BACKGROUND: Clinical education is a fundamental component of nurse education. In theory, this aspect involves integrated input from registered nurses, clinical educators and university lecturers. Registered nurses are important contributors to this process and play a major role in influencing and shaping undergraduate nursing students' early clinical experiences. Despite this important function, their voice has been somewhat neglected. Little is known about registered nurses' expectations and experiences of first year aduate nursing students undertaking their first clinical placement. AIM: The aim of this study was to explore registered nurses' expectations and experiences of first year undergraduate students' levels of knowledge and clinical skills. METHOD: Three consecutive focus groups were conducted with a purposive sample of 16 registered nurses. Interviews were audiotaped and transcribed and thematic analysis applied to the data to identfy themes imbedded in the data sets. FINDINGS: Three main themes emerged: (1) Clinical nursing skills (2) Knowledge requirements and (3) Experiences of reality shock. The findings highlight that registered nurses' expectations of first year students' clinical skills and knowledge were not consistently met. Registered nurses placed significant emphasis upon a range of basic skills, but acknowledged that some aspects of nursing knowledge can only be learned through experience. Furthermore, they demonstrated a considerable degree of empathy surrounding the reality shock that students might experience during early clinical placement. CONCLUSION: Findings from this study suggest that registered nurses and academics differ in their perceptions surrounding the level of clinical skills first year students should have during their first clinical placement. There appears to be a two way theory practice gap between registered nurses in clinical practice and academics in tertiary institutions. Improved communication between registered nurses and providers of nurse education may assist in addressing some of the issues raised by this study and reduce the theory practice gap, which remains 'alive and well'.