).
Former Western Province lock Jean Kleyn will earn his first cap after being selected in Ireland’s starting side. He has been playing his rugby in Ireland since 2016.
♦ The USA also face Japan in Suva on Saturday in a clash between two unbeaten teams in the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup 2019 while old foes Fiji and Samoa meet for honour and a third place from four teams that realistically counts for nothing.
Wales will top the rankings for the first time since they were introduced in October 2003 if they win and New Zealand fail to beat Australia a day earlier
However, Wales could lose second place if they are beaten by more than 15 points and Ireland win, but cannot drop below third
England will swap places with South Africa above even if both sides win this weekend – they could climb to third if Ireland also lose to Italy.
England vs Wales
Eddie Jones is also still looking at his World Cup options with a number of unexpected selections.
He has handed debuts to two players in Gloucester scrum-half Willi Heinz and Bath speedster Ruaridh McConnochie. The latter's inclusion completes a remarkable transformation from international sevens to 15s in just one full season of top-flight rugby.
Heinz has been handed the added responsibility of vice-captain, a role he shares with openside Sam Underhill, while his half-back partner George Ford will lead England out for only the third time.
McConnochie's Bath team-mate Anthony Watson lines up on the left-wing following his recovery from a long-term injury, while Elliott Daly is named at full-back. Piers Francis and Henry Slade are Eddie Jones' chosen midfield combination.
In the pack, Ellis Genge and Luke Cowan-Dickie accompany Dan Cole in the front row, Joe Launchbury and Charlie Ewels pack down behind them and Tom Curry and Billy Vunipola join Underhill in the back row.
Northampton loose forward Lewis Ludlam and Harlequins centre Joe Marchant could make their test bows from the bench.
♦ Wales coach Warren Gatland has named a vastly experienced team for the trip to London with one test centurion and five other players with 50 caps or more to their name included in a starting line-up boasting 676 caps between them.
Thirteen of his starting team played in the Six Nations decider.
Top of the list is captain Alun Wyn Jones who plays in his 127th test for Wales – only two less than the national team record held by Gethin Jenkins – and a record 135th in total including the British and Irish Lions. Adam Beard packs down beside him in the second row.
Nicky Smith, Ken Owens and Tomas Francis make up the front-row, while the backrow consists of Dragons duo, blindside Aaron Wainwright and number eight Ross Moriarty and Ospreys openside Justin Tipuric.
Gareth Anscombe starts at fly-half, partnering Gareth Davies at half-back, with Dan Biggar providing cover on the bench. Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies unite in midfield and Josh Adams, George North and Liam Williams provide the back-three threats in a backline unchanged from their Six Nations Grand Slam clincher by 23-13.
Ireland vs Italy (Aviva Stadium)
15 Jordan Larmour, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Chris Farrell, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Joey Carbery, 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 Rhys Ruddock (captain), 5 Jean Kleyn, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Andrew Porter, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Jack McGrath. Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Cian Healy, 18 John Ryan, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Tadhg Beirne, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Jack Carty, 23 Mike Haley.
15 Edoardo Padovani, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Marco Zanon, 11 Giulio Bisegni, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Guglielmo Palazzani, 8 Jimmy Tuivaiti, 7 Maxime Mbanda, 6 Giovanni Licata, 5 Dean Budd, (captain), 4 Alessandro Zanni, 3 Marco Riccioni, 2 Oliviero Fabiani, 1 Nicola Quaglio. Replacements: 16 Federico Zani, 17 Andrea Lovotti, 18 Simone Ferrari, 19 Marco Lazzaroni, 20 Renato Giammarioli, 21 Callum Braley, 22 Ian McKinley, 23 Matteo Minozzi.
England vs Wales (Twickenham)
15 Elliot Daly, 14 Ruaridh McConnochie, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Anthony Watson, 10 George Ford (captain), 9 Willi Heinz, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Sam Underhill, 6 Tom Curry, 5 Charlie Ewels, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 1 Ellis Genge. Replacements: 16 Jack Singleton, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Harry Williams, 19 George Kruis, 20 Lewis Ludlam, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Joe Marchant, 23 Joe Cokanasiga
Liam Williams; George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams; Gareth Anscombe, Gareth Davies; Nicky Smith, Ken Owen, Tomas Francis; Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones (captain); Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty. Replacements: Elliot Dee, Wyn Jones, Dillon Lewis, Jake Ball, Aaron Shingler, Tomos Williams, Dan Biggar, Owen Watkin.