The 2014 Six Nations tournament kicks off this weekend with a wealth of questions waiting to be answered by Europe's titans through the only means they know how.
Though we won't find out the answers after just one round, the opening three matches promise to go some way in giving supporters a sense of exactly who will rise and who will fall over the coming seven weeks.
Wales, France and Ireland serve as hosts in their opening clashes, with a full preview of the first batch of clashes detailed ahead.
|Wales vs. Italy||Saturday, Feb. 1||2:30 p.m. GMT/9:30 a.m. ET|
|France vs. England||Saturday, Feb. 1||5 p.m. GMT/12 p.m. ET|
|Ireland vs. Scotland||Sunday, Feb. 2||3 p.m. GMT/10 a.m. ET|
Wales vs. Italy
With Sam Warburton settling for a place on the bench this Saturday before his return to full fitness, Alun-Wyn Jones has been named as Warren Gatland's captain for the visit of Italy this weekend.
Jacques Brunel's side might have a reputation for posing little threat to the Six Nations' bigger powers, but the opening win over France 12 months ago served as reason to believe that the Azzurri are finally edging closer to the level of their fellow Tier 1 rivals.
Who will win in Cardiff this weekend?
Wales don't have too much to contend with by way of injury absences, although Rhys Patchell, Ryan Jones and the suspended Ian Evans will all be missed at the Millennium Stadium.
That being said, Wales still boast a star-studded line-up, which, despite maintaining their characteristically below-par winning record in the November internationals, is capable of becoming the first team ever to win the Six Nations three years running.
The Western Mail's Simon Thomas points to Italy's poor away record as evidence to believe their hopes aren't looking good this weekend:
Italy have played 35 matches away from home in the Six Nations. They have won one of them. Stat for the day.— Simon Thomas (@simonrug) January 24, 2014
Italy will strive to scrap and spoil matters in the Welsh back line most of all. Scott Williams and Jamie Roberts are both capable of mustering their moments of magic, while the trio of George North, Alex Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny also promise to run riot against one of the competition's weaker defensive lines.
France vs. England
Though it may sound all too finite when thinking more about the long term, a defeat in Paris this weekend would have a dramatic impact on England's hopes of winning this year's tournament.
However, that's the daunting possibility that Stuart Lancaster's side have to contend with as the head coach's experimenting continues at the Stade de France.
Jack Nowell and Jonny May have both been included in the 26-man squad that travels to face Les Bleus, while the omission of Ben Youngs will also leave some heads scratching, Danny Care and Lee Dickson the two scrum-halves benefiting.
As Sky Sports announced, Chris Ashton would be the man dropping out of the squad as a result:
Chris Ashton has been dropped from the England squad for Saturday's Six Nations opener against France http://t.co/sILsKYxCkV— Sky Sports (@SkySports) January 28, 2014
One is tempted to think that it's in the centres that this matchup will be decided, however.
In Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud, Philippe Saint-Andre has two players who haven't come under the same, unending basis of rotation that other areas of the squad have. England, on the other hand, are having to settle slightly in their midfield, with no standout candidates to be looked upon as definite choices with Manu Tuilagi missing through injury.
Whichever way you call it, however, this fixture will rest entirely on which team turns up to the event, France and England both being teams with massive potential but also showing a capacity to switch off—the 2013 Six Nations providing examples for each.
Ireland vs. Scotland
Joe Schmidt's first steps as Ireland coach have been mainly positive ones, and the New Zealander can consider both him and his side unfortunate not to have ended 2013 with a morale-rocketing win over the indomitable All Blacks eight weeks ago.
Scotland may not have the same threat coming to the Aviva Stadium, but Scott Johnson's side are by no means pushovers on this occasion, either.
For the Irish, this weekend is a chance to gain redemption for the 12-8 defeat suffered at Murrayfield last year, a result that allowed the Scots to finish above Ireland in the Six Nations table.
That being said, Ireland are now a different outfit, having dealt with some of the dead weight that some saw as inhibiting the squad, Schmidt drafting in a crop of new blood in their stead.
Neither of these sides head into the tournament as particular favourites for the title, but a win in Dublin this Sunday would set the wheels in motion for a bright 2014 campaign, although it's the hosts whose deep reserves are likely to see them come out on top.