It's the beginning of the end. The Six Nations returns on Saturday after another two-week hiatus, for the penultimate round of fixtures.
It already seems like a lifetime ago that Ireland swaggered into their opening game with England, riding the crest of an unstoppable wave. We all know what followed.
A lot has happened since then, and things haven’t really gone to plan for anyone apart from one man – outgoing Wales coach Warren Gatland.
The Welsh are sitting pretty at the top of the Championship table with two rounds remaining, but the 2019 Six Nations has been an unpredictable beast and three sides remain, just about, in the title picture.
For Ireland, it has been a sobering month after they rightly entered the tournament as favourites. If you believe everything you read, Joe Schmidt's side have gone from Rugby World Cup hopefuls to hopeless in the space of four weeks.
But even if the Championship might now be tantalisingly out of reach for Ireland, they have two huge games to come against a rejuvenated France side in Dublin and a potentially Grand Slam-chasing Wales in Cardiff.
Win both of those, and all of a sudden all will be rosy once again. A fascinating endgame is in store – here is all you need to know ahead of round four of the Six Nations.
Friday February 1st: France 19 Wales 24
Saturday February 2nd: Scotland 33 Italy 20
Saturday February 2nd: Ireland 20 England 32
Saturday February 9th: Scotland 13 Ireland 22
Saturday February 9th: Italy 15 Wales 26
Sunday February 10th: England 44 France 8
Saturday February 23rd: France 27 Scotland 10
Saturday February 23rd: Wales 21 England 13
Sunday February 24th: Italy 16 Ireland 26
The story so far
Doom! Doom! After taking on the world in 2018, Ireland have looked worryingly stagnant so far in this year's Championship, enough so to make people question if they have peaked too early ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
The defending champions were blitzed by England, were efficient if slightly agricultural against Scotland and then laboured their way past Italy – albeit with a much-changed side.
Injuries haven’t helped Ireland’s cause, their big ball carriers haven’t had their usual impact and the attack has often been too narrow.
But, it's not all bad. The cavalry are set to return against France on Sunday, and potential returns for Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw see the midfield stocks replenished. Two wins from two games turns a difficult tournament for Ireland into one to remember.
It was all going so well for Eddie Jones and his England side, who had blown Ireland out of the water before making light work of France, remorselessly thrashing Les Bleus 44-8 at Twickenham.
They seemed like champions-elect, but then they woke a mighty dragon from its slumber. If England don’t win the title – something which will likely rely on a favour from Ireland – then the second half in Cardiff will be why.
They received a taste of their own medicine at the Principality Stadium, the hosts delivering the perfect 40 minutes to take control of Championship and leave England playing catch-up. However, their remaining two fixtures – at home to Italy and Scotland – are likely to provide a full 10 points. They aren’t out of it yet.
Wales are two victories away from a first Grand Slam win since 2012 and a first Championship title since 2013, with Warren Gatland in line to bow out in style.
His side have now won 12 Test matches on the bounce, and for all the talk of peaking ahead of Japan, they seem to be the ones timing it just right.
After coming from behind to edge past France on the opening weekend, Gatland then made wholesale changes for the victory over Italy a week later. It was a strategy which paid off, with a number of his frontline players having nearly three weeks rest before the visit of England.
It might not have shown in the opening half, but in the second Wales delivered a truly mammoth performance – inspired by Alun Wyn Jones and Dan Biggar – as they beat England for the first time since 2015, and the first time in the Six Nations since 2013.
After a promising start for Scotland things have not gone to plan subsequently. Gregor Townsend's side flew out of the blocks against Italy before switching off in the final 10 minutes and conceding three tries.
This malaise followed them into the Ireland game a week later, where they flashed sporadically but were left to rue a litany of unforced errors as they were beaten 22-13.
At the start of the tournament a first win in Paris since 1999 seemed a realistic prospect, especially given the parlous state of French rugby. However, they travelled to the Stade de France without the two jewels in their crown – Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg – and a predictable 27-10 defeat followed.
With Wales and England to come, a potentially coming of age tournament for the dashing Scots is more likely to prove a damp squib.
From the misery and despair something special could be growing for France, after they followed two dismal weekends with one to savour last time out.
Their opening weekend defeat to Wales was built on a lack of leadership and some terrible decision making, while they were horribly exposed on every level in their thrashing at Twickenham a week later.
However, Jacques Brunel turned to youth for the visit of Scotland in round three and it paid off. Teenager Romain Ntamack was named at outhalf and scored the game's first try while scrumhalf Antoine Dupont and fullback Thomas Ramos also impressed, offering Les Bleus some balance in the backline. The rampaging 20-year-old prop Demba Bamba was named man-of-the-match, as France triumphed 27-10. Ireland will need to be wary of this youthful revival on Sunday.
Italy's tournament might have got off to a slow start in Edinburgh but they finished that game strongly and have since delivered two mighty performances against Wales and Ireland, only to be eventually worn down on both occasions.
Conor O’Shea’s side were beaten 26-15 by Wales and led Ireland 16-12 at half-time in Rome before fading to lose 26-16.
But while the Azzurri’s long wait for a Championship win continues – you have to go back to 2015 – there have been plenty of positives, especially considering their bad luck with injuries.
Teto Tebaldi returned against Ireland and was impressive at scrumhalf, while Braam Steyn ensured Sergio Parisse’s absence wasn’t felt too keenly. Twickenham is a daunting assignment but they will be looking to hit the French with all they have a week later.
Round four fixtures
Saturday March 9th: Scotland v Wales, Murrayfield (kick-off 2.15pm)
Saturday March 9th: England v Italy, Twickenham (kick-off 4.45pm)
Sunday March 10th: Ireland v France, Aviva Stadium (kick-off 3.0pm)
Can I watch it?
Yes! Again, all the fixtures are live on Virgin Media One. BBC One will be showing Scotland against Wales on Saturday, while ITV are broadcasting England on Saturday teatime and the Ireland game on Sunday. And, as ever, you can follow all three games on the Irish Times liveblog.
Last Friday Joe Schmidt confirmed a number of frontline players could return for France, with the Ireland coach confident on the chances of Johnny Sexton. Joey Carbery is also set to return to training this week, along with Dan Leavy and Robbie Henshaw. CJ Stander is also fit again.
Winger Joe Cokanasiga and centre Ben Te'o will start in a heavyweight England backline against Italy on Saturday as Eddie Jones announced a team showing five changes from their Six Nations defeat to Wales two weeks ago.
Leicester's fiery loosehead Ellis Genge gets his first start since November 2017, with Ben Moon shifting to the bench.
Joe Launchbury is named in the secondrow following the injuries to Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje. Brad Shields comes in at blindside flanker with Mark Wilson on the bench. Prop Dan Cole and number eight Nathan Hughes come back in to the replacements having missed the Cardiff defeat.
Dan Robson also has to be content with the bench as Jones again seemed to show a lack of faith in his backup scrumhalf, who has only 10 minutes in the win over France to show for his international career to date.
ENGLAND: Elliot Daly (Wasps); Joe Cokanasiga (Bath), Manu Tuilagi (Leicester), Ben Te'o (Worcester), Jonny May (Leicester); 10 Owen Farrell (Saracens, capt), Ben Youngs (Leicester); Ellis Genge (Leicester), Jamie George (Saracens), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins); Joe Launchbury (Wasps), George Kruis (Saracens); Brad Shields (Wasps), Tom Curry (Sale), Billy Vunipola (Saracens).
Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter), Ben Moon (Exeter), Dan Cole (Leicester), Nathan Hughes (Wasps), Mark Wilson (Newcastle), Dan Robson (Wasps), George Ford (Leicester), Henry Slade (Exeter).
Wales head coach Warren Gatland has made one change to his starting line-up as Ospreys lock Adam Beard replaces Cory Hill.
Hill will miss the rest of the tournament after suffering an ankle injury during
Wales' 21-13 victory over England 10 days ago. Scarlets forward Jake Ball takes Beard's place on the bench.
WALES (v Scotland): Liam Williams (Saracens); George North (Ospreys), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets), Josh Adams (Worcester); Gareth Anscombe (Cardiff Blues), Gareth Davies (Scarlets); Rob Evans (Scarlets), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Tomas Francis (Exeter); Adam Beard (Ospreys), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, capt); Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Ross Moriarty (Dragons).
Replacements: Elliot Dee (Dragons), Nicky Smith (Ospreys), Dillon Lewis (Cardiff Blues), Jake Ball (Scarlets), Aaron Wainwright (Dragons), Aled Davies (Ospreys), Dan Biggar (Northampton), Owen Watkin (Ospreys).
Finn Russell will return to Scotland action against Wales on Saturday. The Racing 92 playmaker was badly missed a fortnight ago as he sat out the defeat to France in Paris having suffered a head knock on club duty.
Russell takes over from Pete Horne for the visit of Warren Gatland’s men with Horne moving back to centre. Regular captain Greig Laidlaw is replaced by Ali Price at scrumhalf, with hooker Stuart mcNally leading the side. Edinburgh prop WP Nel and club-mate Darcy Graham also start as lock Jonny Gray and wing Tommy Seymour make their 50th Test appearances.
SCOTLAND (v Wales): Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh); Tommy Seymour (Glasgow), Nick Grigg (Glasgow), Pete Horne (Glasgow), Darcy Graham (Edinburgh); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Ali Price (Glasgow); Allan Dell (Edinburgh), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh, capt), Willem Nel (Edinburgh); Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Jonny Gray (Glasgow); Magnus Bradbury (Edinburgh), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Josh Strauss.
Replacements: Fraser Brown (Glasgow), Gordon Reid (London Irish), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont Auvergne), Adam Hastings (Glasgow), Byron McGuigan (Sale).
Brunel has backed youth once again and named an unchanged team for Sunday's game in Dublin.
"We will have to make smart choices. They have a very efficient defence and they are very good in the rucks," said Brunel.
"We need to be more consistent and be able to reproduce what we did against Scotland."
FRANCE: Thomas Ramos; Damian Penaud, Mathieu Bastareaud, Gael Fickou, Yoann Huget; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado (capt), Demba Bamba; Sebastien Vahaamahina, Felix Lambey; Wenceslas Lauret, Arthur Iturria, Louis Picamoles.
Replacements: Camille Chat, Etienne Falgoux, Dorian Aldegheri, Paul Willemse, Gregory Alldritt, Baptiste Serin, Anthony Belleau, Maxime Medard.
Sergio Parisse returns to the Italy backrow after recovering from a concussion he suffered playing for Stade Francais. Braam Steyn moves back to the openside to allow the return of the mercurial number eight.
ITALY (v England): Jayden Hayward; Edoardo Padovani, Michele Campagnaro, Luca Morisi, Angelo Esposito; Tommaso Allan, Tito Tebaldi; Andrea Lovotti, Luca Bigi, Simone Ferrari; Federico Ruzza, Dean Budd; Sebastian Negri, Braam Steyn, Sergio Parisse.
Replacements: Leonardo Ghiraldini, Cherif Traore, Tiziano Pasquali, David Sisi, Jake Polledri, Guglielmo Palazzani, Ian McKinley, Tommaso Castell
I’m afraid not – Murrayfield, Twickenham and Lansdowne Road are all sell-outs, unsurprisingly.
Scotland 17-10; Draw 22-1; Wales 8-15 (Handicap Wales -4 10-11)
England 1-250; Draw 66-1; Italy 28-1 (Handicap England -35 10-11)
Ireland 1-9; Draw 40-1; France 11-2 (Handicap Ireland -15 10-11)
Are Wales now favourites to win the thing?
Nope, the betting is as follows:
No Grand Slam 4-9
Who is on the whistle?
Scotland v Wales:- Pascal Gauzere (France)
England v Italy: Nic Berry (Australia)
Ireland v France: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand)
Losing to the French in a World Cup year? That’s so 2007.
Ireland are peaking all right . . . for France 2023.