New captains, absent stars and fresh faces – Six Nations talking points

By Sports Desk January 25, 2024

The Rugby World Cup done and dusted until 2027, attention now turns to this season’s Guinness Six Nations and a battle for European supremacy.

Ireland and France, who meet in the competition’s opening game, are favourites for silverware, while a host of new captains include England hooker Jamie George, Wales lock Dafydd Jenkins and Ireland flanker Peter O’Mahony.

Here, the PA news agency looks at some key talking points ahead of the tournament.

No Owen Farrell for new-look England

England will head into the Six Nations without their World Cup captain and fly-half Farrell, who has decided to miss the tournament in order to prioritise his and his family’s mental wellbeing.

Farrell’s Saracens colleague George takes over leadership duties, heading up a squad that includes Exeter pair Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and Ethan Roots among seven uncapped players, but experienced forwards Kyle Sinckler and Billy Vunipola have been left out. Italy away and Wales at home suggests England should make an unbeaten start, but life then gets infinitely tougher with Scotland at Murrayfield being followed by Ireland on home soil and France in Lyon.

The World Cup bronze medallists have their work cut out to shake up principal title contenders Ireland and France, but with players like Alex Mitchell, Henry Slade and Tommy Freeman in blistering form for their clubs, Steve Borthwick’s men could make a strong impression if everything clicks.

Big boots to fill for Ireland’s fly-halves

Andy Farrell’s approach with reigning Grand Slam champions Ireland is very much evolution, not revolution following 29 wins from their last 32 fixtures. Farrell has retained 26 of the 33 players he took to the World Cup, with the alterations all enforced due to injuries and retirements.

Yet the major transition facing Farrell is undoubtedly in the most influential position. Johnny Sexton’s departure has left a void at fly-half and is expected to result in Munster’s Jack Crowley being elevated to first choice. The exciting 24-year-old has impressed when selected, but just three of his nine Test outings have come as a starter.

With Ross Byrne out due to an arm issue, Crowley’s rivals – Ciaran Frawley and Harry Byrne – also lack international experience, having won only three caps combined.

All change for Warren Gatland’s Wales

Wales’ player turnaround from World Cup to Six Nations is considerable. International retirements, injuries, unavailability and selection calls mean that head coach Gatland will go into the tournament without 15 of his squad that were on duty in France.

They will be minus the services of players like NFL hopeful Louis Rees-Zammit, Liam Williams, Dan Biggar, Dewi Lake, Tomas Francis, Jac Morgan and Taulupe Faletau, with Gatland’s group including five uncapped players.

Wales kick off against Scotland in Cardiff, before successive appointments with England, Ireland and France. Gatland frequently weaves his magic and Wales often punch above their weight, but it will be a tall order for them this time around.

Scots need to banish World Cup blues

Scotland are in need of an uplifting Six Nations campaign after having the wind removed from their sails by a deflating World Cup pool-stage exit. The recently-retired Stuart Hogg is the only notable absentee from the side that generally performed well in last year’s championship, finishing as best of the rest behind the big two of Ireland and France.

Most of their pre-tournament injury concerns have cleared up, so they have the personnel to compete strongly, particularly with back quartet Blair Kinghorn, Ben White, Finn Russell and Ali Price all thriving after their recent moves to Toulouse, Toulon, Bath and Edinburgh respectively.

In a tournament where a strong start is often so crucial, much will depend on whether Gregor Townsend’s side can get off on the right foot against Wales in Cardiff, a city in which the Scots have not tasted victory for more than two decades.

Absent friends have left fond memories

While inevitable excitement surrounds the 2024 Six Nations tournament, it will unfold with some notable names missing, highlighted by France World Cup captain Antoine Dupont.

The Toulouse scrum-half will not be part of Les Bleus’ campaign after deciding to push for selection in France’s sevens squad for the Paris Olympics. Dupont is likely to take part in two World Series tournaments while the Six Nations happens, with Maxime Lucu favourite to replace him in the number nine shirt. La Rochelle number eight Gregory Alldritt is the new skipper.

Dupont’s fellow former world player of the year Sexton has retired, with another high-profile playmaker – Wales number 10 Biggar – stepping away from Test rugby, in addition to vastly-experienced England trio Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs and Mako Vunipola.

Top referees Wayne Barnes and Jaco Peyper, meanwhile, have blown the whistle on their careers, and there will also be no Stade de France on this year’s Six Nations schedule as it is being prepared for the Olympics. France’s home games will take place in Marseille, Lille and Lyon.

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    Fraser Brown declared himself “hugely proud” of his Scotland career as he announced his retirement from professional rugby.

    The 34-year-old Glasgow hooker has not played since rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament while playing for the World XV against the Barbarians at Twickenham last May and he has now conceded defeat in his bid to return to action.

    Brown won 61 Scotland caps, with the first of them coming against Italy in 2013 and the last in the Six Nations match at home to Ireland in 2023, the same game incidentally in which Stuart Hogg won his final cap. The front-rower went to both the 2015 and 2019 World Cups.

    “When you have a serious injury like I did with an ACL at the end of your career, it is always going to be hard to come back from,” Brown told Scottish Rugby.

    “That probably made it a little easier to announce my retirement but it’s still a surreal and strange feeling.

    “I’m hugely proud to have played so many times for Scotland during my career. To get one cap was great, but then my second one came against the All Blacks at Murrayfield which was such a special occasion.

    “To reach 50 caps was a big moment as I had to deal with a lot of injuries throughout my career and to be part of the growth process of the team which has resulted in where they are now has been cool.”

    At club level, Brown made 141 appearances for Glasgow after joining from Edinburgh in 2011.

    The hooker helped them win the Guinness Pro12 in 2015 with victory over Munster in the final in Belfast, while his last appearance for Warriors proved to be last season’s Challenge Cup final defeat by Toulon in Dublin.

    Glasgow head coach Franco Smith paid tribute to Brown, saying: “Fraser is the epitome of a modern professional and someone who should serve as a role model to any young player starting their journey.

    “The respect with which he is held, not only within the Glasgow Warriors community but within the wider rugby family, should serve to underline the achievements he has earned throughout his career and the manner in which he has achieved them.

    “His work ethic and determination to bring the best out of the people and players around him has been clear to all throughout his career.

    “I wish him the very best for whatever comes next and I know he will apply that same work ethic and determination that made him one of this club’s most distinguished Warriors.”

    Brown becomes the second experienced Scotland front-rower to announce his retirement in the space of a month after Edinburgh prop WP Nel recently revealed he would be hanging his boots up at the end of this season.

  • England tap into knowledge of Brian Ashton to play entertaining brand of rugby England tap into knowledge of Brian Ashton to play entertaining brand of rugby

    England have been tapping into the knowledge of veteran attack guru Brian Ashton to achieve their aim of filling Twickenham.

    The Red Roses ran in 14 tries in an 88-10 victory over Ireland that places them on the brink of claiming a sixth consecutive Guinness Women’s Six Nations title when they face France on Saturday.

    A thrilling attacking performance before a 48,778 crowd was born out of the belief that in order to play in front of a full house of Twickenham at next year’s home World Cup, they must play appealing rugby.

    And helping them achieve that aim is Ashton, a former England men’s head coach regarded as a visionary in the game whose expertise has been enlisted by Red Roses boss John Mitchell.

    “Brian makes us ask questions. ‘If this is the picture, what is the easiest way that you can take the wins?’” said Dow, who ran in a hat-trick against Ireland.

    “I do think it is about asking those questions and having Brian Ashton available throughout the week…I absolutely adore the man.

    “The way he phrases things almost makes you re-think the philosophy of rugby. I think in the English brand the philosophy is ‘let’s kick to the corner, let’s take the territory’. But is that the philosophy of all rugby? Can we expand that?

    “At the end of the day, professional rugby is a business in its own way. We need to be proving to the whole of England that we can play an exciting brand of rugby.”

    While England march on by overwhelming the opposition in front of them, Ireland’s blowout highlights the gulf in class in the women’s game and affects the credibility of the Six Nations.

    The Red Roses have accumulated 228 points after four rounds and France are the only European team capable of taking the wind out of their sails when the rivals clash in Bordeaux.

    “I 100 per cent think teams will catch up and as much as we may be on top now, it is on us to try and work to keep that place and demand more from ourselves,” Dow said.

    “Because as much as we’d love the game to grow, we want to keep the gap ourselves and continue to prove that we can be the best.”

  • John Mitchell: England motivated to fill Twickenham with captivating displays John Mitchell: England motivated to fill Twickenham with captivating displays

    England ran riot against Ireland with head coach John Mitchell revealing their pivot to an all-action attack is designed to fill Twickenham.

    A crowd of 48,778 watched the Red Roses plunder 14 tries in an 88-10 victory that keeps them on course to win a sixth successive Guinness Women’s Six Nations title when they face France in a likely Grand Slam decider next weekend.

    Unstoppable wing Abby Dow and player of the match Ellie Kildunne completed hat-tricks, but there were fireworks across the field as England delivered on their promise to put on a show.

    Their ultimate aim is to run out at next year’s home World Cup in front of a sold-out Twickenham and Mitchell insisted that can only be achieved by captivating audiences with a style of play no longer based on forward dominance.

    “The girls presented a performance that went up a gear. We asked that of them during the week and they certainly delivered it,” the Kiwi said.

    “We’ve got a drive to fill the stadium on a consistent basis because we want to play here consistently.

    “If we can continue to produce performances like that it won’t be too long before we do fill all the seats. From that point of view, it’s only that style of rugby that will bring people to watch us.

    “We know we have other strengths as well, but this is a good sign and we’re only in the infancy of it.

    “It’s a testament to the girls because they go out and own it and see the rewards from it.”

    England have amassed 228 points after four rounds of the Six Nations, conceding only 20, and the lopsided scoreline at Twickenham is an ugly look for the competition.

    “I’m sure some people will chat about the competitiveness, but at the end of the day we drive ourselves in the way we prepare and that’s all we can focus on,” Mitchell said.

    “We’re not really in a position to judge the competition or its competitiveness. Our standards in the way we prepare have gone up a little bit in terms of level.”

    Ireland head coach Scott Bemand admitted his side were left “shell-shocked” by the game’s dominant force.

    “Tough day at the office. We came up against the market leaders but we’ll dust ourselves down and come back next week,” he said.

    “This was a big game for a youthful group. Could we have predicted a margin like that? Probably not.”

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