As teams prepare for next year's Rugby World Cup, the mid-year international window offers international coaches their last chance to blood new stars and their final opportunity to tinker with their starting line up.
Despite some controversial referee calls marring games last weekend, fans were treated to impressive performances across the board with the Springboks coming from behind to defeat England, while Australia pulled out a strong performance to take down the World No.2 Ireland.
But with changes to sides across the board, and the All Blacks and Wallabies sticking to their winning combinations, who'll come out on top in several must win clashes? Our experts have their say.
Japan vs Italy
Saturday 3:00pm (AEST), Noevir Stadium Kobe
Player to watch: Yu Tamura. The Japanese flyhalf converted six out of seven kicks at goal in a commanding performance in the first Test against the Italians. He was assured in his decision-making and controlled the tempo of the game with his distribution and controlled kicking out of hand. He is going to be key again as Japan look to make it two Test wins in a row against opponents who are ranked higher than them.
Biggest talking point: Japan's defence is now on a decent level. In the past teams would find ways to get through them, but over the last couple of years they have been a lot more organised on defence. They have always had speedy players who can come up with a moment of brilliance, but have suffered some hidings because of a leaky defence. In the first Test against Italy they managed to keep the Italians scoreless while scoring 17 unanswered points themselves.
Prediction: Coach Jamie Joseph has done a fantastic job in building a team that will be competitive at their home Rugby World Cup in 2019. By playing and beating teams such as Italy, who are ranked three places higher in the world rankings, they will gain a lot of confidence going forward. Italy will be a lot more competitive this weekend, though, and will be test the Japanese team physically. But the home side will seal the deal in Kobe.
Japan 28-23 Italy
Player to watch: The Italians inconceivably slow-play approach against Japan hugely limited their back-row efficacy on the advantage line. That buried Azzurri hopes to get a comfortable win in Oita. Expect something different for the last outing of the disappointing 2018 International Season as Jake Polledri, if fully recovered, and Seb Negri will be the men to watch in that particular area. Midfield is the other unit that will receive a essential boost from a much dynamic, darting and aggressive approach to the second Test. Michele Campagnaro and Luca Morisi (if he will ever play a game under O'Shea) may be crucial to get the result in Kobe.
Biggest talking point: It was a miserable outing in the first Test by the Italians, nothing to add about it. For sure it was, by far, the worst Conor O'Shea "production" to date. And that's the scariest part of the whole picture. Three weeks of work to show an incompetent lineout. Three weeks of meetings to adopt a total nonsense game-plan for a pretty crucial first-test-match against a "readable" opponent. The adoption of slow-pace rugby was pretty evident and Marcello Violi narcotic approach to every single quality ball Italy produced in the game was clearly a decision from the skyboxes (otherwise he wouldn't have lasted 65 minutes on the pitch). Awful. Simply awful.
Prediction: Being trashed by the Japanese in Oita was pretty nasty to see. Unfortunately for the O'Shea's band a few hours before the Georgians got the Tongan scalp in their Pacific Nations Cup debut and that added pressure ahead of the November "clash" between the two European Nations at the heart of the Six Nations' format turmoil. Ghiraldini & Co. will play their second and last June test on Saturday (while Georgia will face Fiji in Suva) but the weekend after is Japan-Georgia in Toyota. Another loss for the Azzurri plus a win by the Lelos will trigger a huge mess in Dublin. Both the Italians and Georgians know that. -- Enrico Borra
New Zealand vs France
Saturday, 5:35pm (AEST), Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Player to watch: Beauden Barrett. Barrett produced a mixed bag of a performance in their opening clash, producing some scintillating moments while also contributing to some un-All Black-like mistakes. His kicking took a hit, missing five from 10, but his try, and several set-ups were great to witness. Following on from last week, Barrett is certain to be on song from the opening minute and is sure to be the mastermind behind another strong All Blacks victory.
Biggest talking point: Two contentious referee calls in last week's win, unfortunately took the shine away from the All Blacks crushing performance and left people questioning if the New Zealanders are a protected species. French coach Jacque Brunel described the double hit as "dangerous" and "illegal", while forward Kevin Gourdon called the All Blacks cheats just days before their second clash. If the All Blacks were worried of any retiribution they're definitely not showing it, with flanker Sam Cane hardly batting an eyelid at the idea he may be a marked man. While it's not usual for international rugby teams to head-hunt, there's sure to be big hits doled out across the park.
Prediction: France shocked many when they took an early lead in game one, but the All Blacks proved again they're ability to turn any game on its head -- although this time with the help of two contentious referee decisions. But even if you were to take the two decisions out of the game, the All Blacks' ability to change from defence to attack at the drop of a hat is masterful, and their ability to turn any field position into an attacking position is something no other team in the world can replicate. With a win under their belt, and an unchanged side, the All Blacks will have worked the kinks out and will be one hard beast to slow down let alone stop. Expect another big score.
All Blacks 45-10 France
Line up: J Barrett; B Smith, Lienert-Brown, Crotty, Ioane; B Barrett, Aaron Smith; L Whitelock, Cane, Squire; S Barrett, S Whitelock; Franks, Taylor, Moody. Reserves: Harris, Tu'inukuafe, Tu'ungafasi, Fifita, Savea, Perenara, McKenzie, Laumape.
Player to watch: Mathieu Bastareaud. Recalled and rejuvenated, the France captain finally has a chance to lay a particular ghost that has haunted him for nine years. It was in Wellington in 2009, after France had lost 14-10 at The Cake Tin, that the then 20-year-old needed stitches for an injury he said at the time was caused by five attackers. He lied. It was eventually proven -- after then-Prime Minister John Key had apologised on behalf of the country, and questions had been asked about whether New Zealand was ready to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup -- that he had fallen over in his hotel room while drunk. Now he's back - and France are even staying at the same hotel, though it now goes under a different name.
Biggest talking point: The fallout from that tackle on try-scorer Rémy Grosso in the opening Test has thrown a pall over this week, and will continue to cast its shadow over this Tour long after it has finished - in a similar manner to that tackle on Brian O'Driscoll during the 2005 Lions tour of New Zealand. The consensus of rugby opinion almost everywhere outside the land of the long white cloud, from World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot down, is that the All Blacks were supremely lucky not to see Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Sam Cane sent off the pitch for a minimum of 10 minutes each - and that Tu'ungafasi at least was even more fortunate not to receive any sanction stiffer than a citing commissioner's warning (to all intents and purposes an orangey-red card). In New Zealand, the prevailing view has been that the rest of the world should get over itself as it was evident to anyone paying any sort of attention that Grosso bounced his head off both players.
Prediction: As it was in Auckland, so it will be Wellington. France may have led at halftime last weekend, and may have been the victims of two poor decisions from debutant referee Luke Pearce inside five second-half minutes - but the fact remains we will never know what might have happened if those decisions were not made. As France captain Bastareaud said after the Eden Park thrashing: "We have to believe in ourselves. I think there was too much surprise to be in the lead after 40 minutes and we have to work on that for the next game." Following that, it's probably safe to predict that, with or without the rub of the whistleblower, New Zealand probably would have won in the end, anyway.
Line up: Fall; Thomas, Bastareaud (c), Doumayrou, Fickou; Belleau, Parra; Gourdon, Galletier, Babillot; Maestri, Le Roux; Atonio, Chat, Priso. Reserves: Bourgarit, Baille, Gomes Sa, Gabrillagues, Lapandry, Serin, Plisson, Medard.
Australia vs Ireland
Saturday 8pm (AEST), AAMI Park, Melbourne
Player to watch: Kurtley Beale's hard hitting defence in the opening game was the talking point -- alongside David Pocock's impressive return to the international stage -- with the centre producing highlight reel worthy defence, and eyes will be focused on the No.12 again to see if he can continue the impressive defensive performance. For years Beale's attacking prowess has wowed opposition and fans alike, but his recent focus on defence appears to have paid dividends as he looks to create the full package.
Biggest talking point: Michael Cheika is showing faith in last week's winning side by keeping his 23 unchanged for back-to-back Tests for the first time. The Wallabies produced an inspiring victory over World No.2 Ireland last week, but the Irish are sure to be ringing in the changes as they head to Melbourne. In an impressive performance, the Wallabies unleashed a bold kicking game that saw Israel Folau the target of multiple kick passes and chip kicks throughout the clash, and Bernard Foley and Beale are expected to retain the surprising kicking game. But after they saw success in putting Folau into space in the air, Ireland will be more aggressive in the air and will be looking to shut down and contest any kick passes to the edges.
Prediction: In wet and windy conditions down in Melbourne, both sides are sure to use the boot to their advantage, and while the Wallabies bold kicking strategy worked a treat against Ireland in game one, trying conditions could play a huge role in it's success this week. The Wallabies turned their defencive woes around last week, producing several big hits -- including Beale's highlight reel hit against Connor Murray -- but the question will be whether they can back it up this week with Ireland set to ring in the changes and looking to play a more aggressive brand of rugby. With Johnny Sexton set to return to the starting line-up, Ireland's attack will have more structure and pressure will be on for the Wallabies to produce back-to-back results.
Australia 18-21 Ireland
Line up: Folau; Koroibete, Kerevi, Beale, Haylett-Petty; Foley, Genia; Timu, Hooper, Pocock; Coleman, Rodda; Kepu, Paenga-Amosa, Sio. Reserves: Latu, Alaalatoa, Tupou, Simmons, Tui, Samu, Phipps, Hodge.
Player to watch: Johnny Sexton was surprisingly benched for last weekend's first Test in Brisbane but the Leinster No. 10, who is so instrumental to Ireland's attacking play, returns to Joe Schmidt's starting XV for this one. Joey Carbery fared reasonably enough deputising for Sexton but Ireland's tour needs to get back on track and there is nobody better to help steady the Irish ship. A big display is required from everyone on the pitch for Ireland in Melbourne, none less so than from Sexton.
Biggest talking point: One of the key reasons why Ireland lost last weekend was because of the Wallabies' dominance at the breakdown with Michael Hooper and David Pocock grinding down Ireland's resilience. The Australian pair wreaked havoc - slowing down and even stealing Irish ball far too many times for Schmidt's liking. Changes have been rung for the second Test - eight in all - and on paper, the Irish side that will take to the field in Melbourne is significantly stronger than the team picked for Brisbane, so it will be interesting to see whether Ireland can live with an unchanged Australian line-up.
Prediction: Ireland struggled to convert territory into tries last time out, leading to their first defeat since a loss to Wales in the Six Nations back in 2017. Australia will go into the second Test as favourites after their display in the first Test, but don't be surprised if Ireland pull off a win to take this three-match series to a decider.
Australia 19-17 Ireland
South Africa vs England
Sunday 1:05am (AEST), Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein
Player to watch: Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira. The 32-year-old crowd favourite will be playing in his 100th Test for the Springboks at the Free State Stadium on Saturday afternoon. 'The Beast' has had some struggles over the last few years, but in 2018 he is looking like the rock of the Springbok pack. The Sharks are managing the Zimbabwean-born player a lot better and it's easy to see the difference in his game. He looks fresh and hungry for international rugby.
Biggest talking point: Can the Springboks seal the deal in Bloemfontein? After 20 minutes in the first Test it looked like the Siya Kolisi-Rassie Erasmus era was going to start on a rather sombre note. However, the Boks came back to record a fantastic win. The South Africans will certainly be better prepared this time around for England's game plan, after they were taken to the cleaners in the wide areas by Eddie Jones' men in the first quarter at Ellis Park. A win will mean a lot to this Springbok team as they try to rebuild ahead of next year's World Cup in Japan.
Prediction: Another thriller in Bloemfontein awaits. It's going to be quite cold on Saturday, but conditions are going to be perfect for running rugby, which both sides seem to fancy at the moment. England showed how dangerous they can be with ball in hand, but the Springboks suddenly have a number of X-factor players in their arsenal. It's going to come down to who takes their chances on the night, but South Africa's pack might just hold the key to victory. -- John Goliath
Springboks 34-28 England
Player to watch: : In what will be a much needed boost for Eddie Jones, Joe Launchbury is fit for the second Test. With all due respect, Nick Isiekwe did not cope well as he was hooked off just 36 minutes into the first Test, so Launchbury's return is much needed. With Dylan Hartley missing, England need leaders in their forward pack, and the Wasps captain will provide that in bucket-loads.
Biggest talking point: Unless you are Eddie Jones, it's a simple statement of fact: England have lost five matches in a row. Of course, Jones is not counting the 63-48 defeat at the hands of the Barbarians in his tally but he will be more than aware of the need to buck England's alarming slump sooner rather than later. England have been shambolic defensively of late - letting a 21 point lead slip in Johanesburg and allowing a Barbarians side that had only trained together three times run in 63 points.
Prediction: Much was made over England basing themselves in Durban for the series when two of the three Tests against the Springboks are at altitude. They looked out of puff as South Africa came from 21 points down at Ellis Park and England are going to suffer similar conditions in Bloemfontein for the second Test - and similar struggles are bound to ensue. -- Sean Nevin
South Africa 31-20 England
Argentina vs Wales
Sunday 5:40am (AEST), Estadio B.G. Estanislao Lopez, Santa Fe
Player to watch: Agustin Creevy is one of the best hookers in the world, but in the first Test he failed to demonstrate the raw power that he has that has allowed him to steamroll sides in the scrum previously. Wales' inexperience in their forward pack should play into Creevy's hands, and he will definitely be on the prowl as he looks to stamp his authority in Santa Fe.
Biggest talking point: Argentina were expected to have too much in the locker for an inexperienced Wales side in San Juan, but something fell flat for the Pumas. They simply could not unlock a hungry Wales defence. Surely, though, a reaction has to come from Daniel Hourcade's side.
Prediction: Argentina will be licking their wounds from last weekend's defeat. and they will be keen to make amends. Their experience and cohesion should have been enough to dispatch of Wales last weekend but they let the game slip away from them. Heading into the Rugby Championship later this year, the Pumas really need to put out a statement of intent, especially given that every other southern hemisphere side won last weekend.
Player to watch: This year has all been about sorting out a solid reserve option for Dan Biggar at flyhalf. Missing the first half of the Six Nations campaign, Biggar is also not in Argentina, leaving Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell to fight it out for the No. 10 jersey. Anscombe filled that role in competent, if unspectacular, style last weekend with Patchell back at centre but it will be interesting to see whether Patchell gets the start at his favoured flyhalf position. He hasn't started there for Wales since having a shocker against England at Twickenham back in February.
Biggest talking point: Wales were impressive in the first Test against the Pumas with the emergence of young talent - Dillon Lewis in particular - a real positive for Warren Gatland. Wales needed fresh blood in their ranks, and plenty of them will have played their way into Gatland's plans for the autumn and beyond when Wales' old guard are available.
Prediction: Regardless of what happens in Santa Fe on Saturday, this tour can go down as a success for Wales. Victory over Argentina was rather unexpected and made them the only northern hemisphere tier 1 side to beat their southern counterparts last weekend. However, there will be an inevitable reaction from the Pumas who should return to form for the second, and final, encounter between these two sides. -- Sean Nevin
Argentina 24-17 Wales
USA vs Scotland
Sunday, 11am (AEST), BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston
Player to watch: Make that players. There is not one but two sets of brothers in Scotland's starting XV. Matt Fagerson, at No. 8, will be joined in the scrum by front-row elder brother Zander while scrum-half George Horne will have older brother Peter alongside him in the centres. It is the eighth time in international history that two sets of brothers have played in the same team.
Biggest talking point: Scotland romped past Canada last weekend but make 12 changes to the starting XV for this game. While 10 of this week's team are teammates at Glasgow Warriors, there remains a question of continuity for coach Gregor Townsend and his men. How quickly can they gel? And can the U.S. -- who are on a six-game winning run -- take advantage of any early struggles?
Prediction: This could be close for 60 minutes, not dissimilar in a way to the last time the sides met. Back then, it was the 2015 Rugby World Cup and the U.S. led 13-6 at the break before five second-half tries eased the Scots clear. Strength in depth should make all the difference once again.
USA Eagles 18-34 Scotland
Line up: Stuart Hogg (c), Blair Kinghorn, Nick Grigg, Peter Horne, Byron McGuigan, Adam Hastings, George Horne; Jamie Bhatti, George Turner, Zander Fagerson, Lewis Carmichael, Ben Toolis, Tim Swinson, Luke Hamilton, Matt Fagerson. Reserves: Fraser Brown, Allan Dell, Murray McCallum, Grant Gilchrist, David Denton, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Mark Bennett, Dougie Fife