The oldest international rugby tournament in the world: the Six Nations are back

By Sophie Little

While the 2023 rugby World Cup was a great tournament to watch it left many Northern Hemisphere fans feeling dejected.  England were the only Six Nations side in the semi-finals, and the New Zealand vs South Africa final suggested that for all the talk, nothing has changed in rugby, and the southern hemisphere are still ruling.

Both Ireland and France went into the World Cup with high expectations, and both fell short in the quarterfinals.  It is without a doubt that they will be coming to the 2024 Six Nations Championship with something to prove.   While both teams are looking strong, international retirements and injuries have left holes in squads across the board.

The first game of the tournament is France vs Ireland in Marseille, due to the Stade de France being prepared for this summer’s Olympics, on Friday 2nd February.  Many believe this game will decide the winner of the tournament from the get-go.

Ireland are going into the tournament as Grand Slam holders, and will be looking to retain their title.  The Irish squad is largely unchanged from the World Cup, with only three uncapped players being named, and all as training players. 

Johnny Sexton retired after the World Cup, and his shoes will of course be difficult to fill, not just in playing capabilities but in leadership qualities.  Flanker Peter O’Mahony has been named to fill the hole at skipper, and he is no stranger to the role.  He captained the first test in the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa, has captained Ireland ten times and was skipper at Munster for over a decade before he stepped down in November.

A dislocated shoulder will mean that winger Mack Hansen will miss the tournament, and finding a replacement for his speed and strength may prove difficult.

The glaring hole in the French team, and perhaps the whole tournament is Antoine Dupont.  A genius of the game, he will be training with the French 7s team with the hopes of competing in his home Olympics this summer.  While no one can quite take his place as player and game maker, Gregory Alldritt, who captains La Rochelle, has been named as skipper for the French team.

Of the 34-man squad selected for the tournament, 22 were in the French World Cup squad, and look to be on promising form.  

A glaring hole in the French team is Antoine Dupont

Uini Atonio, who retired after France’s exit in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, has unretired and eased concerns over who would play at tighthead.  A world-class scrummager, and a force to be reckoned with in the loose, Fabien Galthie’s wishes were granted when Atonio announced his U-turn.

In England’s 36-man squad, it is impossible not to notice plenty of big names missing.  Courtney Lawes, Jonny May, Ben Youngs and Mako Vunipola have all retired from international rugby, and due to playing abroad Joe Marchant, Jack Willis, Henry Arundell and David Ribbans are all unavailable for selection.  

Tom Curry and Manu Tuilagi are both out due to injury.  Previous captain Owen Farrell had made himself unavailable, saying he wished to “prioritise his mental wellbeing”.  It has since been confirmed that he has signed a two-year contract with French side Racing 92 and will thus be unavailable for England rugby from the end of this season anyway.   

Two of the surprising names which have been left out are Billy Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler, who is reported to being on the verge of moving to play in France.  

To make up for these gaps, seven uncapped players have been called up, including the Exeter wing Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, who represented Wales at youth level and has been making waves in the Premiership.  Centre, Henry Slade is also back in the squad after he was left out of the World Cup.  

Jamie George has been tasked with leading the squad as captain, having proved himself as a capable leader in recent years within the team.

Given where we are in the World Cup cycle, now is the time to be experimenting with new players, not that coach Warren Gatland has much choice

Former England prop Alec Hepburn has been named in the Scotland squad, eligible thanks to his father who was born in Scotland.  Surprisingly, Chris Harris and Hamish Watson, both of whom are uninjured, have been dropped.  Watson has played a vital role in recent years for Scottish rugby with his formidable defence and won player of the Championship after an incredible Six Nations in 2021. 

Apart from Watson, all the big names in the back row for Scotland have been named, despite having been plagued by a host of injuries.  Jamie Ritchie has missed recent Edinburgh games due to a jaw injury; number eight Jack Dempsey has had surgery on his skull but is back in training, and Matt Fagerson has recently returned from a facial injury.

Apart from a new coach in Gonzalo Quesada, the Italian squad is largely recognisable, containing only five uncapped players who will be hoping to win their first cap against England in their opening match.  With many of their young stars starting to gain more experience, they also have a host of promising young players who have come up through the age categories.

The team which seems to be the most uncertain is Wales.  Most news in the media recently has been about Louis Rees-Zammit and his shock exit from the sport in order to move to the NFL, which was announced on the same day that the Welsh squad for the tournament was announced.  

It is worth noting that this squad is one of the most inexperienced Welsh teams in recent history.  Given where we are in the World Cup cycle, now is the time to be experimenting with new players, not that coach Warren Gatland has much choice.

This is one of the most inexperienced Welsh teams in recent history

Big names Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny have all retired from international rugby, Liam Williams is now playing in Japan, Gareth Anscombe is absent, and Dewi Lake, Jac Morgan and Taulupe Faletau are all injured.  Dafydd Jenkins has been appointed captain at the age of 21, suggesting that there will be some changes to the usual first-choice lock duo of Adam Beard and Will Rowlands.

All in all, France seem to be favourites going into the tournament, and I would be likely to agree, with Ireland being the only ones I can see causing them any trouble.  Steve Borthwick will be looking to create a plan for England rugby which has been missing under his reign.  Italy will be wanting to continue building on recent years and cause some upsets.  Meanwhile, Wales will be hoping to gel as a team and come back from what has been a disastrous few years for them.  And of course, you can never discount Scotland. 

I for one am very excited to see what the oldest rugby tournament in the world will bring this year.

Image: European Professional Club Rugby via Wikimedia Commons

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