Round 3 of the 2016 RBS Six Nations Championship sees unbeaten table-toppers England face Ireland, with tournament favourites Wales hosting France and the winless duo of Italy and Scotland coming face-to-face in Rome.
England and France remain the only two sides left in the competition with perfect records, with Eddie Jones' side leading the way by a superior points difference of plus-34 to their nearest challengers.
Both sides find stiff opposition standing in their way in the third round of matches. Here is the full schedule for this weekend's action (all times GMT):
|2016 RBS Six Nations Championship: Round 3 Fixtures|
|Friday, February 26||20:05||Wales vs. France||Principality Stadium, Wales|
|Saturday, February 27||14:25||Italy vs. Scotland||Stadio Olympico, Rome|
|Saturday, February 27||16:50||England vs. Ireland||Twickenham Stadium, London|
There have been slight alterations in the Wales camp over the past few days as head coach Warren Gatland tinkers with his squad following pre-game fitness tests.
Per BBC Sport, Jonathan Davies has been passed fit for Friday's match with France, while winger Alex Cuthbert has been recalled alongside forwards Dan Lydiate and Bradley Davies.
Davies has regained his fitness after shaking off a hip injury he suffered in the 27-23 win over Scotland, as Cuthbert replaces Tom James. Lydiate returns at blindside flanker, with Davies in for injured lock Luke Charteris, who is out with a knee injury.
For their opponents, coach Guy Noves has made five changes to his team for the contest, with Maxime Machenaud returning at scrum-half. Twenty-six-year-old winger Djibril Camara is set for his debut with injury keeping Teddy Thomas away from action.
Elsewhere, Rabah Slimani comes in at prop, Paul Jedrasiak is drafted in at lock and Antoine Burban is on the flank, per a separate piece from BBC Sport.
On Saturday, Italy play host to Scotland in the capital. As noted on the RBS Six Nations website, the hosts face a race against time to confirm the condition of fly-half Carlo Canna.
Marco Fuser and Alessandro Zanni should be fit for game three, while Michele Campagnaro and Josh Furno have also joined the squad.
Take a look at how Jacques Brunel's side fared when they came up against England in Round 2 on Valentine's Day:
Meanwhile for the Scots, flanker Blair Cowan (concussion) and winger Sean Maitland (thigh) will both miss out, with Alex Allan, Chris Fusaro and Pat MacArthur also withdrawals, per Sky Sports' Michael Kelleher.
Vern Cotter's squad has been trimmed by six further players as Gordon Reid, Zander Fagerson, Rob Harley, Josh Strauss, Grayson Hart and Duncan Weir were released back to their club side Glasgow Warriors due to their clash with Newport Dragons in the Guinness Pro12, per Sky Sports.
For England, the big news is that Maro Itoje will make his first international start by replacing the injured Joe Launchbury. In the only other change from last week's win, Joe Marler swaps places with Mako Vunipola.
Per Sean Flynn of SportsNewsIreland, uncapped lock Ultan Dillane is set to also be handed his Ireland debut in the game at Twickenham, with the 22-year-old Connacht player being drafted into Joe Schmidt's plans.
Itoje Handed Time to Shine
Itoje is widely thought of as England’s most exciting prospect in recent memory, with some onlookers claiming it is already time for him to be handed the captain’s armband, despite collecting just a solitary cap, per Hugh Godwin of the Independent.
The flanker will make his first England start in the place of Launchbury, who was ruled out of the clash with Ireland owing to a hamstring injury he picked up in training. Itoje will start alongside club team-mate George Kruis in the second row.
Energetic, physically intimidating, enthusiastic in battle and a vocal communicator, the Saracens starlet appears to possess all the necessary attributes to thrive in this year’s competition following a string of fine individual performances in the Premiership.
Itoje made a keen impression when he came on for his international debut at blindside flanker against Italy in place of Chris Robshaw.
Due to Launchbury's absence, Courtney Lawes has been called up to Eddie Jones’ squad. However, Itoje has done enough to impress and earn his first start in Round 3 at Twickenham.
The youngster took to Twitter to celebrate making his first appearance for England:
Maro Itoje @maroitoje
Thanks for all the support! Yesterday was amazing for me! And glad to be apart of this @EnglandRugby team 🙏🏾🙏🏾 https://t.co/J6CtWzyBdm2/15/2016, 7:36:41 PM
Per the Guardian's James Riach, Itoje—just 21 years old and measuring 6'5"—has been named "the chosen one" by some team-mates due to his instant success on the domestic and international stage, and he has been backed by England forwards coach Steve Borthwick to flourish next time out.
Per Sam Peters of the Daily Mail, Borthwick said: "It's a competitive position right now, and that's a good thing. We've got a mixture of players there with different levels of experience.
"That's a really good thing for the squad to make that a competitive area. With that it spurs the intensity of training."
Itoje will undoubtedly be eager to make a lasting impression in his first full showing for his country, and Ireland should be careful not to underestimate the youngster despite his limited experience.
Medard Excelling Under Newfound Freedom
The impact of Maxime Medard's introduction and game-winning try against Ireland should not be understated.
The 29-year-old Stade Toulousain player scored the only points of the second half as he helped his country overturn a 9-3 scoreline and keep their hopes of a Grand Slam triumph alive.
Following sustained pressure from the hosts, Medard finally capitalised with a 70th-minute score, which was underlined by Jules Plisson's conversion to secure victory for France.
The full-back took advantage of tiring Irish legs and minds to brush off Robbie Henshaw on the way to the try-line, and he will start against Wales on Friday.
Medard appears reinvigorated under new boss Noves and took a veiled swipe at former coach Philippe Saint-Andre following the win, claiming he believes the players are currently playing without pressure.
Per Agence France-Presse (h/t TenSport), he said:
We have more freedom than before but it depends on many things.
We have the foundations but this coaching staff allows us to take the initiative for the good of the team.
Of course after two wins we're more relaxed in training. That apart, what I believe is different to previous years is that the players are really taking responsibility for the style of play: we're not waiting to be told what to do, we try to speak out about things we agree or disagree with.
Persistent Parisse Just Keeps Fighting
Arguably the world’s best No. 8 comes back for more this week when Italy they take on Scotland in a bottom-of-the-table encounter.
Italian player Sergio Parisse, as ever, will be hoping to drag his team across the line in another inspiring display of leadership.
A world-class player, Italy must provide support to the 32-year-old to take advantage of his ball-carrying ability. As his country's star player, the responsibility of success weighs heavy on his shoulders.
2008 IRB International Player of the Year nominee Parisse will have to be flexible with his distribution and continue to keep faith in his team-mates. Per Robert Kitson of the Guardian, the experienced No. 8 has felt defeat in 83 of his 115 international appearances for the Azzurri.
As ever, the Italian giant will bark instructions and lead his followers on the field. As one of the world's best in his position, he is often overlooked due to the calibre of his international entourage. However, he remains widely respected throughout the game.
Per Kitson, England coach Eddie Jones commented on Parisse's quality, stating: "If he was playing for the All Blacks, he’d be rated one of the best in the world."
Round 3 may not ultimately decide who claims this year's Six Nations title, but for Grand Slam hopefuls France and England, it is another step along the way to recording history.
For the likes of Scotland and Italy, this next round of fixtures is also significant, as they battle it out to avoid the embarrassment of being awarded the wooden spoon.
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