Ireland will be without Jamison Gibson-Park, Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong for a huge Six Nations clash with France on Saturday.

Scrum-half Gibson-Park and prop Healy were late withdrawals from an opening 34-10 win over Wales at the weekend due to hamstring injuries.

The duo will not be fit in time for a showdown with defending champions France at the Aviva Stadium, while prop Furlong also misses out due to a calf issue that sidelined him for the victory at the Principality Stadium.

Conor Murray will be expected to retain the number nine shirt after coming into the side to replace Gibson-Park.

Captain Johnny Sexton, who suffered a dead leg in Cardiff, will complete the HIA process on Monday, while Ronan Kelleher is due to return to training this week.

Scrum-half Caolin Blade and loosehead prop Michael Milne have been called up to the squad, while Roman Salanoa and Tom Stewart will remain with the group after being drafted in last week. 

France started the defence of their title with a 29-24 win over Italy at Stadio Olimpico on Sunday.

Shaun Edwards warned France will be in for a "hiding" against Ireland in the Six Nations next weekend if they fail to raise their game after clinging on to beat Italy 29-24.

The defending champions needed a Matthieu Jalibert try with 14 minutes to play at Stadio Olimpico on Sunday to start the defence of their title with a bonus-point win.

First-half tries from Thibaud Flament, Thomas Ramos and debutant Ethan Dumortier put the holders well on course for victory, but an Ange Capuozzo score and three Tommaso Allan penalties meant they only led 19-14 at the break.

A penalty try that also resulted in Charles Ollivon being sent to the sin-bin and another three points for Allan sensationally put the resurgent Azzurri in front with just under 20 minutes to play.

France were able to extend their winning run to 14 matches courtesy of Jalibert's finish, but they had to withstand late pressure and Allan missed a kick at goal as Italy fell just short of claiming a famous victory.

Les Bleus face Ireland, the world's top-ranked side, at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday and defence coach Edwards says their winning streak will come to a juddering halt if they fail to improve on their display in Rome.

He told ITV Sport: "First half, we were quite dominant. They came on leaps and bounds in the second half and obviously at the end it was a very tight affair, but we are in a good habit of winning tight games at the moment.

"It happened against Australia, against South Africa, it's happened in a few games.

"Hopefully we can continue that habit, but I think we all know if we don't put up a better performance next week we'll be on the end of a 15-30 point hiding."

Indisciplined France conceded 18 penalties, although Edwards suggested the count should not have been so high.

"Certainly against the defence it's something I will be looking at this week and I'll be honest, I've been in the game for 20 years and that's the most penalties I've ever had against the defence.

"It's something we pride ourselves on with the French team in particular and all the way through with Wales, Wasps, etc. We'll have to go through it in detail with the referees, because it's the first time my defence has been penalised so much."

Italy gifted too many easy points to France in their Six Nations opener, but Tommaso Allan believes his side can rally from their 29-24 loss.

The Azzurri fell short of a famous victory in Rome against the reigning champions after Matthieu Jalibert's late try saw Les Bleus scrape the win.

Having been the competition's regular whipping boys for many years, Italy showed further signs of progress under coach Kieran Crowley in the narrow loss.

Allan acknowledged it was a difficult result to take after leading late in proceedings, but stressed there will be more improvement to come.

"It's quite tough to swallow this defeat," he told ITV. "We had our chances. In the first half, we [made] too many errors.

"We gave 19 points to the French off our mistakes. We have to find our balance of execution. We will be more diligent the more we do.

"There are a lot of positives to take from this. We are very confident for next week's game. It's small margins."

Allan missed a penalty with six minutes to go which would have trimmed the gap to just two points in the closing stages.

The fly-half acknowledged a successful effort there would have changed the complexion of the game and tasked himself to deliver going forward.

"I need to make those kicks," he added. "Next time, we can kick to win as well. We're improving every week.

"We have to start winning as well now. We know we can win. We showed some good rugby."

Matthieu Jalibert came to the rescue as France started the defence of their Six Nations title with a 29-24 bonus-point win over resurgent Italy in a thriller at Stadio Olimpico.

Les Bleus extending their winning run to 14 Tests, but the Azzurri came agonisingly close to producing a famous upset in Rome on Sunday.

Thibaud Flament, Thomas Ramos and Ethan Dumortier crossed in the first half for the holders, but they only led 19-14 at the break following an Ange Capuozzo try and three Tommaso Allan penalties.

A penalty try that also saw Charles Ollivon depart to the sin-bin left Italy only 22-21 down and Allen's penalty put them in front with just under 20 minutes to play.

Jalibert came off the bench to score the decisive try 14 minutes from time, though, with indisciplined France withstanding late pressure to cling on after Allen missed a penalty.

France were gifted an early lead by a Stephen Varney box kick that Flament charged down and coasted in for a simple finish, but Allan reduced the deficit to 7-3 with a penalty.

Ollivon had a try ruled out for a knock-on following another Italy error, but Ramos was on hand to dot down a loose ball after neither Capuozzo nor Damian Penaud were able to gather Romain Ntamack's cross-field kick.

Allen was on target with a second penalty before another pinpoint Ntamack kick to the left flank put a first Test score on a plate for Dumortier, Ramos adding the extras.

The Azzurri continued to pose a threat of their own and the livewire Capuozzo finished superbly in the left corner, with Allen missing the conversion but slotting over a penalty on the stroke of half-time.

Ramos made no mistake from the tee early in the second half, but Italy were only a point down when referee Matthew Carley awarded them a penalty try and showed Ollivon a yellow card for bringing down a driving maul after 52 minutes.

Allen sensationally booted Kieran Crowley's side in front just before Ollivon returned, only for Jalibert to crash over after taking a sublime offload from fellow replacement Romain Taofifenua to put France back into the lead.

Italy were not finished yet, but Allen was unable to send another kick between the posts and Les Bleus dug in under big pressure in the closing stages to avoid an upset.

Capuozzo sparkles again as Italy show they are on the up

Italy ended a seven-year wait for a Six Nations win by stunning Wales 22-21 in Cardiff last year and also beat Australia in November.

They were denied a stunning victory over Les Bleus, but showed they must be taken seriously and France-born full-back Capuozzo gave another demonstration of his class with a great finish in another eye-catching display.

Wake-up call for France in World Cup year

France did not do themselves any favours as they conceded 18 penalties, just about holding on to extend their long winning run.

This should serve us a wake-up call as they strive to follow up their Grand Slam triumph last year, with a Rugby World Cup starting on home soil starting in only seven months' time.

What's next?

France head to Dublin for a huge battle with Ireland next Saturday, with Italy travelling to Twickenham to face England on Sunday.

France will begin their quest to become the first side in six years to retain the Six Nations when they travel to perennial wooden spoon winners Italy on Sunday.

Les Blues ended a 12-year wait to get their hands back on the trophy last year, doing so in style as they claimed a Grand Slam with a perfect five wins from five.

Italy also ended last year's tournament on a high as they broke a 36-game losing run with victory in Wales and are now out to avoid finishing bottom for the first time since 2015.

While France may be reigning champions and in good form, Ireland are top of the world rankings and are many people's favourites to go one better than last year by finishing top.

Up first for Andy Farrell's Ireland side is a trip to Wales, who are in action for the first time since Warren Gatland replaced Wayne Pivac on the back of some alarming results last year.

England also have a new head coach in Steve Borthwick, who replaced Eddie Jones in December, with his first test a mouth-watering Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland.

Ahead of the opening round of action, Stats Perform previews each match with help from Opta.


WALES V IRELAND

FORM

Wales' loss to Italy was their third in a row in the Six Nations – only once since the start of 2008, at the end of their 2020 campaign, have they endured a longer winless run – but Gatland's return has provided fresh hope.

The Dragons won their last seven on the bounce in the championship under Gatland, who landed three Grand Slams in his previous 12-year spell in charge before stepping down in 2019.

Ireland have won seven of their past eight games in the tournament, winning the past three of those by margins of at least 17 points and conceding just one try in total.

However, the away team have not come out on top in any of the past nine Six Nations encounters between these sides, with the nations sharing four wins each over that period and one draw.


ONES TO WATCH

Wales are without the injured Leigh Halfpenny, meaning Liam Williams will start at full-back, but they have plenty of other familiar and experienced faces in their starting line-up – George North among them.

He is one try short of matching Shane Williams' record haul of 23 for Wales in the Six Nations, and behind only Brian O'Driscoll (26) of all players in the tournament's history.

Plenty of eyes will be on Johnny Sexton in what will be his final Six Nations campaign, but Ireland have many other players for Wales to concern themselves with.

James Lowe, returning from a calf injury that ruled him out of the November fixtures, will be looking to push on from last year when he finished level with Damian Penaud and Gabin Villiere as the joint-highest try scorer with three.

 

ENGLAND V SCOTLAND

FORM

Jones may have bowed out with the best win rate of any England head coach (73 per cent), but the Red Rose won just two of their final five home matches under the now-Australia boss – not since November 2008 have they had a longer winless run at Twickenham.

With former skipper Borthwick now at the helm as head coach, England are aiming to avoid losing their opening fixture in the tournament for a fourth year running, following a streak of five successive round-one wins.

Scotland have a far better recent record on the opening weekend than their opponents, having won four of their past six such matches, including the past two in a row – both against England.

Indeed, Scotland have lost just one of their past five Calcutta Cup clashes, having lost each of the previous seven. A victory on enemy territory this weekend will make it three wins in a row for the first time since 1972.

 

ONES TO WATCH

Manu Tuilagi's absence will be felt by England, who have handed a debut to wing Ollie Hassell-Collins, but Joe Marchant will add pace alongside exciting Harlequins team-mate Marcus Smith.

Smith was the top points-scorer in last year's Six Nations (71) and also registered over twice as many running metres as any other fly-half in the tournament (412), as well as beating more defenders than anyone other number 10 (10).

Hamish Watson is not ready for a return to the Scotland side this weekend in a blow for coach Gregor Townsend. The 31-year-old was one of just three players to make 50 or more tackles without missing one in the 2022 edition (70), along with team-mate Grant Gilchrist and Ireland's Caelan Doris (both 53).

Gilchrist is available, though, and he resumes a partnership with Richie Gray in the second row that impressed during Scotland's November internationals.

 

ITALY V FRANCE

FORM

The signs of improvement were clear to see from an Italy perspective in 2022 as they picked up a first win in the tournament since 2015 and then beat Australia for the first time ever in November's Test.

The Azzurri have now won five of their past seven Tests, as many as they had won in their previous 36 combined, but they have not won at home in the Six Nations since 2013 and have won back-to-back games in the championship just twice previously.

France enter the competition boasting a team-record 13-match winning run after winning every game in a calendar year for the first time in 2022. They were not always at their best towards the end of the year, though, with three of their past four wins coming by margins of five points or fewer.

Les Blues have won their opening match in each of their past four campaigns as reigning champions, which does not bode well for an Italy side who have won only two of their 23 Six Nations home matches against this weekend's opponents.

 

ONES TO WATCH

Italy are without the pace and power of Monty Ioane after he returned to Australia and became unavailable for selection in this championship. No player made more line breaks (seven), beat more defenders (21), completed more offloads (eight) and made more dominant tackles (seven) than Ioane in last year's Six Nations.

The Azzurri still have Pierre Bruno and Ange Capuozzo at their disposal, with the latter impressing on his tournament bow in 2022 en route to winning World Rugby's men's Breakthrough Player of the Year award.

Even with the likes of regular starters Jonathan Danty and Cameron Woki ruled out, France still boast a number of top-class talents in their squad.

Gregory Alldritt, who will combine with Charles Ollivon and Anthony Jelonch in the back row, made more carries than any other player in last year's tournament (65) and was one of two players, along with team-mate Julien Marchand (50), to hit 50 or more defensive rucks with 59.

 

France coach Fabien Galthie has handed a debut to winger Ethan Dumortier for Sunday's Six Nations opener against Italy.

Les Bleus head to Rome for the first game of their title defence, after they completed the Grand Slam last year.

Dumortier, 22, is Lyon's top try scorer in the Top 14 this season and his fine form has seen him make Galthie's selection in the place of Gabin Villiere, who sustained a fractured fibula.

With Jonathan Danty also injured, Gael Fickou and Yoram Moefana have been named as centres. Damian Penaud will play on the right wing, with Dumortier on the opposite flank.

Romain Ntamack and captain Antoine Dupont will be paired together in the halves, while Nolann Le Garrec could make his debut from the bench.

"We finished second twice in a row before winning it with a Grand Slam but our journey is not finished," Galthie said in a press conference on Friday.

"We are going to get better because our team has not yet reached the age of maturity."

Italy have also confirmed their starting XV. They won five Tests across 2022 – a 45 per cent win ratio, their highest in a calendar year since 2007, and their best in a non-Rugby World Cup year since 1998. That included their first ever victory over Australia.

The Azzurri took the wooden spoon in last year's Six Nations, though did end a run of 36 straight defeats in the tournament by defeating Wales.

Full-back Ange Capuozzo impressed on his Six Nations bow last year, going over twice against Scotland. 

Capuozzo went on to be named World Rugby's men's Breakthrough Player of the Year, and he gets a start against Les Bleus.

Monty Ioane's injury is a blow for coach Kieran Crowley, who has named Tommaso Menoncello and Pierre Bruno on the flanks.

Michele Lamaro will captain the side – he made 86 tackles in last year's Six Nations, 16 more than second-best Hamish Watson. 

Italy team: Ange Capuozzo, Pierre Bruno, Juan Ignacio Brex, Luca Morisi, Tommaso Menoncello, Tommaso Allan, Stephen Varney; Lorenzo Cannon, Michele Lamaro, Sebastian Negri, Federico Ruzza, Niccolo Cannon, Simone Ferrari, Giacomo Nicotera, Danilo Fischetti.

Italy replacements: Luca Bigi, Federico Zani, Pietro Ceccarelli, Edoardo Iachizzi, Giovanni Pettinelli, Manuel Zuliani, Alessandro Fusco, Edoardo Padovani.

France team: Thomas Ramos, Damian Penaud, Gael Fickou, Yoram Moefana, Ethan Dumortier, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Gregory Alldritt, Charles Ollivon, Anthony Jelonch, Paul Willemse, Thibaud Flament, Uini Atonio, Julien Marchand, Cyril Baille.

France replacements: Gaetan Barlot, Reda Wardi, Sipili Falatea, Romain Taofifenua, Thomas Lavault, Sekou Macalou, Nolan Le Garrec, Matthieu Jalibert.

Lionel Messi insists there is no problem between himself and Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Kylian Mbappe following Argentina's World Cup final triumph over France.

Messi finally won the biggest prize of them all in Qatar last year, guiding Argentina to their first World Cup title since 1986.

Argentina appeared to be cruising to victory when 2-0 up at half-time, but a quick-fire double from Mbappe near the end of the regulation 90 minutes took the game to extra time.

Messi's second goal of the game had Argentina back in control again, but as before, Mbappe levelled to complete his hat-trick with two minutes left, forcing a penalty shoot-out.

Argentina ultimately prevailed 4-2 on penalties to spark wild celebrations, some of which bizarrely seemed to revolve around Mbappe.

Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez was said to have called for a moment of silence for Mbappe in the changing room afterwards, and then during Argentina's celebratory parade in Buenos Aires he was spotted carrying a doll with the PSG forward's face stuck on.

But Messi does not believe any of the controversy has impacted his relationship with his club-mate.

He told Ole: "We talked about the game, the festivities, how people experienced it in Argentina when I was on vacation, and the festivities we had. Nothing, nothing more.

"I was on the other side too, I lost a World Cup final too, and I didn't want to know anything about it, about what happened, and nothing related to the World Cup at that time.

"That's why I don't want to talk about it [to Mbappe] either, but the truth is that there is no problem with Kylian, on the contrary."

Some of Argentina's celebrations – most notably Martinez's behaviour – fed into a negative perception of the team in the eyes of some.

There was also the photo of their reaction to beating the Netherlands on penalties earlier in the tournament, with many of the Argentina players appearing to goad their opponents as they ran off to celebrate.

But Messi is adamant Argentina have been done a disservice, again explaining how their reaction to the Dutch was simply a response to apparent unsporting conduct from Louis van Gaal's team.

"It seems unfair to me that Argentina's lack of fair play was mentioned because it's not true," he continued.

"We always behaved in an exemplary manner, on and off the pitch. My team-mates were impressive.

"I think they talk because of what happened with the Netherlands, that it all started there. It was the Dutch who spoke and who wanted to destabilise our players when we were going to take the penalties.

"Everyone talks about what Argentina did after their victory but no one talks about that. It seems to me we should watch it back more carefully and see what happened, and then comment."

Raphael Varane has announced his retirement from international football, saying it is time for France's "new generation" to take over.

Varane, who made his France debut in March 2013, made 93 appearances for Les Bleus.

The former Real Madrid centre-back, who joined Manchester United in 2021, played and started in all seven games of France's successful 2018 World Cup campaign.

Despite heading into last year's World Cup with an injury, Varane featured in six of France's matches in Qatar, including in the final against Argentina.

On Wednesday, Varane shared an Instagram post confirming his retirement from the international stage.

"Representing our great country for a decade has been one of the greatest honours of my life," Varane wrote.

"Every time I wore this very special blue jersey I felt immense pride. The duty to give it [my] all, play my heart out and win every time we went on the field. I've been contemplating this for several months and decided it's the right time for me to retire.

"As a child, I remember following France 98, this team, these players who made us experience indescribable emotions. I dreamed of being our heroes and 20 years later I lived one of the best experiences of my life.

"We brought home the World Cup!! I will never forget it. I still feel every single one of the emotions felt on that day, July 15, 2018. That was one of the most amazing and memorable moments of my life.


"This victory that we won all together would never have been possible without the support of [coach] Didier Deschamps, every member of the management and staff over the years, and my team-mates who have defended our shirt in every game we played.

"But more importantly, this victory would not have been possible without every single one of you supporting us along the way. Even after the defeat in the final last year, you welcomed us as heroes when we returned. To each and every one of you, THANK YOU a thousand times!

"I will miss these moments with you for sure, but the time has come for the new generation to take over. We have a bunch of talented young players who are ready to take over, who deserve a chance and who need you."

Varane, who captained his country 20 times, is the fourth member of France's 2018 World Cup squad to retire from international football, after Blaise Matuidi, Steve Mandanda and former captain Hugo Lloris.

Karim Benzema did not make that squad but was set to feature in Qatar until injury derailed his chances. The Ballon d'Or winner announced his retirement following the tournament.

Deschamps said: "Raphael called me a few days ago to explain to me that he wanted to put an end to his international career. He is an intelligent boy, who knows how to take the time to reflect, weigh the pros and cons before deciding. 

"Without going into the details of our exchange, Raphael believes that he has reached the end of his adventure with the France team. I experienced a situation somewhat similar to his, I understand his arguments and respect his decision even if it may seem regrettable.

"Of course, I cannot turn this page without a certain emotion, given the ties we have forged since August 2012. Like Hugo Lloris, he will have been, barring injury, in all of my squads."

The 2022 Six Nations may have proved to be a battle between the haves (France and Ireland) and the have-nots (England, Scotland, Wales and Italy), but this year's tournament is expected to be a far tighter affair.

France ended a 12-year wait for the title last time around, while claiming a record-equalling fourth Grand Slam, and they will fancy their chances of coming out on top again this year ahead of hosting the Rugby World Cup in September.

Ireland, who narrowly missed out to Les Blues 11 months ago, will have plenty to say about that as they look to continue building the momentum that saw them record a famous series win over New Zealand and climb to the top of the world rankings.

Both nations, ranked as they are as the world's top two as we edge closer to the World Cup, will very much have a target on their backs as the other contenders look to lay down a marker.

It is a time of change for England and Wales, who have brought in Steve Borthwick and Warren Gatland respectively on the back of disappointing campaigns last time out, with this year's Six Nations representing a first opportunity to see their sides in action.

While Italy would often be a side note heading into the competition – justifiably given they have finished bottom in each of the past seven editions – they ended a long-running winless streak with victory over Wales last year, which they followed up with a win against Australia three months ago.

And don't forget Scotland, who themselves came close to a historic win against New Zealand in November and finished level on points with fierce rivals England in last year's Six Nations.

Unfavourable fixtures for France

France are looking to do something not achieved since England in 2017 in retaining the Six Nations title, while not since 1998 – prior to Italy joining to make it a six-team tournament – has a nation won successive Grand Slam crowns, with Les Blues themselves the last to do so.

Despite being reigning champions and in great form with 13 wins in a row, even those with strong French ties are wary of the threat a strong Ireland side pose.

"I don't want to downplay it at all, but we're not the best team in the world – Ireland are, and that's just a fact," 47-cap former France international Ben Keyser told Stats Perform.

"We are title holders, but we've fallen on our faces previously when we've entered the tournament as favourites. This year we've got to go to Ireland and England, so it's going to be a really tough year for France."

 

That trip to Irish capital Dublin in the second round may yet prove to be a showdown for the championship, as it was last year when the only blemish for Andy Farrell's men was a defeat in Paris.

It must be remembered, however, that Ireland were also top of the world rankings heading into the 2019 World Cup, when they suffered defeat to Japan in the pool phase before being knocked out by New Zealand in the quarter-finals.

 

'Wales way behind'

Before thoughts can turn to that huge match with France, and indeed the World Cup even further down the line, Ireland first have an away trip to Wales in what will present a chance to lay down a marker in their bid to land a first Six Nations title since 2018.

On the back of Gatland's shock return as Wales boss following the sacking of Wayne Pivac, though, all of a sudden Saturday's curtain-raising clash at the Principality Stadium looks nowhere near as clear-cut to predict.

"A month or two ago I'd have said that's going to be a tough one because it's Cardiff, but Wales are in a bit of disarray and it's hard to see how they're going to beat this Ireland," former Ireland and British and Irish Lions hooker Rory Best told Stats Perform.

"But all of a sudden there's a change at the helm and all of a sudden you're a lot more worried about this game in Cardiff. You know their style of play and you know Gatland will make them hard to beat. That makes this a potential banana skin for Ireland."

Former Ireland boss Gatland needs no introducing, having won the Six Nations four times during his previous 12-year stint in charge of Wales, three of those as Grand Slam winners.

Indeed, he has been involved in 60 Six Nations games during his time with Ireland and Wales, which is the same tally as the other five head coaches in this year's championship combined.

 

That experience and ability to get the best out of a squad will come in handy for Wales as they attempt to recover from a terrible 2022 that saw them lose at home to Italy and Georgia.

Making the leap from fifth to first is likely to be out of the question, but exactly what would represent a positive campaign for Wales with one eye on the upcoming World Cup?

"Third. Coming third would be good," Wales great and former skipper Sam Warburton told Stats Perform. "That sounds really defeatist because normally you'd always aim to win it, or finish second, but I'm being realistic.

"Ireland and France are putting on displays which have had four or five years of groundwork. Wales are coming into the tournament not entirely fresh, but pretty close to that. So naturally they're way behind where those teams are in their cycle."

 

Borthwick to get the best out of England?

Finishing third would be a case of 'best of the rest' when up against the world's top two sides, but recently appointed England head coach Borthwick will quietly be hoping to challenge for the title.

Unlike Gatland, this will be Borthwick's first taste of Six Nations action as a head coach, though he did play 25 times in the championship as a player, 10 of those as captain of his country.

While Eddie Jones' tenure turned sour, his sacking on the back of a tough autumn campaign still came as somewhat of a surprise, but the now-Australia boss still departed with the best record of any England head coach.

 

Indeed, Jones won the Grand Slam in his first Six Nations campaign in charge in 2016, so there is recent precedent there for Borthwick – who previously worked as Jones' right-hand man – to follow.

In the view of former captain Chris Robshaw, the Red Rose have plenty to be optimistic about with Borthwick at the helm.

"Steve coming in is a brilliant appointment," Robshaw told Stats Perform. "You just look at the team he's created around him, such as Kevin Sinfield in defence, and the change in mindset. 

"I think they've got a fantastic team and a group that's in a nice age bracket, with a couple of younger players who can add some spark and bring some life back into the side. What I'm seeing and hearing are good messages with a lot of excitement."

 

'Toughest Six Nations yet'

Not for the first time, Scotland head into the Six Nations with a rather big question mark over their head. As ever, consistency will be the key if they are to better last year's fourth-place finish.

The additions of Ben Healy and Ruaridh McConnochie, who previously represented Ireland and England respectively, will provide some welcome depth for Gregor Townsend to choose from in possibly his final campaign in charge.

Both men may feature in a blockbuster opener for Scotland at Twickenham, where they picked up a first win since 1983 on their most recent visit, albeit with that game held behind closed doors due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Saturday's Calcutta Cup contest may well provide a better indication of exactly what the aim is for Scotland this time around.

 

"You never really know what to expect from them and that's exciting," Robshaw added. "That's why the Six Nations is brilliant, because anyone can beat anyone. It's why every day you have to be on it; if you're not you lose a game by the bounce of a ball and all of a sudden you're playing catch up.

"I think this year is going to be the toughest Six Nations yet. I don't think it'll be a Grand Slam year."

Robshaw will certainly not be alone in predicting a non-Grand Slam year, with teams expected to take points off each other, but what about at the other end of the table?

Perennial Wooden Spoon 'winners' Italy have finished bottom in every edition since 2016, but their aforementioned wins over Wales – ending a 36-game losing run in the competition – and Australia last year sent out quite the message.

Having avoided losing all five games for the first time in seven years last time around, the aim for the Azzurri now is to finish above one of the other five nations.

It all paves the way for what could be the best Six Nations in a number of years – certainly since the most recent World Cup – as new eras begin and some perhaps edge towards their pinnacle ahead of the Rugby World Cup in seven months' time.

Bernard Laporte resigned as president of the French Rugby Federation on Friday as his hopes of returning to power in time for the Rugby World Cup crumbled.

The former France head coach stepped back from his latest position with the federation (FFR) in December after being given a two-year suspended prison sentence and a €75,000 fine for corruption.

He denied wrongdoing and intends to appeal against his court punishments, which meant the FFR did not immediately oust Laporte and instead decided to render him effectively powerless pending the attempt to clear his name.

Sports minister Amelie Oudea-Castera called for Laporte to go in December, however, and he chose to permanently step down in the wake of clubs this week voting against his choice of president-delegate, Patrick Buisson.

Around 2,000 clubs took part in the vote, with 51.06 per cent saying they did not approve of Laporte proposing Buisson for the interim role.

The Rugby World Cup gets under way in France in September, and Laporte, president since 2016, had appeared eager to be back in charge of the FFR by then.

Les Bleus won the Grand Slam last year, and Laporte departs just eight days before the 2023 Six Nations begins.

Reports said Laporte delivered news of his resignation to the FFR executive committee on Friday morning at a meeting in Marcoussis, on the outskirts of Paris.

Oudea-Castera later told reporters: "I can give you confirmation of the resignation of Bernard Laporte. I welcome this decision, it was necessary at the end of this consultation in which the clubs were massively mobilised.

"The ethics committee played its role of supervision in this time of consultation which went well with dignified debates. Bernard Laporte drew the conclusions, which is a good thing for French rugby, its values ​​and the future."

Laporte stepped down from his role as vice-chairman of World Rugby within hours of his conviction in December, which also saw him banned from rugby involvement for two years pending the outcome of any appeal.

Laporte was released without charge on Tuesday of this week after being detained as part of a tax fraud investigation.

His lawyer, Jean-Pierre Versini-Campinchi, told the AFP news agency that Laporte had "neither been accused of having defrauded nor of having received any money".

Zlatan Ibrahimovic believes Kylian Mbappe should be confident of winning another World Cup but does not expect Argentina to do likewise after their disrespectful title celebrations.

Mbappe's France lost on penalties to Argentina in December's Qatar 2022 final despite their talisman scoring a hat-trick.

Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Lionel Messi instead added the final major medal he was waiting for to his collection.

Despite Mbappe matching Messi almost stride for stride, he was the subject of taunts from the Argentina players both immediately after the game and in their celebrations back home.

PSG great Ibrahimovic criticised the Albiceleste's lack of class and suggested it was "a sign" they will not repeat their win.

"I said Argentina will for sure win the World Cup, because if you want to remember the Qatar World Cup for the rest of history, who needs to win? Messi," he told France Inter.

"Messi is considered the best player in history. If you want to remember the Qatar World Cup, Messi needs to win. I was 100 per cent sure he would win.

"But I felt sorry for Mbappe, because if you score three goals in a final and don't win the World Cup, that is very sad.

"What will happen? He will win another World Cup, and he already won one, so I'm not worried about Mbappe. I'm worried about the other players in Argentina, because they will not win anything more.

"Messi has won everything and he will be remembered, but the rest, who behaved badly, that you cannot respect. That's coming from me as a professional football player at a high level.

"That is a sign you will win one time and you will not win any more. Mbappe will win again."

French Rugby Federation (FFR) president Bernard Laporte was released without charge on Tuesday after being detained as part of a tax fraud investigation.

Laporte, who has been in office since 2016, was summoned by tax authorities earlier in the day.

However, the 58-year-old's lawyer Jean-Pierre Versini-Campinchi confirmed to AFP that he was later released.

"It is a case in which he is implicated for having been associated with rugby friends a long time ago," Versini-Campinchi said.

"He has neither been accused of having defrauded nor of having received any money."

Laporte stepped back from his role as FFR president in December after being given a two-year suspended prison sentence and a €75,000 fine for corruption.

The former France coach also stepped down from his role as vice-chairman of World Rugby within hours of the conviction and was banned from rugby involvement for two years.

He denied any wrongdoing and is to appeal against his court punishments. Consequently, the FFR has not ousted Laporte permanently at this stage as he bids to clear his name.

Tuesday's development came as around 2,000 French rugby clubs voted on whether to accept the appointment of interim FFR president Patrick Buisson.

"It's perfectly scandalous the prosecutors have chosen the date of Patrick Buisson's election for the questioning and that the disclosure of this questioning was made on the same day," Versini-Campinchi added.

France are due to host the Rugby World Cup in September.

Olivier Giroud plans to sign a new deal with Milan and is not ready to call time on his international career with France either.

The 36-year-old sees his contract with the Serie A outfit expire in June and has faced questions on his international future in the wake of Les Bleus' defeat in the 2022 World Cup final to Argentina.

France have already seen captain Hugo Lloris call time on his stint with the national side, with Karim Benzema also retiring – although he did not feature in Qatar due to injury.

However, Giroud, who became France's all-time leading scorer during the tournament, does not plan to follow suit.

"For the moment I continue with the national team. I was struck by the fact that Hugo has decided to leave, our relationship is special," he told Canal Football Club.

"Anything can happen, I have not withdrawn from the international stage and for this reason I remain callable.

"I have to understand if I still want to wear the blue shirt, which means a lot to me, I want to take some time before deciding."

Giroud has faced similar questions around his club future, as his deal with Milan expires at the end of the season, but he is keen to continue at San Siro.

"I want to renew with Milan, with the victory of the Scudetto I entered the hearts of the fans," he added.

"I'm talking to the club, if there is a chance to finish my career at a high level at Milan I will. I could choose an exotic destination; I've always liked MLS."

Milan sit second in Serie A, 12 points adrift of leaders Napoli, ahead of Tuesday's clash against Lazio.

Gregor Townsend knows the upcoming Six Nations could be his last in charge of Scotland as he revealed he has been contacted by France.

Townsend named his Six Nations squad on Tuesday with four uncapped players included in the 40-man selection.

That includes Ben Healy, who has qualified to play for Scotland through his mother, as well as Ruaridh McConnochie, who has previously played for England.

The 49-year-old has been in charge of Scotland since 2017, but his contract is up after this year's Rugby World Cup in France, which starts in September.

Townsend told reporters he would like clarity on his situation before the tournament begins but knows he might "have to wait and see".

"No discussions have been had, and I don't see them taking place until after the Six Nations," he added.

When asked if this could be his last Six Nations as Scotland coach, Townsend replied: "I'm not contracted beyond this year, so of course."

Meanwhile, Townsend confirmed reports he had been contacted over the possibility of joining France's set-up in the wake of the World Cup. 

"I did get a contact from France," he said. "It was just an initial enquiry and there was nothing further from that because we obviously play France in the Six Nations, so I didn't want to talk any further with them about that."

Scotland take on England at Twickenham in their opening Six Nations match on February 4.

Scotland's Six Nations squad

Forwards: Ewan Ashman, Josh Bayliss, Simon Berghan, Jamie Bhatti, Fraser Brown, Dave Cherry, Andy Christie, Luke Crosbie, Jack Dempsey, Matt Fagerson, Zander Fagerson, Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Richie Gray, Cameron Henderson, WP Nel, Jamie Ritchie (captain), Pierre Schoeman, Javan Sebastian, Sam Skinner, Rory Sutherland, George Turner, Hamish Watson.

Backs: Chris Harris, Ben Healy, Stuart Hogg, George Horne, Huw Jones, Blair Kinghorn, Sean Maitland, Ruaridh McConnochie, Stafford McDowell, Ali Price, Cameron Redpath, Finn Russell, Ollie Smith, Kyle Steyn, Sione Tuipulotu, Duhan van der Merwe, Ben White.

Fabien Galthie has included eight uncapped players in France's Six Nations squad.

Les Bleus ended a 12-year wait for both a Six Nations title and a Grand Slam last year.

The holders won all 10 matches they played in a glorious 2022 and must kick on as they gear up for a Rugby World Cup on home soil that starts in September.

Emilien Gailleton, Louis Bielle-Biarrey, Leo Coly and Nolann Le Garrec are among the players who will be hoping to make their debuts in the Six Nations.

The same goes for Paul Boudehent, Julien Delbouis, Romain Buros and Ethan Dumortier.

Galthie will have to do without the injured Cameron Woki, Peato Mauvaka, Maxime Lucu, Baptiste Couilloud and centre Jonathan Danty.

He will be able to welcome, however, be able to welcome back Paul Willemse and Francois Cros.

France start their quest to retain the title with a trip to Rome to face Italy at Stadio Olimpico on February 5.

France Six Nations squad

Forwards: Gregory Alldritt, Uini Atonio, Cyril Baille, Gaetan Barlot, Teddy Baubigny, Alexandre Becognee, Paul Boudehent, Yacouba Camara, Bastien Chalureau, Dylan Cretin, Francois Cros, Sipili Falatea, Thibaud Flament, Mohamed Haouas, Anthony Jelonch, Thomas Jolmes, Thomas Lavault, Sekou Macalou, Julien Marchand, Charles Ollivon (captain), Dany Priso, Romain Taofifenua, Reda Wardi, Paul Willemse.

Backs: Louis Bielle-Biarrey, Romain Buros, Leo Coly, Julien Delbouis, Ethan Dumortier, Antoine Dupont ,Gael Fickou, Emilien Gailleton, Antoine Hastoy, Matthieu Jalibert, Melvyn Jaminet, Matthis Lebel, Nolann Le Garrec, Pierre-Louis Barassi, Yoram Moefana, Romain Ntamack, Damian Penaud, Thomas Ramos.

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