For the first time in two years, a proper Six Nations is upon us - and a tournament for the ages awaits.
In 2020 the Championship started as normal, before the Covid-19 pandemic brought proceedings to a juddering halt.
Last year is easily forgettable - there was no disruption to the 15 fixtures, but all were played in front of ghosts in soulless empty stadiums.
This time round however, things are almost back to normal. Off the pitch supporters, the sport’s lifeblood, will be able to click through the turnstiles and pack out all six grounds once again.
On the pitch meanwhile, one of the all-time great Championships could beckon. Northern hemisphere rugby is in rude health and five sides can all lay claim to some sort of title hopes.
Andy Farrell’s Ireland are one of those, as they head into the spring on the back of a hugely successful November and on a run of eight-consecutive Test match victories.
Replicate the form which saw them beat the All Blacks in Dublin and they will take some stopping - but so too will France, Les Bleus possessing a generational squad and with their own win over New Zealand still fresh in the memory.
Wales are the defending champions, Scotland have never had better strength in depth and England, as ever, are England. Italy will be the whipping boys, but the title picture is fascinatingly poised.
It’s nice to be able to properly look forward to the Six Nations again, without worrying if there is bad news lurking around the corner. Here is everything you need to know as the Championship gets underway.
What is it?
The opening round of fixtures in the 2022 Six Nations Championship, including Ireland against Wales - the curtain-raising clash.
When is it?
The Six Nations gets underway on Saturday February 5th, with the final round of fixtures on March 19th.
How can I watch it?
All 15 fixtures will be televised on terrestrial television, and this year they have been shared between RTÉ and Virgin Media. Ireland’s opening match against Wales will be shown on RTÉ 2, with RTÉ also having the game against England on March 12th. In the UK, the games will be split between the BBC and ITV again, with Ireland against Wales on the latter.
And, as ever, you can follow all of the action via our liveblogs.
How does it work?
This is the sixth year of the bonus point system after its introduction in 2017. Teams are awarded four points for a win and two for a draw, with an extra point awarded for scoring at least four tries, or losing by seven points or fewer.
Saturday February 5th, Ireland v Wales, Aviva Stadium (2.15pm, RTÉ)
Saturday February 5th, Scotland v England, Murrayfield (4.45pm, Virgin Media One)
Sunday February 6th, France v Italy, Stade de France (3pm, RTÉ)
Saturday February 12th, Wales v Scotland, Millennium Stadium (2.15pm, RTÉ)
Saturday February 12th, France v Ireland, Stade de France (4.45pm, Virgin Media One)
Sunday February 13th, Italy v England, Stadio Olimpico (3pm, Virgin Media One)
Saturday February 26th, Scotland v France, Murrayfield (2.15pm, Virgin Media One)
Saturday February 26th, England v Wales, Twickenham (4.45pm, RTÉ)
Sunday February 27th, Ireland v Italy, Aviva Stadium (3pm, Virgin Media One)
Friday March 11th, Wales v France, Millennium Stadium (8pm, RTÉ)
Saturday March 12th, Italy v Scotland, Stadio Olimpico (2.15pm, Virgin Media One)
Saturday March 12th, England v Ireland, Twickenham (4.45pm, RTÉ)
Saturday March 19th, Wales v Italy, Millennium Stadium (2.15pm, RTÉ)
Saturday March 19th, Ireland v Scotland, Aviva Stadium (4.45pm, Virgin Media One)
Saturday March 19th, France v England, Stade de France (8pm, RTÉ)
Ireland - Aviva Stadium, Dublin (capacity: 51,700)
England - Twickenham, London (82,000)
Wales - Millennium Stadium, Cardiff (74,500)
Scotland - Murrayfield, Edinburgh (67,144)
France - Stade de France, Saint Denis (80,000)
Italy - Stadio Olimpico, Rome (72,698)
What happened last year?
Ireland’s tournament was over before it really started, as they were beaten 21-16 by Wales in Cardiff before losing 15-13 to France in Dublin in round two. However while hopes of the title were gone early, Andy Farrell’s side have won every game since and rounded off their 2021 Six Nations campaign with a 32-18 win over England.
It was Wales who went on to be crowned champions - they were only denied the Grand Slam by an injury-time Brice Dulin try in a 32-30 loss to France in Paris. Les Bleus were beaten 27-23 by Scotland in Paris in their final, rescheduled fixture as they finished second. Scotland also beat England at Twickenham but had to settle for fourth place, with England finishing fifth.
Teams - Ireland v Wales
IRELAND: H Keenan (Leinster); A Conway (Munster), G Ringrose (Leinster), B Aki (Connacht), M Hansen (Connacht); J Sexton (Leinster, capt), J Gibson-Park (Leinster); A Porter (Leinster), R Kelleher (Leinster), T Furlong (Leinster); T Beirne (Munster), J Ryan (Leinster); C Doris (Leinster), J van der Flier (Leinster), J Conan (Leinster).
Replacements: D Sheehan (Leinster), C Healy (Leinster), F Bealham (Connacht), R Baird (Leinster), P O'Mahony (Munster), C Murray (Munster), J Carbery (Munster), J Hume (Ulster).
WALES: LWilliams (Scarlets); J McNicholl (Scarlets), J Adams (Cardiff), N Tompkins (Saracens), L Rees-Zammit (Gloucester); D Biggar (Northampton, capt), T Williams (Cardiff); W Jones (Scarlets), R Elias (Scarlets), T Francis (Ospreys); W Rowlands (Dragons), A Beard (Ospreys); E Jenkins (Cardiff), T Basham (Dragons) A Wainwright (Dragons).
Replacements: D Lake (Ospreys), G Thomas (Ospreys) D Lewis (Cardiff), S Davies (Cardiff), R Moriarty (Dragons), G Davies (Scarlets), C She
Quick ball is key
In his column this week Gordon D'Arcy has suggested quick ball will be key to Ireland's title hopes - just like how it inspired them to victory over the All Blacks. And crucial to this will be Jamison Gibson-Park, who is now the undoubted first choice scrumhalf.
He writes: “Ireland and Wales play a similar possession-based game but the difference in November was the speed of Ireland’s ruck ball. The visitors boast some very accomplished breakdown threats so Farrell’s side will have to be accurate in clearing out; it’s that attention to detail and willingness of players to do the unspectacular graft that allows the collective to flourish.
“Keeping Jamison Gibson-Park fit and firing for the Six Nations is now more a priority than that of Johnny Sexton, with the safety net of Joey Carbery returning. When the scrumhalf departs there is a notable reduction in tempo in the way the team operates. If we lose this, we lose our competitive advantage and in this tournament that can be fatal.”
What are the bookies saying?
No Grand Slam 8-11
Ireland 1-10 Wales 11-2 Draw 20-1 (Ireland -14 10-11)
Scotland 11-10 England 4-6 Draw 20-1 (England -2 10-11)
France 1-100 Italy 25-1 Draw 50-1 (France-35 10-11)
Who’s on the whistle?
Ireland v Wales - Jaco Peyper
Scotland v England - Ben O'Keeffe
France v Italy - Mike Adamson
Can I go?
This will be the first time supporters have attended Six Nations fixtures since the ill-fated tournament of 2020. Unsurprisingly, all of Ireland’s home games are sold out. There will be no restrictions on attendances in any of the six stadiums however vaccine passports are required in France and Italy.