“The camaraderie throughout the competition is something that’s unique and special. Everyone looks forward to a big competition. There’s none better than this one.”
Ireland coach Andy Farrell’s words will resonate with fans who enjoy the annual Rugby jamboree that is the Six Nations. The tournament features six teams with close geographical and historical ties who can trace their rivalries back to the earliest games of Rugby Union ever played. Fans book their weekends away in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Dublin, Paris, and Rome months in advance, and matches are played to the soundtrack of hymns and arias. Former Ireland winger Dennis Hickie summed up the knife-edge jeopardy of the competition, saying: “ You’re only one game in this tournament from going from a good season to a bad season.”
The greatest conversion since St Paul
The Northern Hemisphere’s annual championship is a tournament steeped in history and full of evocative moments. In 1971, when it was still the Five Nations, Wales faced Scotland with the Dragons seeking a first Grand Slam in 19 years. With only minutes remaining in a tight encounter, Scotland led 18-14 despite hitting the post with a relatively straightforward kick that would have put the match beyond doubt. Tries were worth three points in those days, so when Wales crossed the try line, they still trailed by a point with a kick to come. Scotland had forced Welsh try scorer Gerald Davies to score in the corner, leaving Welsh full-back John Taylor to attempt the conversion from close to the touchline. The Welsh number 15 landed the kick, and Wales completed the Grand Slam, ushering in the most significant period in Welsh sporting history.
It’s the taking part that counts
A year later, at the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales refused to travel south of the border to Dublin amid security fears. England was a poor outfit when they were due to play at Lansdowne Road a year later. Despite all the security concerns, England elected to face Ireland in Dublin, leading their captain, John Pullin, to say: “We might not be any good, but at least we turned up.” On taking the field, England received a standing ovation from the Lansdowne Road crowd. It showed how much things had changed across the Irish Sea when 34 years later, Croke Park, that bastion of GAA sport and the place where British forces had massacred Irish players and spectators in 1920, would bend its own rules to host England, of all teams, in the Six Nations of 2007.
David Sole led Scotland out against England in 1990 at a slow, solemn march that gained a psychological advantage in the Grand Slam decider before a ball was kicked. Once play got underway, Scottish winger Tony Stanger won the race to dot down after a kick-through from Gavin Hastings. It would be the decisive score, as the Scots ran out 13-7 winners. Nine years later, England found themselves 31-25 in front against Wales, with a Grand Slam on the line and the match having gone into injury time. Welsh centre Scott Gibbs danced through the English defence for a last-gasp converted try, denying England a Grand Slam at Wales’ makeshift “home”, Wembley.
Italy was welcomed into the tournament in 2000, but few observers gave the Azzurri much chance of ending the inaugural Six Nations with a win. Least of all, when they opened their campaign against reigning champions Scotland, but their Argentinian-born superstar fly-half, Diego Dominguez, had other ideas. The number ten kicked 29 of his country’s 34 points as Italy completed a shock victory.
If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything
England and Ireland were four from four before their 2003 title decider in Dublin. With his team having lined up on the side reserved for Ireland’s XV, England captain Martin Johnson famously refused to move, even forcing Irish President Mary McAleese to walk across the grass rather than the red carpet, as he and England stood their ground with a 42-6 drubbing of their hosts. Eight months later, Jonny Wilkinson’s right boot sealed the only World Cup triumph for a Northern Hemisphere team.
In 2009, a 78th-minute Ronan O’Gara drop goal looked to have secured Ireland their first Grand Slam in 61 years. All Ireland had to do was to avoid conceding a penalty as the grains of time ran out. But they transgressed at the ruck, leaving Stephen Jones with a kick at goal to deny them. His attempt was right on line. But his penalty fell a yard short of the posts, leaving Ireland victorious.
Friday marks the start of the next instalment of this great annual drama, with more pages in its illustrious history waiting to be written.
Another gripping chapter but no fairy-tale ending
France’s attempt to land a first William Webb Ellis Trophy began brightly. Les Bleus defeated New Zealand in the Group Stage, as they topped Pool A. During the Pool Phase, they lost star scrum-half Antoine Dupont to a broken cheekbone, but he was able to return for the knockout phase. However, the lopsided draw put France on a collision course with eventual winners South Africa in the quarter-final. What followed was arguably one of Rugby Union’s greatest games, as the lead see-sawed back and forth.
The tournament hosts nearly scored a try in the second minute but only had to wait two minutes longer to cross the whitewash, as loosehead Cyril Baille put France ahead. Two Springbok tries saw them edge in front, 12-7. A second try from a member of France’s front-row union, Peato Mauvaka, drew the French level, but the quick-thinking — and lightning-quick feet of — Cheslin Kolbe blocked the conversion. For the second time in the match, the Springboks benefitted from a French turnover, as South Africa scored a breakaway try to move 19-12 ahead. Back came France, with a second Cyril Baille score, making it 19 apiece. Thirty-eight points scored in thirty-two breathless minutes.
Eben Etzebeth survived with just a yellow card after a head-on-head collision before Thomas Ramos punished the Boks with a penalty on half-time and repeated the dose early in the second stanza, as France moved out to a 25-19 lead. However, it had to be Etzebeth — perhaps fortunate to be on the pitch — who then touched down for South Africa. 26-25 Springboks. Handré Pollard’s 53-metre penalty made it 29-25. With eight minutes remaining, France opted to kick a penalty to cut the lead to one point. But Les Blues couldn’t find another score and fell agonisingly short, 28-29. In the aftermath, French Coach Fabien Galthié told the assembled press: “What we’ve just experienced is part of writing the book for the French team.”
Twelve times outright winners of the old Five Nations, with six Grand Slams during those years, 2022 saw France secure their first Northern Hemisphere title since 2010, but their win two years ago was a sixth success and their fourth Grand Slam in the current format. For years, Les Bleus were dogged by inconsistency — the hackneyed phrase regularly trotted out by commentators was: “You never know which France is going to turn up.” In fairness, a succession of French coaches was not helped by having to overcome the attritional nature of France’s domestic Top 14 competition, with a heavier fixture list than other European domestic leagues, which meant French players often arrived in camp for the Six Nations in far less than optimum condition. However, France hasn’t finished outside the top two in the past four renewals, with three second-placed efforts on either side of that 2022 triumph.
In July 2022, Fabien Galthié’s men topped the world rankings for the first time, but their World Cup exit at the quarter-final stage saw them fall to fourth place on the world list. The European Rugby Champions Cup brought mixed results for the Gallic entrants, with four of France’s seven participants progressing to the knockout stages. However, given the foreign legion of Rugby stars playing in France’s Top 14 competition, the form of their domestic clubs is less of a Six Nations indicator than it would be for their tournament rivals.
Les Bleus has been relatively unscathed by post-World Cup international retirements, with six-foot-eight lock Romain Taofifénua, who tips the scales at just north of 21 stones, and tighthead Uini Atonio both making u-turns after initially hanging up their international boots.
France forced to jump through hoops for the five-ring circus
However, the biggest news will be the absence of Antoine Dupont from the tournament. Arguably the world’s greatest player in the fifteen-a-side game, the Toulouse ringmaster will miss the Northern Hemisphere’s championship as he plays for the French Sevens team in the build-up to the Olympics. Dupont is a perennial presence in the World Rugby Dream Team of the Year and has been named Six Nations Player of the Championship in three of the past four years.
Traditionally strong at scrum time, it is no surprise that France possesses quality in their front row. Hooker Julien Marchand was ever-present during France’s last Six Nations campaign, while Toulouse’s Peato Mauvaka certainly made his presence felt in Marchand’s absence, including making 95 metres against the Springboks. Cyril Baille is a world-class loosehead selected to the 2023 World Rugby Dream Team. Just as opponents breathed a sigh of relief at the news of the retirement of six-foot-five and 23-and-a-half stone tighthead Uini Atonio, the human piano decided to change his tune and return to the international fold. Taofifénua is a strong contender to start in the second row, while the athletic Cameron Woki will run the lineout.
In the back row, Anthony Jelonch and François Cros will likely compete on the blindside. Former captain Charles Ollivon offers fine skills as a jackler, while his six-foot-six-inch frame makes him another option at lineout time. Incredibly, for a forward, the Toulon stalwart finished the 2020 Six Nations as the tournament’s joint top try scorer. He joined Baille in World Rugby’s XV of the Year. Number Eight, Grégory Alldritt, who could have opted for Scotland, was voted to the 2022 World Rugby Dream Team of the Year.
It’s a family affair
One name to look out for is Posolo Tuilagi. There’s little doubt that the Tuilagis would hack up in any family Sevens tournament, and Posolo is the latest family member to star in either code, following on from League legend Freddie, Samoan Union International, Andy, Alesana — a wrecking ball of a winger beloved at Welford Road. Oh, and his uncle, Manu, is an England star. Close to 23-and-a-half stone at the tender age of 19, opponents in the most recent Under-20 Rugby World Cup had no answer to the family’s newest Rugby recruit.
In Dupont’s absence, the choice is between Maxime Lucu and Nolann Le Garrec at scrum-half. With Romain Ntamack still on the sidelines, at least France has Matthieu Jalibert, another mercurial fly-half, who has been vying for the number ten shirt in recent years to step into the breach. He can get the French backline moving — manifested by a cross-field kick pass to set up a Damian Penaud try against Italy in his home World Cup. Penaud, like Ntamack the son of a former French international — finished as the top try scorer in the 2023 Six Nations — dotting down five times. He continued his form at the international level by finishing the World Cup as the tournament’s second top try scorer, crossing on six occasions, and needs just three more tries to match the great Serge Blanco at the top of his country’s all-time try scorer list. He also shared the tournament top-try scorer spot in the 2022 Northern Hemisphere championship with, among others, Gabin Villière — the diminutive winger known as the electric matchstick, who isn’t in the French squad. He has lost his starting place to Louis Bielle-Biarrey. With five tries in seven tests, the Bordeaux Bègles flyer was shortlisted for the World Men’s Breakthrough Player of the Year in 2023.
Goalkicking has often been a problem for Les Bleus, but the top point scorer in last year’s Six Nations, Thomas Ramos, looks to have changed all that. Penaud and Ramos gained a place in World Rugby’s Team of the Year. No one is likely to mispronounce the surname of Jonathan Danty as dainty — the 110kg wrecking ball gets France over the gainline. Alongside him is Gaël Fickou, a crucial defensive cog but also a player who can glide past defenders. The French midfield has the cudgel and the rapier, and the cudgel is now fighting fit following a hamstring problem that encumbered him during the World Cup.
Usually, when the Rugby World Cup brings an end to a four-year cycle, many international teams move on from their previous coaches. However, all the original Five Nations teams have decided to stand pat. Shortly after assuming the role, and with a home World Cup in mind, French coach Fabien Galthié took a long-term view, even bringing a third-string side — who had only 68 caps between the starting XV — to face England at Twickenham in the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup. This foresight has helped France build great squad depth, a point reinforced when they won all their 2022 Autumn Internationals despite having 16 players out through injury. Formerly a world-class scrum-half in his playing days, the French head coach has done a fine job since taking charge, so, despite Galthié’s French revolution ending in World Cup defeat, he was never in danger of getting the chop. He can call upon one of the finest defence coaches in the business. France recruited Shaun Edwards after his outstanding service with Wales, and the former Rugby League legend has shored up France’s rearguard.
France has three home games this year and, crucially, has home advantage for the pivotal encounter with Ireland. However, they have been turfed out of their traditional home, the Stade de France, owing to the five-ring circus that is the Olympics being on the horizon in the Summer. Marseille, Lille, and Lyon will all welcome Galthié’s men. And so for Les Bleus, it will be a Tour de France at the start of a new four-year cycle between World Cups.
With three home fixtures in even-numbered years, France has made steady progress in the recent competitions in that format. Fifth with this schedule in 2016, two years later, they finished fourth before earning a runners-up spot in 2020 and winning the title two years ago. After Ireland, they face Scotland at Murrayfield before Galthié’s men host Italy in Round Three and visit Wales. People often infer that the game that the tournament’s organisers envisage as the decider is played last on Super Saturday, bringing down the curtain on the tournament. If so, all eyes will be on the Parc Olympique Lyonnais, where France will host England in the final match of this year’s renewal.
La Belle Époque
The future looks bright for France despite missing out on a first Rugby World Cup triumph. Having failed to make the final of the first ten Under-20 Rugby World Cups, a tremendous crop of talented youngsters has seen Les Bleus win each of the past three renewals. With home advantage in the potentially crucial meeting with Ireland, France remain narrow 11/10 favourites to regain their Six Nations title at the time of writing. The difference in market prices between Les Blues and Ireland is the difference in home advantage in that game. And it might make all the difference.
It’s all just a little bit of history repeating
Once again, the quarter-final of a World Cup proved to be Ireland’s undoing. In ten World Cups, they have yet to progress beyond that round. They did manage to beat eventual champion South Africa during the Pool Stage. That 13-8 triumph led some observers to believe this would be the year when the men in green would finally end their World Cup hoodoo. However, New Zealand had other ideas.
If the last eight shootout between France and South Africa was a classic, Ireland vs. New Zealand was the same calibre. The All Blacks fired the opening shots, with Leicester Fainga’anuku’s seven-pointer adding to two early All-Black penalties. A New Zealand-born player scored the next try, but it came from Ireland’s adopted kiwi, Bundee Aki. That score and five points from the boot of Johnny Sexton cut the deficit to three. An Ardie Savea try went unconverted, but despite having the lead, the All Blacks were down to 14 men as Aaron Smith was sent to the sin bin. Another try from a New Zealand-born player followed, but once again, it was one in a green jersey as Jamison Gibson-Park crossed the whitewash. Pegged back to within a point, New Zealand responded with Will Jordan adding the finishing touches after a break by Richie Mo’unga — 25-17 to New Zealand.
An Irish catch and drive with less than 20 minutes remaining led to a double punishment for the three-time world champions: a penalty try and ten minutes on the naughty step for Codie Taylor. A further penalty edged the All Blacks 28-24 ahead. Another rolling maul from a lineout looked set to produce the same result for Andy Farrell’s men. Still, somehow, Jordie Barrett got underneath the ball carrier to deny Ireland a certain try. With the clock in the red, Ireland produced waves of pressure — their last attack delivered the most phases of the match. But after 37 phases, Ireland infringed, and New Zealand ran out 28-24 winners. On reflection, Irish defence coach, Simon Easterby lamented: “We probably didn’t fire enough shots and make the most of the opportunities in that game.”
Ireland benefits from wrapping their top players in cotton wool during the season, allowing them to be in a strong position to outperform their opponents during the Six Nations and Autumn internationals — as evidenced by all 34 squad players being fit enough to train a week ahead of the start of the Six Nations. With more of a level playing field at the World Cup, that advantage evaporates. However, back in the comforting familiarity of the Northern Hemisphere’s annual jamboree, normal service should be resumed, though it must be said that Ireland has yet to win either a Five Nations or Six Nations Championship in a year following a World Cup.
Over the past four years of the Six Nations, that service has seen the men in green trending in the right direction. Third-placed finishes in 2020 and 2021 were followed by second place in 2022 and a fifth Six Nations title in 2023. Having failed to secure a Grand Slam since 1948, Ireland have landed three since 2009.
Those efforts, along with some successful overseas tours and Autumn International results, saw Ireland reach the pinnacle of the sport for the second time, and they remained at the top of the world rankings for 15 months. A quarter-final exit meant they were demoted to second place in the world list.
Of Ireland’s four provinces, Leinster and Munster secured places in the last 16 of the Champions Cup, while Ulster and Connacht had to settle for the Challenge Cup. Leinster were undeniably impressive once again, with a clean sweep of their quartet of games, including a 16-9 win away at La Rochelle, who have won the past two renewals of the tournament. The four-time European Champions will provide the backbone of Ireland’s Six Nations squad.
One sense in which things will be different for Ireland in this year’s Six Nations is in the number ten jersey.
That’s how many points Johnny Sexton delivered over 118 caps for Ireland. Twice a British and Irish Lions tourist, the stand-off called time on his glittering career after that quarter-final defeat. A day Irish fans have long dreaded has now arrived. Also retiring on 101 international caps is winger Keith Earls. Ireland will certainly miss that duo.
Currently second in the Outright Winner betting, at 6/4, Ireland possesses several world-class players, including 2022 World Player of the Year, back row Josh van der Flier. The Wexford Bull tighthead Tadhg Furlong is among the best in the world at his position, and he made the World Rugby 2023 Dream Team. Dan Sheehan joined him in that selection and has been a very consistent performer since replacing Rory Best as Ireland’s first-choice hooker. The days of props walking from scrum to scrum are long gone, and the fitness levels displayed by loosehead Andrew Porter in playing 364 of a possible 400 minutes during Ireland’s Grand Slam triumph were highly impressive. Ireland’s front row depth is shown by the fact that Canberra-born Finlay Bealham remains consigned to the bench despite making the 2022-23 United Rugby Championship Dream Team Of The Year. British and Irish Lion Tadhg Beirne made World Rugby’s 2022 Dream Team Of The Year last year, while James Ryan is likely to be his partner in the second row.
Van der Flier is ably supported in the back row by Peter O’Mahony, who will take over the armband from Sexton. Perhaps the best description of the Munsterman’s contribution came from former England centre Will Greenwood: “If the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse came around the corner, Peter O’Mahony would charge straight back at them.” Versatile enough to operate at six or eight, Caelan Doris made the 2023 World Rugby Dream Team of the Year in the former position.
Three-way stand-off to decide who will fill Sexton’s boots
With Joey Carbery sidelined through injury, Ireland’s choice of Sexton’s replacement comes down to Ciarán Frawley and Jack Crowley. Alternatively, could the opening Friday evening fixture be Byrne’s night, as Leinster’s Harry is also in the discussion? Whoever starts at fly-half will likely be partnered by New Zealand-born Jamison Gibson-Park at scrum-half. Centre Garry Ringrose will start at 13 once he has recovered from an injury that will mean he’ll miss the tournament’s opening night. He will bring both defensive solidity and an attacking threat — he recorded 47 carries at the World Cup. Bundee Aki has just inked a deal with his adopted country for a further two years. He is the favourite to start one position inside Ringrose and was shortlisted for World Player of the Year. The centre-pairing both earned World XV Dream Team nods last year.
Imperious under the high ball, full-back Hugo Keenan has been excellent during Ireland’s recent historic run. The Fox is a fantastic reader of the game and a counter-attacking threat. He is likely to be joined by southern hemisphere convert James Lowe — joint-top try scorer in the 2022 Six Nations. Amazingly for a winger, Lowe was the 2023 Six Nations’ most prolific pilferer, securing ten turnovers. With Mack Hansen, who like Lowe, played every minute of last year’s Six Nations, out injured, the twinkle-toed Jordan Larmour or the powerful Jacob Stockdale will likely claim a starting spot.
Being dismissed by England as assistant coach following the disappointment of failing to get out of the group in the 2015 World Cup must seem like a distant memory for Andy Farrell, who recently signed a contract that will keep him as Ireland’s coach until 2027. The former Rugby League legend has built on the strong foundations left by former coach Joe Schmidt as Ireland has continued to tick items off their Rugby bucket list. However, the World Cup success they most wanted predictably alluded them.
The schedule all comes alike to Ireland, with a brace of Six Nations titles in even-numbered years and three triumphs in years with the alternative fixture list. Crucially, though, this year’s format sees the all-important clash with France occur in Marseille during the tournament’s first week. That game will go a long way to deciding the destiny of the championship, but after that titanic encounter, Ireland hosts Italy and Wales. Round Four sees a trip to Twickenham before Ireland will be hoping that their last home game against Scotland will see them retain their title.
Despite the loss of Sexton and Earls the current conveyor belt of Irish Rugby talent means Ireland is well placed to challenge for Northern Hemisphere supremacy once more. How successful that challenge is will have much to do with what happens on 2nd February. Win in Marseille, and Irish fans might be able to look forward to starting the St Patrick’s Day celebrations a day early against Scotland on 16th March.
Looking for a new England
Given the tumultuous events that preceded England’s World Cup campaign, with numerous injuries and an almost daily update on the suspension of one player or another, their campaign was less eventful when the tournament began. Having lost eight and won four (with one draw) of their 13 matches before the finals, a third-place finish was respectable. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Red Rose campaign without some controversy. Tom Curry saw red in the opening pool game against Argentina, but that seemed to inspire Steve Borthwick’s side, as the 14 men downed Los Pumas 27-10. They comfortably beat the next most potent team in the section by defeating Japan 34-12 before ‘nilling’ Chile. England narrowly avoided embarrassment as they overcame Samoa 18-17 to complete the Pool Stage. Samoa’s fellow South Sea Islanders, Fiji, had stunned England at headquarters in August, but a 30-24 triumph saw the Red Rose avenge that loss.
England began their semi-final against South Africa as 13-point underdogs but initially belied those odds. The boot of Owen Farrell had given England a 6-0 lead before running his mouth close to the referee marched England back to put South Africa in range to halve the deficit. After another Farrell penalty, the Springboks took the unusual step of replacing their starting fly-half as early as the 31st minute. It was a decision that was to have a profound effect on the match.
That substitute, Handré Pollard’s first action was to kick a penalty before the England captain’s boot extended England’s lead to 12-6 at half-time. Farrell’s monster second-half drop-goal increased their advantage to nine points, and that’s how things remained with just over 12 minutes remaining. However, the Springboks’ giant lock, RG Snyman, bludgeoned his way across the try-line, and the Boks were back within two. Cue the game’s most controversial moment, when England’s Ellis Genge was pinged for a scrum penalty, and the Springbok replacement fly-half put South Africa in front. With the clock in the red, England knocked on and saw their World Cup ended by the Boks for the second tournament running, but this time by a narrower margin of 16-15, with England losing despite having trailed for only two and a half minutes of the match. They found themselves in the third and fourth-placed playoff. Rebranding this the Bronze Medal Match doesn’t detract from it being the game no one wants to be in, but England secured third place, as wins over Los Pumas bookended their campaign. Given that the draw had been kind, it would be wrong to exaggerate England’s World Cup achievements, but at least they avoided further ignominy of the kind seen before the tournament.
It seems surprising that England is still the most successful team in Six Nations history and remains top of the list of countries when it comes to Grand Slams when both the Five and Six Nations numbers are combined. After 17 outright wins in the Five Nations, England has an unmatched total of seven wins in the Six Nations era, though an unbeaten campaign has often alluded them, with just two Six Nations Grand Slams achieved.
It seems like it has been a long time since England’s 2020 Six Nations triumph. Since then, they have posted a disappointing fifth-, third-, and fourth-place finish in recent renewals. Having fallen below the likes of Scotland in the men’s world rankings before France ‘23, England’s third place in the tournament saw them return to fifth spot on the world list.
Six of the eight English sides qualified from their Champions Cup groups, with the unbeaten Northampton Saints leading an English one-two in Pool C, where they were chased home by the Exeter Chiefs.
After some recent turbulent seasons, Owen Farrell initially decided to take a sabbatical from international Rugby. But the subsequent news that he is leaving Saracens for Racing 92 means he may never pull on an England shirt again. Since 2011, an RFU edict states that players based abroad cannot be selected for the national team, with the only exception being made when an English club side has folded and a player has been forced into an overseas move as a result. Given his strong performances at the World Cup, it’s hard to see his departure as a positive, but it might free England up to play a more attacking style. Marcus Smith isn’t a fullback, and to have his inventiveness at ten and then have the Saracens skipper outside him has stifled creativity.
England will also be without the services of three players for whom the tournament in France was their last international involvement. Foremost among these is Courtney Lawes, as the former British and Irish Lion bowed out after 105 caps. Another centurion and England’s most capped men’s player, Ben Youngs, also called time on his international career, as did Jonny May — second on England’s all-time try-scorer list. Except for Lawes, these were players whose best days were behind them, but England has seen 309 caps walk out the door.
England has only two home and three away matches in the Six Nations schedule during even-numbered years. But with home advantage against both Wales and Ireland and one of the three road games coming in Rome, this format has suited England better in recent years, with Six Nations titles in 2016 and 2020 — the former being the occasion of their last Grand Slam success.
Curry off the menu
England suffered a blow before the old year ended, with flanker Tom Curry being ruled out of the championship after requiring surgery on a long-term hip problem. The Sale man was one of three Englishmen voted to the Team of the Tournament during the 2019 World Cup.
Although Jamie George brings experience and top-notch lineout throwing, he lacks the contribution in the loose of some of England’s other options in the number two shirt. Nevertheless, with 85 caps, George is one of England’s leadership group, and in the absence of Farrell, he has been named captain. No one made more clear-outs in last year’s renewal than the Saracens’ hooker. Traditionally strong in the set piece, England hasn’t had a menacing scrum for several years, though prop Ellis Genge contributes heavily in the loose. The tighthead starting spot may be a battle between Will Stuart and the venerable Dan Cole.
Maro Itoje looks nailed on for a second-row spot — the former British and Irish Lion has been one of England’s standout players despite a propensity for giving away penalties. Ollie Chessum is the front-runner to join him in the boilerhouse. England lacked natural scavengers at the breakdown for many years but has improved in that department in recent seasons. It’s impossible to fault Ben Earl’s work rate. The Saracens man possesses freakish athleticism, and his numbers in the recent tournament in France were undeniably impressive: he made 337 metres, leaving 24 defenders in his wake while felling 80 opponents into the bargain. Tom Pearson and Chandler Cunningham-South are back-row options who made the Six Nations squad. Sam Underhill, a big part of England’s run to the 2019 Rugby World Cup Final, has been selected for the squad, but Bath’s impressive Alfie Barbeary missed out.
The race for number ten
Alex Mitchell is the incumbent at scrum-half, having played during the World Cup. As for the fly-half shirt, it seems fitting to have a race for number ten in an election year. Like the political battle, one name will likely be first past the post. Mr Smith. Long term, it will likely be Marcus, though a leg injury means he will miss England’s opening game. Many have been campaigning for his namesake, Fin. George Ford’s game management skills mean he is also a candidate for the fly-half role.
The Smiths — How Soon Is Now?
Marcus Smith brings creativity to the fly-half position, and the Harlequins’ man has shown flashes of brilliance this season. He will never be a consistent 90%+ goal kicker, but he is an elusive runner who can create opportunities for others, and it seems only a matter of time before he is given the keys to England’s backline. His namesake, Fin, has been starring for Northampton this season. He could have opted for Scotland, but Borthwick has included him in his Six Nations squad to prevent the England under-20 international from escaping north of Hadrian’s Wall.
There are plenty of x-factors but few certainties in the back three, where former members of England’s Under-20 Rugby World Cup winning teams, Max Malins, Joe Marchant, and Anthony Watson, have all missed out on selection. Human highlight reel Henry Arundell found opportunities could have been more extensive during the World Cup. The Racing 92 starlet could have done little more than racking up five tries in the pool game against Chile — equalling the try-scoring record for a player wearing the Red Rose in a single match. Then he was left out of the matchday squad for England’s next group game against Samoa, prompting rumours of a training ground bust-up being behind his exclusion. Since he’s now based in France, he isn’t available for international selection.
Winger Immanuel Feyi-Waboso has been snaffled from under Wales’ noses. The Exeter Chief has earned rave reviews in the Gallagher Premiership this season. Combining giving defenders dizzy fits with studying for his Medical Degree in Exeter, Feyi-Waboso was born and raised in Cardiff. However, it looks like the only red he’ll be wearing on his international shirt will be a rose.
Freddie Steward has been named England Men’s Player of the Year for the past two seasons. Rock-solid under the high ball — according to Oval’s data, he recorded 37 defensive catches in last year’s tournament — he looks like one of the few certainties to be in the England side. An injury means Manu Tuilagi’s power and offloading ability will be missed. At least England has another powerful centre option in Ollie Lawrence to play instead of Tuilagi, while Henry Slade is back in favour after being omitted from England’s World Cup squad. With all the uncertainty in England’s backline, one strong likelihood is the heavy involvement of backs from the Northampton Saints. As well as Mitchell and Fin Smith, Fraser Dingwall, Tommy Freeman, and George Furbank will all be vying for international game time.
Steve Borthwick took over as England head coach from Eddie Jones, and since last year’s Six Nations, his record has been somewhat mixed — as was his predecessor’s. Sixteen games have brought nine wins, and seven losses. A former England captain as a player, he stepped out of Jones’ shadow when guiding Leicester Tigers to the 2021-22 Gallagher Premiership title, which was enough to persuade the RFU hierarchy that he was their man when Jones finally ran out of road. His ability to orchestrate England’s lineout and driving maul is not questioned, but does he possess the required all-court coaching game? Mid-table finishes in the Six Nations will never be enough as England coach, but Borthwick will hope to build on the small progress seen in the World Cup.
If England were to scale the Six Nations mountain, then the climb would get steeper as the tournament progressed, with each match more difficult than the last. After an opening trip to Rome, England hosts Wales before they face an away match in Scotland in Round Three. The Scots have a fine recent record against the Auld Enemy, and things get even more challenging for the Red Rose in the concluding games. First, they welcome reigning champions Ireland to Twickenham before bringing the curtain down on this year’s championship as they face Les Bleus in Lyon.
England begin the campaign amid a backdrop of potential change in the domestic game. A proposal to implement hybrid contracts is at the forefront of several changes to the structure of the sport in England. Having seen Wasps, Worcester, and London Irish fold in recent seasons, it has been proposed that the RFU would pay some of the wages of England internationals. This move would ease the financial burden on the clubs while giving Steve Borthwick more say in the workloads his top 25 players face. Whether it is “peace in our time” remains to be seen, but something has to be done.
13/2 third-favourites at the time of writing, England’s championship has the potential for success if some of the young players can find their feet and the team can build on the momentum of the World Cup. But England has regularly disappointed in recent Six Nations, and their under-20 set-up isn’t currently able to hold a candle to that of France or Ireland. Having won all 30 full tests against Italy, they will be very hopeful of making a winning start on 3rd February.
Laying Ghosts to Rest in the Scottish Play
You could argue that Scotland’s chances of World Cup progression ended four years earlier. Despite entering the 2023 tournament ranked fifth in the world, the draw was made over three years before the tournament kicked off when Scotland’s form was not so impressive. Consequently, Gregor Townsend’s men became one of the third-ranked teams and faced Ireland and South Africa in Pool B.
Scots gunned down in World Cup shootout
“We’re not going to die wondering; we’ve got to fire every bullet in our gun.” That was the pre-match comment from captain Jamie Ritchie as they prepared to face Ireland. The Scots never had the firepower to threaten to eliminate either of their powerhouse opponents, losing 18-3 to the Springboks and succumbing to their fellow Celts by a margin of 36-14. In fairness, that scoreline failed to tell the whole story, as the men in green led 36-0 before calling off the dogs, which allowed Scotland to make the scoreline look a little more respectable. Outscoring Tonga and Romania by a combined 129-17 made no difference, and Scotland failed to make the knockout stage.
The last winners of the old Five Nations championship, Scotland haven’t threatened to add to that silverware in the past 24 runnings of the event, though they won five outright titles in the old format, including three Triple Crowns. While the Scots have lacked consistency from one game to another, there hasn’t been much volatility to their finishing position, with three fourth-placed efforts being eclipsed by finishing third twelve months ago.
Ranked sixth in the world, the Scots haven’t suffered any significant post-World Cup retirements, but two former captains had called time on their careers before France ‘23, with centurion Stuart Hogg and Stuart McInally having both hung up their boots.
With echoes of Scottish Football, Rugby Union at club level north of the border revolves around just two teams. Still, the health of the game in Scotland was shown by the record crowd for a Scottish club game that attended the second of the two 1872 Cup URC games at Murrayfield, with an attendance of close to 38,000 roaring on Glasgow and Edinburgh. Glasgow was left to fly the flag for Scotland in the premier European club competition. Their four pool games saw them progress with two wins and two losses.
Once a limited team whose best hope of success was getting opponents into a low-scoring arm wrestle, these days, Scotland is a much more potent scoring threat, even without Hogg. The Scots are less prolific in the set piece and lack world-class forwards. However, fan-favourite Pierre Schoeman has been a consistent performer at loosehead and started every Six Nations match last season. On the opposite side of the scrum, Zander Fagerson’s potential was spotted early in his career, as he became the youngest player to represent Scotland in half a century at the age of 20. Since then, he has been selected for the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa, and he recorded 35 clear-outs in last year’s Six Nations. With 40 caps to his name, George Turner looks set to pack down in the middle of Scotland’s front row.
Ritchie Gray and Grant Gilchrist started Scotland’s two crucial Pool Stage World Cup matches in the second row and seem likely to resume those roles once more. Two player-of-the-match performances during the 2020 Six Nations cemented Jamie Ritchie’s place in Townsend’s starting line-up. With his impressive work rate, the former British schools’ Judo champion is a former Scotland captain. His back-row running mates look set to be the Glasgow pair of Rory Darge and Jack Dempsey. The former was named co-captain, while the latter played for Scotland in the World Cup, having represented the Wallabies in the previous tournament. Capped fourteen times by Australia, Dempsey qualified for Scotland on residential grounds after observing the three-year stand-down period.
Behind the scrum, Ali Price looks favourite to start at scrum-half with George Horne coming off the bench. Mercurial fly-half — and new co-captain — Finn Russell is a top-class performer who now calls The Rec at Bath home, as is fellow British and Irish Lion Duwan van der Merwe, whose combination of strength and speed can be lethal.
If you had to assemble a Six Nations 4×100 metre relay squad, Darcy Graham’s electrifying pace would make him a strong candidate for inclusion. The winger’s form for Edinburgh last season saw him make the URC Dream Team of the Year. Australian-born centre Sione Tuipulotu joined him in that line-up and is a powerful ball carrier, adept at getting over the gain line. He will probably form the “Huwipulotu” midfield partnership with fellow Glasgow Warrior Huw Jones. Hogg’s departure from the international stage has created space for Blair Kinghorn at full-back. He has twice recorded a hat-trick of tries for Scotland and reached the 50-cap milestone during the World Cup.
The lack of top-class young players emerging north of the border is a significant concern. Their under-20s team has struggled in recent seasons, having won only one match in the junior Six Nations in the past three years. This glitch in the production line has led Scotland to cast their net widely, and nearly half of their World Cup squad hailed initially from other countries.
A centre of great flair in his playing days, Gregor Townsend has built a side in his own image and is the longest-tenured coach in the tournament, having been in charge of Scotland since 2017. How much further can he take Scotland?
The Scots begin their campaign in Cardiff and then welcome France and England to Murrayfield. After a trip to Italy, they will hope to still have something to play for at the Aviva Stadium in Round Five. They have finished fourth on both the last two occasions with these fixtures.
A first-ever Six Nations trophy for Scotland is rated a 12/1 chance. While unlikely, that still represents a better prospect than when the Scots were regularly priced at 25/1 or even 33/1 a few years ago. Whether Gregor Townsend’s men can finally take that giant step — in leap year — remains to be seen.
Will Morgan/Lake absences mean Wales are for the high jump?
Despite finding themselves in the easier half of the draw during the tournament’s early stages, expectations were low for Wales ahead of the World Cup. It’s difficult to know what to make of their campaign in France. Although they accounted for Fiji, 32-26, in their opening pool game, the South Sea Islanders almost snatched victory. But, star three-quarter Semi Radradra allowed a bounce pass to slip through his fingers with the tryline gaping and the clock in the red. After an expected win over Portugal, Wales trounced Australia 40-6 — their biggest-ever win over the admittedly poor Wallabies, sealing their place in the quarter-finals with a game to spare. Warren Gatland’s men made short work of Georgia in their final group game to make it four wins from four.
A Dan Biggar try gave the Dragons an early lead against Argentina in the knockout phase. Both teams swapped penalties before another Emiliano Boffelli three-pointer closed the gap to a single point at the break. The Argentine kicker gave Los Pumas the lead with a penalty from within Argentina’s half. Tomos Williams sniped around the ruck to put the Dragons back in front. Thirteen minutes from time, Wales still had a five-point lead, but Joel Sclavi crossed for the South Americans, and Wales would fail to score again. They couldn’t have come much closer, as Louis Rees-Zammit launched himself through the air towards the Argentine line, but Matías Moroni forced him into touch. The Dragons’ fire was finally extinguished when Nicolás Sánchez’s intercept try, and a subsequent penalty settled the issue.
Having dominated the Five Nations during the halcyon days of the 1970s, Wales can lay claim to 15 outright successes during the Five Nations era, including six Grand Slams. Since 2000, they have landed six titles, going unbeaten on four occasions.
2021 stands as a beacon amid recent gloom for Wales, and they won that year’s title but have had to settle for the lowly perch of fifth place in the other three recent renewals. Quarter-finalists at the World Cup, they are similarly placed in the latest world rankings, separating Argentina and Australia in eighth place.
Anyone looking for a ray of light for Welsh Six Nations hopes better not look at their provincial teams. Only Cardiff had earned a place in the Champions Cup Pool Phase, and they lost all four of their group games, being outscored by 113 points.
King Louis abdicates
Wales’ preparations for the Northern Hemisphere championship suffered a massive blow before a ball was kicked with the news that Louis Rees-Zammit has decided to quit Rugby Union to chase his dream of playing in the NFL. Still only 22, the former Gloucester speedster recorded 14 tries in 31 appearances for his country.
Less unexpected was the news that since last year’s Six Nations, the Dragons have seen the retirements of Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Leigh Halfpenny, and Dan Biggar, seeing 464 Welsh caps and 20 British and Irish Lions appearances walk out the door.
The front row looks to be the weakest area for Wales, with a few positions up for grabs. Given he had been named co-captain for the World Cup, it looked like Dewi Lake would start in the number two jersey until injury ended his hopes of participation. His absence leaves Ryan Elias and Elliot Dee fighting for the start at hooker. Whoever gets the nod could be joined in the front row by Osprey Gareth Thomas, with Leon Brown, a contender at tighthead.
In the second row, Will Rowlands, now plying his trade in France with Racing 92, looks likely to call the lineout and impressed with 65 tackles at the World Cup. It speaks volumes for the regard in which Dafydd Jenkins is held at Sandy Park that he became Exeter Chiefs’ youngest-ever captain at the age of 19, in 2022. He is in line to add to his 12 caps and has the potential to improve into a strong candidate to start on the next Lions’ tour. The Dragons can also call on Adam Beard in the second row. The Ospreys’ lock reached 50 caps for his country last year and was called up as a replacement during the previous Lions’ tour.
From this point onwards, Wales has distinctly more quality (and quantity) at their disposal. World Cup co-captain Jac Morgan would have started at openside, but, like Lake, he succumbed to an injury. He will be sorely missed after he showed his full repertoire of skills in France over the Autumn, from being a tackling machine to adding a brace of tries. Tommy Reffell looks to be the next cab off the rank, with Morgan unavailable. Aaron Wainwright is a likely starter at either blind side or number eight, as is the man with an appropriate name for a tough-tackling back row: Taine Basham.
Biggar shoes to fill
Dan Biggar racked up 112 caps for Wales. Sam Costelow, Ioan Lloyd, and Cai Evans, the three principal candidates to replace him, have a grand total of eleven between them. With pace to burn and a fine passing game, Costelow looks the most likely candidate to wear the fabled Welsh number ten shirt. But his kicking game is very much a work in progress. Wales have several first-rate scrum-halves but elected to take just two to the World Cup. Tomos Williams is a marginal favourite to start ahead of Gareth Davies.
Despite Biggar’s departure, the backline has some exciting elements to it. George North operates at outside centre these days and has played in three tests for the British and Irish Lions. Rio Dyer looks like the likeliest candidate to start on the left wing, and with international experience at a premium, Josh Adams provides much-needed test-match know-how. Restricted to two appearances in the 2023 Six Nations, former England Under-20 World Cup winner Nick Tompkins recorded more offloads per 80 minutes than any other player in the tournament. He is another option in the centres, as is Mason Grady, who possesses a blend of speed and power that could see him force his way into the starting line-up.
Former coach Wayne Pivac paid the price for defeats to Italy and Georgia in 2022, ushering in the return of former Wales coach Warren Gatland. Few coaches can match the Kiwi’s experience, but there is a question mark as to whether Warrenball — Gatland’s preference for a game built around the crash ball and gain-line success — works against the world’s elite. However, there is no doubting his record in the more parochial Northern Hemisphere championship. At the age of 60, it will be interesting to see if the Kiwi has the appetite to oversee what is likely to be a substantial rebuilding project.
Wales’ last three Six Nations triumphs have all come in odd-numbered years when they have just two home games. The previous two versions in this fixture format have seen the Dragons finish fifth on both occasions. Gatland’s side entertains Scotland in the concluding Round One fixture before crossing the Severn Bridge to face the old enemy at headquarters. The next two fixtures are daunting: a trip to Dublin and hosting France. They hope they will welcome Italy to town in Round Five with more than the Wooden Spoon at stake.
Despite a problematical build-up to this year’s event, it has been no worse than last year’s when financial issues led some players to threaten strike action on the eve of the tournament. 2024 is the Chinese Year of the Dragon. Whether that is a good omen for 25/1 chances Wales remains to be seen.
Beaten black and blue
Facing hosts France and narrow pre-tournament favourites, New Zealand in the Pool Stage meant Italy were always likely to be saying arrivederci at the World Cup early on. After comfortable wins against Namibia and Uruguay, the Azzurri found themselves on the receiving end of two lopsided scorelines. First, the All Blacks beat them 96-17, then Les Blues whitewashed them 60-7.
Added to the tournament at the turn of the century, you have to go back to 2015 for the last time that Italy didn’t end the Six Nations with the Wooden Spoon. Those eight last-place finishes make it 18 times in 24 renewals that the Azzurri have found themselves in sixth place, while they have managed just 13 wins and one draw in 120 Six Nations’ outings. A 2022 win against Wales ended a run of 36 straight Six Nations defeats.
Such meagre returns in the World Cup and the Northern Hemisphere championship see Italy in 11th place in the latest world rankings, one below Fiji. While Italy continues to enjoy a place in the Six Nations, neither of their United Rugby Championship representatives earned a spot in the Pool Phase for this year’s European Champions Cup. However, it is encouraging that Benetton Treviso sit second in the URC table after nine rounds.
At least Italy hasn’t suffered any significant retirements following France ‘23. That said, a shoulder injury sustained by second-row Dino Lamb has ended his chances of participating in the tournament.
Traditionally strong at scrum time, Italy don’t possess the quality front rows of old now that they are shorn of their Argentinian contingent. Despite having the name of a sportscar, Simone Ferrari is more of a 4×4, but his absence from the squad leaves Danilo Fischetti in pole position for the loosehead starting spot. Ferrari’s Benetton teammate, New Zealand-born Hame Faiva, also misses out, meaning Giacomo Nicotera will likely pack down between Fischetti and Pietro Ceccarelli. Saracens’ Marco Riccioni, who helped his team win the Gallagher Premiership title last year, is not in the squad. Federico Ruzza made last season’s URC Dream Team Of The Year, and the lock will win his 50th international cap during the tournament. Ruzza was the focal point of the Italian lineout, with Oval’s data recording that he secured a tournament-high 38 attacking lineouts in last year’s competition. His likely locking partner is Niccolò Cannone, whose brother, Lorenzo, is favourite to start at number eight. With a team that is distinctly lacking in stardust, flanker Michele Lamaro has been fast-tracked to the role of captain within a year of making his first appearance for the Azzurri. The Benetton back row is an agile tackling machine. Sebastian Negri passed the 50-cap milestone during the World Cup, where he started on the blindside.
Paolo Garbisi was the player who held his nerve to kick Italy to a first Six Nations win in 36 games against Wales two years ago, and the fly-half is the man who will be responsible for getting the Italian backline moving. One place inside him, Stephen Varney has established himself as the first-choice nine and plays his club Rugby for Gloucester. Italy had to do without the services of winger Monty Ioane during last year’s tournament, as his club, the Melbourne Rebels, refused to release him. He has good bloodlines — his uncle Digby and cousin Pete Samu have played for the Wallabies, and he has delivered 11 tries in 25 tests. An international debutant against Scotland in last year’s Northern Hemisphere championship, Simone Gesi made the URC Dream Team on the wing last season.
Tommaso Allan’s World Cup performance from the kicking tee was flawless, as he was successful with all 16 attempts at goal. Allan will likely occupy the full-back role if Garbisi starts ahead of him at ten. Another option is for Garbisi to partner Argentine-born Ignacio Brex as the centre pairing. The diminutive Ange Capuozzo, who burst onto the international scene with a brace of tries against Scotland inside 35 minutes in 2022, is also vying for a starting spot.
The Italian Job
With their Northern Hemisphere rivals having decided to maintain the status quo in the coaches’ box, the Azzurri have opted to twist rather than stick. After three years in the role, Kiwi Kieran Crowley has made way for Gonzalo Quesada, the former Argentine international who earned 38 caps for Los Pumas as a player. He guided the Jaguares to the 2019 Super Rugby Final, and the Italian Federation will hope that an Argentinian can again fortify Italy’s Rugby ranks.
One of Italy’s great strengths is their ruck speed; they recycle the ball quicker than any of their Six Nations opponents. But whether they can win enough ball and use it effectively remains to be seen.
Given their recent paucity of wins in this competition, there won’t be any games Italy will have circled as particularly winnable. However, they will travel to the Principality Stadium in Round Five, hoping for a repeat of their last visit. Before that, Italy hosts England, faces road trips to Ireland and France, and welcomes Scotland to the Stadio Olimpico.
For Italy, expectations remain the same as they always are at this time of year. Fail to win a match, and the naysayers will be quick to question whether they deserve a place at the Northern Hemisphere’s top table or if the Six Nations should turn the Rugby world on its head by trying to lure South Africa — whose relationship with the other SANZAAR nations is still a fractious one — into the fold. Or maybe Georgia has earned the right to have a crack at Europe’s Rugby elite. One win would certainly be satisfactory for 250/1 outsiders Italy. Two would be blue-sky thinking for the Azzurri.
Although it is the Chinese Year of the Dragon, with France having home advantage in the curtain-raiser against Ireland, it is more likely to be the year of the rooster. However, the French have to jump through a few hoops — well, rings — in Olympic year, with no matches at the Stade de France and no midfield general.
Before the tournament, the 2023 Rugby World Cup had seemed to offer so much hope for a second win for a team from the Northern Hemisphere but it ended with Europe’s elite left out in the cold. The arrival of the Six Nations signals that Winter is nearly over and Spring can’t be far away. Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend echoed the sentiments of many fans about the appointment-to-see television that the tournament delivers: “The Rugby world stops on those weekends and the sporting world as well.” Former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt summed up the tournament: ”It’s the whole tribalism. It’s the fact that we’re neighbours, we’re so close. I love the atmosphere in the stadiums. That becomes a little bit contagious.” Get ready for Six Nations fever.