England are still a work in progress and can improve on the back of their morale-boosting 33-0 win over Italy, according to star performer Marcus Smith.

Following last week's 20-17 loss to Scotland, England got off the mark with their first win of the 2022 Six Nations, achieved in emphatic style in Rome.

Smith scored the first of England's five tries at Stadio Olimpico and assisted another in a standout display from the fly-half.

It is the third time Smith has both scored and assisted a try in a Test match for England, while overall he now has eight try involvements in seven Tests.

The 22-year-old beat six defenders against Italy, which is the most by an England fly-half in the Six Nations since Jonny Wilkinson's eight against Ireland in 2002.

Despite impressing in a much better all-round performance from coach Eddie Jones' team, Smith believes there is more to come ahead of hosting Wales in two weeks' time.

"We have loads to work on. We are still learning on our journey, but we will enjoy tonight and get back on the horse tomorrow," he told ITV Sport.

"We put a big emphasis on today – we were very disappointed after Murrayfield. Eddie [Jones] spoke about the next job and we have put ourselves back in it with that win.

"I've never played here before. There was a special atmosphere, with loads of England fans having come out. We had to put a show on for them.

"We were a bit scrappy and credit to Italy, but to score 33 points is always nice."

 

Jamie George crossed twice after Smith had opened the scoring, to give England a 21-0 lead at half-time – their joint-biggest ever in an away game in the Six Nations.

Elliot Daly and Kyle Sinckler extended England's lead in the second half as they achieved just a second nilling of the opposition in the competition, the other coming against Scotland in 2014.

Reflecting on a job well done by his side, head coach Jones said: "It was a good performance from us. We started the game well, got a bit of a flow, started the second half well, and defended well at the end.

"Italy are a tough team and they keep coming. If we were a bit tidier with some of our work, some running lines, it could have been a big score.

"[Italy] have played New Zealand and France and in the first halves been in the game – and they were not in the game today.

"Marcus did well, Harry Randall did some good things at the start and [Alex[ Dombrandt had a really solid game."

England have now won all 23 of their Six Nations matches against Italy and are the only side the Azzurri have never beaten in the championship.

Indeed, Italy have lost 34 matches in a row in the Six Nations in an unwanted record streak stretching back to 2015.

The Azzurri's ill-discipline, as well as some individual errors, once again cost them against England in a match in which they conceded 12 penalties.

Home skipper Michele Lamaro was left to bemoan some sloppy play from his side in their latest loss.

"We're obviously disappointed again," he said. "Discipline was a big point for us last week [when losing to France]. We had to improve this week, and we didn't really perform in that scenario.

"We have to get better in discipline, especially in the first half when we conceded too many penalties. Obviously if you concede them to 30-40 metres each time, it becomes difficult to defend.

"Last week our exits were not that good, this week our discipline wasn't pretty good. Obviously in defence we have to put something on, and I think we can improve a lot."

Jamie George scored two first-half tries as England cruised to a 33-0 bonus-point victory against Italy at Stadio Olimpico for their first win of the 2022 Six Nations.

England fell to a late 20-17 loss to Scotland in their opening match but any risk of back-to-back defeats to begin a campaign for the first time since 2005 never looked likely.

The visitors crossed over three times in the first half, with George at the double after Marcus Smith had opened the scoring inside nine minutes.

Elliot Daly and Kyle Sinckler further punished sloppy Italy, who have now lost each of their past 34 matches in the Six Nations and have still yet to beat England in the competition.

 

Italy took a shock early lead in last week's loss to France, though they were on the wrong end of an early try against England as Smith linked up with Max Malins and dived over.

England did not have to wait long for a second try, with George burying his way over from close range to finish off a move he started from a lineout.

Maro Itoje had a try ruled out for obstruction, but England were out of sight before half-time as George collected Smith's offload and grounded after dodging a couple of tackles.

Daly, brought on for Jack Nowell in the first half after the wing failed a head injury assessment, added a fourth for England when racing in down the left early in the second half.

England introduced Ben Youngs for the scrum-half's 114th cap, equalling Jason Leonard's Test record, while Ollie Chessum was handed his senior debut.

Italy pushed hard for a consolation try without finding one, and it was left to Sinckler to have the final say with a simple finish following a costly Leonardo Marin error.

Dan Biggar's drop goal on his 100th Test appearance gave Wales' Six Nations title defence lift-off as they battled to a 20-17 victory over Scotland at the Principality Stadium on Saturday.

Wayne Pivac's side were thrashed 29-7 by Ireland in their opener but dug deep to edge out Scotland, who were seeking back-to-back wins after beating England last week.

Darcy Graham and Tom Francis crossed over in a first half that ended level and it remained all square at 17-17 late on as Biggar and Finn Russell kicked four penalties apiece.

A big moment arrived 12 minutes from time when Russell was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on and, while Wales could not add another try, Biggar's boot two minutes later proved decisive.

Biggar punished slow-starting Scotland by kicking over a couple of early penalties, but the visitors soon got going and scored the first try with 11 minutes played.

Graham outmuscled Louis Rees-Zammit to ground the ball in the corner after collecting a looping pass from Russell towards the right.

Russell was unable to add the extras but slotted over three penalties, either side of one from Biggar, to give Scotland a five-point advantage.

But the hosts were on level terms at half-time thanks to just a second try in Welsh colours for Francis, who grounded after his side drove to the line from the line-out.

Russell and Biggar continued their kicking battle in the second half to ensure the sides remained all square heading into a tense finale.

Alex Cuthbert had a try ruled out for being in touch but referee Nic Berry and TMO adjudged that Russell was not in a position to catch the ball in the build-up when knocking on.

Russell was subsequently yellow-carded and Wales ramped up the pressure, culminating in Biggar slotting over a three-pointer, rather than going for the line, which proved the right call as Wales held on for victory.

France and Ireland face off at the Stade de France on Saturday in a contest that may well determine exactly where the Six Nations title ends up next month.

Pre-tournament favourites France kicked off their campaign with a routine victory over Italy, while a much-fancied Ireland proved far too strong for reigning champions Wales.

Both sides picked up bonus points to lead the way at the top, setting up a mouth-watering encounter in the French capital as Ireland aim to stretch their nine-match winning run.

Wales have a chance to respond to last week's disappointment when they host a Scotland side who should be full of confidence following their Calcutta Cup win over England last time out.

The final match of the weekend takes place in Rome as perennial whipping boys Italy take on England with the aim of ending their long-running losing streak in the competition.

Ahead of the second round of fixtures, Stats Perform previews each match with help from Opta.

WALES v SCOTLAND

FORM

Wales have lost just two of their 11 home matches against Scotland in the Six Nations, though one of those losses did come in the last such meeting two years ago at Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli.

The last three encounters between the sides in the competition have been decided by a margin of seven points or fewer. Indeed, four of the last six clashes have seen the side losing at half-time come back to win the match.

Scotland are on their longest away winning streak in the championship, having won four on the spin – not since between 1925 and 1927 have they won five in a row on their travels. However, Wales have won nine of their last 11 Six Nations home matches.

ONES TO WATCH

Taine Basham was a rare shining light for Wales in their heavy loss to Ireland, the tournament debutant crossing over late on to prevent his side from losing to nil on a day to forget in Dublin. Basham also made 22 tackles, which is the most of any player on the opening weekend, missing none in the process.

A number of Scotland players impressed in the late win over England, not least Darcy Graham. The diminutive wing set up Ben White for the opening try, won the crucial turnover in injury time and beat six defenders – the most of any player in round one.

 


FRANCE v IRELAND

FORM

France and Ireland have played each other 100 times previously, with France victorious on 58 occasions, Ireland prevailing 35 times and seven games drawn. In the Six Nations, Les Blues edge the win record 11 to nine from their 22 previous encounters, the other two matches finishing level.

Ireland have lost their last two meetings with France in the competition, having been beaten in just one of the previous eight. Ireland's win rate of 41 per cent against Les Blues in the Six Nations is their lowest against any side.

After recovering to see off Italy last week, France are aiming to win their opening two Six Nations games for the third year in a row, this after managing it just twice in their previous eight campaigns.


ONES TO WATCH

France head coach Fabien Galthie, back involved after missing the Italy match with coronavirus, has put his faith in youth by handing Yoram Moefana his first Six Nations start. The 21-year-old impressed in his cameo role against Italy by playing a part in his side's last two tries.

Ireland will have to make do without injured skipper Johnny Sexton, who passed the 500-point mark in the Six Nations last week, so all eyes will be on Joey Carbery – the only change from the Wales game – at fly-half. The Munster number 10 is tasked with pulling the strings on his first tournament start.

 

ITALY v ENGLAND

FORM

England are the only side Italy have never managed to beat in the Six Nations, losing all 22 of their previous showdowns. England's 80-23 win in this fixture 21 years ago remains the most points scored and biggest winning margin in any fixture in the competition's history.

Italy have lost their last 33 matches in the competition – the longest losing streak by any team in the Five or Six Nations – in an unwanted run that stretches back to a win over Scotland in 2015.

Eddie Jones' visitors have lost their last two Six Nations matches, but only once over the last 15 editions have they lost three in a row, while not since 2005 have they lost their opening two games to a campaign.


ONES TO WATCH

Italy's Michele Lamaro (21 tackles) was one of just three players to make 20 or more tackles during the opening weekend, along with Basham (22) and Nick Tompkins (21). However, he also missed four tackles, which was the joint-most of any player, level with Dan Biggar.

Ben Youngs, who made the most kicks in play of any player in round one (17), is one of six players to make way for England. Should the experienced scrum-half make it off the bench, he will become England's joint-most capped player of all time alongside Jason Leonard with 114.

England have made six changes to their starting line-up for Sunday's Six Nations clash with Italy in Rome.

Joe Marchant moves to outside centre, while Ben Youngs, who is one cap away from equalling Jason Leonard's national record of 114, has been dropped for Harry Randall at scrum-half.

Jack Nowell is on the wing ahead of Elliot Daly for his first England start in 1,065 days, while Alex Dombrandt comes in at eight and Charlie Ewels starts as lock alongside Nick Isiekwe.

Will Stuart and Jamie George start in the front row, the latter replacing Luke Cowan-Dickie, who drops to the bench after a costly mistake in the defeat to Scotland last week.

"We've set ourselves the target of playing really well and lighting up Rome," said coach Eddie Jones. "We've made some changes and this is the best side to face Italy. We want to start fast and take the game to them.

"It's been a difficult week, but the players have bounced back well, trained hard and are ready to put on a good performance on Sunday."

Kieran Crowley makes three changes to the Italy side that lost 37-10 to France.

Federico Mori is in at 14 for Tommaso Menoncello, with Braam Steyn replacing Sebastian Negri at flanker and Pietro Ceccarelli starting in the front row ahead of Tiziano Pasquali.

England are the only side yet to lose to Italy in the Six Nations, having won all of their previous 22 meetings.

The Azzurri are on a championship-record 33-match losing streak and have not won at home since beating Ireland 22-15 at the Stadio Olimpico in 2013.

However, Jones' men are at risk of losing their opening two rounds of the same Six Nations competition since 2005, when they were beaten by Wales and France.


England team: Freddie Steward, Max Malins, Joe Marchant, Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, Marcus Smith, Harry Randall; Ellis Genge, Jamie George, Will Stuart, Charlie Ewels, Nick Isiekwe, Maro Itoje, Alex Dombrandt, Tom Curry. 

Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Joe Marler, Kyle Sinckler, Ollie Chessum, Sam Simmonds, Ben Youngs, George Ford, Elliot Daly.

Italy team: Edoardo Padovani, Federico Mori, Juan Ignacio Brex, Marco Zanon, Montanna Ioane, Paolo Garbisi, Stephen Varney; Danilo Fischetti, Gianmarco Lucchesi, Pietro Ceccarelli, Niccolo Cannone, Federico Ruzza, Braam Steyn, Michele Lamaro, Toa Halafihi.

Replacements: Epalahame Faiva, Cherif Traore, Tiziano Pasquali, David Sisi, Sebastian Negri, Giovanni Pettinelli, Alessandro Fusco, Leonardo Marin.

Johnny Sexton will miss Ireland's Six Nations clash with France on Saturday due to a hamstring problem.

Ireland captain Sexton surpassed 500 points in the competition last week, as he helped Andy Farrell's team to a 29-7 defeat of reigning champions Wales in Dublin.

However, the 36-year-old will not feature in Paris after sustaining an injury in training on Wednesday, and James Ryan will captain Ireland instead.

Joey Carbery will replace Sexton in Farrell's line-up, which was announced on Thursday. It is the only change Ireland have made.

Iain Henderson, Robbie Henshaw and Jack Carty have come into the squad and will be on the bench, with Ryan Baird and James Hume dropping out.

France, meanwhile, have made two alterations to their side, with Francois Cros and Yoram Moefana replacing Dylan Cretin and Jonathan Danty respectively.

Antoine Dupont was one of 11 players to assist a try across the opening weekend and now has 12 assists to his name in the Six Nations, the most of any France player.

The scrum-half will again look to dictate the play as Les Bleus aim to win their opening two games in an edition of the Six Nations for the third year in a row, this after managing it just twice in their previous eight campaigns in the Championship.

This will be the 101st meeting between the nations, with France winning 58 times and Ireland triumphing on 35 occasions.

Les Bleus have the edge in the Six Nations, winning half of their 22 encounters, including the two most recent games.

They thrashed Italy 37-10 in their opening fixture to go top of the standings after round one.

 

Ireland team:  Hugo Keenan, Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen, Joey Carbery, Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.

Replacements:  Dan Sheehan, Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, Iain Henderson, Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray, Jack Carty, Robbie Henshaw.

France team:  Melvyn Jaminet, Damian Penaud, Gael Fickou, Yoram Moefana, Gabin Villiere, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Gregory Alldritt, Anthony Jelonch, Francois Cros, Paul Willemse, Cameron Woki, Uini Atonio, Julien Marchand, Cyril Baille.

Replacements:  Peato Mauvaka, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Demba Bamba, Romain Taofifenua, Thibaud Flament, Dylan Cretin, Maxime Lucu, Thomas Ramos.

Gabin Villiere scored a hat-trick as France recovered from a slow start to kick off their 2022 Six Nations campaign with a 37-10 bonus-point win over Italy at the Stade de France.

The pre-tournament favourites trailed to Tommaso Menoncello's try and were again behind with half an hour played after Anthony Jelonch had temporarily put them ahead.

But Villiere crossed over either side of half-time and Damian Penaud added a fourth, before Villiere completed his treble to confirm a 33rd successive loss in the competition for Italy.

Les Blues have now won 15 successive home Tests against Italy and join next opponents Ireland on five points after the first round of fixtures.

Italy responded superbly to falling behind to Melvyn Jaminet's fourth-minute penalty as Menoncello gathered Paolo Garbisi's cross-field kick and raced through for a debut try.

Garbisi added the extras but all of Italy's hard work was undone when Stephen Varney's offload was intercepted by Jelonch, who had a simple task in splashing over.

France did not initially push on, with Garbisi and Jaminet sharing a penalty apiece, though a Villiere try following a well-worked lineout ensured Les Blues led at the break.

Jonathan Danty had a try ruled out by TMO but there was no denying Villiere five minutes later, the Toulon wing darting for the line after France turned the ball over in the maul.

Penaud broke down the right, exchanged passes with Antoine Dupont and sealed a bonus point for France, with star man Villiere adding further gloss with a free run on the back of some sustained pressure.

Menoncello makes his mark

Kieran Crowley was taking charge of his first Six Nations match as Italy boss and his decision to hand Menoncello a debut on the wing paid almost instant dividends.

At 19 years and 170 days, Menoncello is the youngest try-scorer in Six Nations history, surpassing the record previously held by France's Gael Fickou (19y, 317d).

Hat-trick hero Villiere

Penaud tried to steal the limelight by crossing over for the third Test running in France colours, but this day undoubtedly belonged to Villiere.

Not only did he score three times, the 26-year-old also led the way for metres made (121) and was second only to Gregory Alldritt (21) with his 13 carries.

What's next?

France host Ireland in a huge showdown at the Stade de France next Saturday, while Italy are at home to England the following day.

Scotland made a winning start to the Guinness Six Nations as Finn Russell's late penalty secured a narrow 20-17 victory over England at Murrayfield.

The hosts led the 140th Calcutta Cup clash 10-6 at half-time after Ben White crossed for a try on his debut.

However, England's Marcus Smith went over after the break – taking his personal tally to 17 points – to put Eddie Jones' side in control at 17-10 up.

But there was to be a late twist with the hosts awarded a penalty try after Luke Cowan-Dickie was penalised, before Russell held his nerve to secure back-to-back wins over England for the first time since 1984.

Jones claimed earlier in the week that Scotland were "red-hot" favourites to beat England who, missing the likes of Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes through injury, fielded seven players boasting 10 or fewer caps.

Nevertheless, the visitors controlled possession and territory throughout the first half, with Smith breaking the deadlock in the 17th minute.

The hosts responded almost immediately with Darcy Graham embarking on a powerful surge, before offloading for White – on while Ali Price received treatment for a head injury – to cross just minutes into his Test career.

The right boot of Smith kept England within touching distance at 10-9 behind, and he gratefully received Ben Youngs' offload 13 minutes into the second half; powering to the line after a solid spell of pressure.

But momentum swung in favour of Scotland, who were awarded a penalty try after the TMO ruled Cowan-Dickie deliberately knocked Russell's punt into touch with Graham lurking.

With Cowan-Dickie subsequently sin-binned, the hosts capitalised on their numerical advantage with the boot of Russell edging them back in front, and they held on despite a late surge from their opponents.

Andrew Conway helped himself to a double as Ireland eased to a 29-7 bonus-point victory over Wales in the opening game of the 2022 Six Nations to make it nine wins in a row.

Wales defied the odds to win the title last year but the injury hit visitors, without captain Alun Wyn Jones and a number of other experienced players, were outclassed in Dublin.

Ireland led 10-0 at half-time, with Bundee Aki crossing over for the only try, but their dominance truly told in the second half at the Aviva Stadium.

Conway added two more and Garry Ringrose joined the scoring, rendering Taine Basham's late try nothing more than a consolation as Ireland recorded a fifth home Test win in a row against Wales for the first time.

Ireland needed just two minutes to score the first try of the tournament through Aki, who had the simplest of run-ins after being picked out by debutant Mack Hansen.

Johnny Sexton added the extras and, after missing a couple of penalties in quick succession, the Irish skipper kicked over again to pass the 500-points mark in the Six Nations.

Conway collected an offload from Sexton early in the second half, jinked past a couple of opponents and squeezed over at full stretch, the try allowed to stand after a TMO check.

Josh Adams was sin-binned for a reckless challenge on Sexton and more misery was to follow for Wales as Conway profited from Josh van de Flier's work to double his try tally.

Ringrose breezed through to add a fourth try for Ireland, who were undone late on when Basham intercepted from Tadhg Beirne and dived down under the posts.

The 2022 Six Nations campaign begins with a mouth-watering contest between defending champions Wales and a well fancied Ireland side at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday. 

Wales won the championship for a sixth time last March, narrowly missing out on a Grand Slam with defeat to France in their final game, but they enter this year's tournament as outsiders in the eyes of many.

Much like Ireland, France will be eyeing top spot after going 12 years since their most recent triumph – Les Bleus' longest-such run since joining the Five Nations in 1947 – with their campaign beginning at home to an Italy side without a win in 32 games in the competition.

A relatively inexperienced England side do battle with perennial dark horses Scotland at Murrayfield for the Calcutta Cup, meanwhile, with the hosts looking to record back-to-back wins in this fixture for the first time since 1984.

Ahead of the opening round, Stats Perform previews the upcoming matches with help from Opta.


IRELAND v WALES

FORM

Ireland have won four of their last five meetings with Wales, though their solitary defeat in that run came in the most recent match between the sides in last year's Six Nations when going down 21-16.

Wales have lost their last four away games against Ireland, their worst-such run since losing four in a row between 2002 and 2006, but never before have they lost five in a row away to Ireland.

Ireland have won 27 of their last 29 Tests at the Aviva Stadium, including their last six in a row, with their only defeats coming against England in 2019 and France in 2021 – both in the Six Nations.


ONES TO WATCH

Johnny Sexton will win his 102nd international cap for Ireland this weekend and remains a key player for his country. The 36-year-old recorded the best goal kicking success rate of any player (minimum of three kicks) in last year's Six Nations, finding the target from 25 out of 26 (96 per cent).

Wales are without a long list of players due to injury, most notably skipper Alun Wyn Jones. It's set to be the first Six Nations the Dragons have played without Jones since 2006, with fly-half Dan Biggar being left with big shoes to fill in his first game as captain.

 

SCOTLAND v ENGLAND

FORM

Scotland have won five of their last six Test matches, with their solitary defeat in that run coming against the world champions South Africa in November.

England have won 15 of their last 18 Tests, including their last five in a row, although their three defeats in that spell all came in last year's Six Nations – just the fourth time they had lost more than twice in an edition of the tournament since 2000 (also lost three in 2005, 2006 and 2018).

This will be the 140th Test between the rival nations in a fixture that dates back to the first ever rugby international back in 1871. Scotland have won on 44 occasions, compared to 76 victories for England, with the other 19 ending all square.


ONES TO WATCH

Scotland have named a near-identical XV to the one that ended last year's Six Nations, Duhan van der Merwe among them. The British and Irish Lions wing beat 31 defenders in the 2021 edition, surpassing Brian O'Driscoll's record for the most in a single Six Nations (30 in 2000).

In the absence of Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry will captain England at the age of just 23, making him the youngest player to do so since Will Carling in 1988.

 

FRANCE v ITALY

FORM

France and Italy have met on 45 occasions, with Les Bleus winning 42 of those matches. That 93 per cent win rate is their highest against any nation they have faced more than five times.

Italy have lost 23 of their last 24 away games with France in Test rugby, including their last 14 in a row. The Azzurri's only victory in France came in Grenoble in 1997.

France have won 12 of their last 13 Test matches at home, although their solitary defeat in that run came in their most recent Six Nations game against Scotland. They have not trailed at half-time in a home game since February 2018, going into the break ahead (17 times) or level (twice) in each of their last 19 such games.

ONES TO WATCH

Captain and recently crowned World Rugby Player of the Year Antoine Dupont will be looking to pick up from where he left off in 2021. He was directly involved in eight tries during the last Six Nations, more than any other player, scoring three and assisting a Championship-high five.

Sebastian Negri made 64 carries and 68 tackles during the 2021 tournament, his combined tally of 132 carries and tackles being the second most of any player in the Championship, behind only Taulupe Faletau (140). Italy could do with more of the same here to help avoid another loss.

 

Eleven months on from playing the roles of party poopers against the same opponents, France will this weekend set out on a journey that Fabien Galthie and his men will hope ends with the Six Nations trophy being held aloft at the Stade de France on March 19.

Les Blues denied Wales Grand Slam glory with an enthralling 32-30 victory in Paris in the Dragons' final match of an otherwise perfect 2021 campaign, snatching the win through an injury-time Brice Dulin try, but they ultimately fell short by finishing four points adrift in second.

Now on their longest run without winning the championship since joining the Five Nations in 1947, with their most recent triumph coming in 2010, France will consider anything other than first place this time around a real disappointment.

But if that is to happen, then Galthie's side have a number of obstacles to navigate, not least beating defending champions Wales – now one shy of England's record of seven Six Nations crowns – in Cardiff in the fourth round of fixtures.

Wales have been Six Nations champions four times in the last 10 years, yet few are giving them much of a chance this time around after failing to push on in the second half of 2021.

Wayne Pivac's side are without inspirational skipper Alun Wyn Jones and do not exactly have history on their side, having won back-to-back championships just once – doing so in 2012 and 2013 – but the Dragons do at least play three of their five matches on home soil.

 

A fast start is imperative but a first-round trip to in-form Ireland presents the reigning champions with arguably their toughest assignment of the tournament. Champions in 2018, four barren years would feel like a lifetime should Ireland miss out again.

Andy Farrell's charges are certainly not lacking momentum thanks to a strong end to the last campaign. Eight wins in a row, including a famous triumph over New Zealand in November – only their third win in that fixture in 33 meetings – has them riding the crest of a wave.

A lack of playing time at club level for certain players could hamper Ireland in their opener, however, setting up an intriguing game to kick things off on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium.

While it is clear what can be expected from France, Ireland and Wales, fellow heavyweights England enter this latest edition as something of an unknown quantity due to injury absentees, skipper Owen Farrell among them.

Tom Curry will have to step up and lead an inexperienced England side that contains seven players with 10 caps or fewer in their starting XV to face Scotland. It will make for a challenging six weeks from Eddie Jones' perspective, but one he will be relishing in his seventh Six Nations with the Red Rose.

 

England are one of two sides, along with Ireland, yet to collect the Wooden Spoon. That cannot be said of Italy, who have propped up the table in each of the last six years, that after finishing bottom only once in the previous four campaigns.

Another disappointing 2021 saw Italy lose all five matches as their losing run in the tournament stretched to 32 games, the longest such streak in either Five or Six Nations history.

Italy's place in future competitions continues to be debated, with a possible promotion and relegation system being touted by some, but for now the Azzurri will simply be focused on proving their doubters wrong by ending a long-running losing streak that stretches back to 2015.

While there are some promising signs at age-group level, it is hard to see past Italy claiming an unwanted 17th Wooden Spoon this time around, particularly with trips to Paris, Dublin and Cardiff to prepare for.

Exactly who Italy will battle it out for to avoid bottom spot is a tougher question to answer than predicting an overall winner, with Scotland one of those whose campaign could go either way.

Experienced but too inconsistent, Gregor Townsend's perennial dark horses need to find a way to string together a run of victories to remain in contention right until the end. 

The hallmarks of a great team were there 12 months ago when enjoying more possession (58 per cent) and territory (55 per cent) than any other side, as well as managing the best tackle success rate (91 per cent), but there are still a number of issues that need to be ironed out.

That is a running theme throughout, though, and all adds to the unpredictability and excitement.

With fans back inside grounds, scores to be settled and no shortage of subplots, it is easy to see why this year's Six Nations is the most anticipated in several years.

Eddie Jones insists Tom Curry is the perfect choice to lead England into their Six Nations campaign as he compared his new captain to New Zealand great Richie McCaw.

With Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes ruled out through injury, Curry was named as skipper on Thursday ahead of this weekend's opening clash against Scotland.

At the age of 23, Curry becomes England's youngest captain since 22-year-old Will Carling in 1988, yet the youngster already has 36 senior caps to his name.

Curry also has experience of representing the British and Irish Lions, and England boss Jones is comfortable with his choice to hand the Sale Sharks flanker the armband.

"Captaincy is not about the number of caps, it's about the person who can lead a group of players by example," Jones said at his pre-match news conference.

"There is no better player in our squad than Tom to do that. He reminds me of a young Richie McCaw."

McCaw earned 148 Test caps for New Zealand across a celebrated career that saw him win two World Cups and three World Player of the Year awards.

England begin their quest for a fourth Six Nations title in seven attempts under Jones with a trip to Scotland on Saturday.

The Red Rose have won only one of the past four Calcutta Cup clashes, having previously won eight in a row, which Jones believes makes his side second favourites this week.

"It's all about getting the team on the front foot. That goes in line with how we want to play the game," Jones said.

"We want to go up there and take Scotland on. It's the first time I'm going up there as underdogs and where Scotland are red-hot favourites. They're expected to win.

"Every time the players will look at the crowd, they will feel that expectation. They've got to cope with that. There will be 62,000 fans and they'll be thinking about all the fans watching on TV. They've got to carry that burden. Every game is the same for us.

"We're always expected to win, so it's no different for us. We've had a really good preparation and feel we have enough in our set-piece to get an advantage."

England have included seven players with 10 caps or fewer in their starting XV for the showdown at Murrayfield.

Scotland have gone with a more experienced side, with the headline news being Jonny Gray's return after missing the autumn series through injury.

Stuart Hogg will once again captain the side at full-back, with replacement Ben White the only uncapped player in the squad.

 

Scotland team: Hogg (c); Graham, Harris, Johnson, Van der Merwe; Russell, Price; Sutherland, Turner, Z Fagerson, Gray, Gilchrist, Ritchie, Watson, M Fagerson.

Replacements: McInally, Schoeman, Nel, Skinner, M Bradbury, White, Kinghorn, Tuipulotu.


England team: Steward; Malins, Daly, Slade, Marchant; Smith, Youngs; Genge, Cowan-Dickie, Sinckler, Itoje, Isiekwe, Ludlam, Curry (c), Simmonds.

Replacements: George, Marler, Stuart, Ewels, Dombrandt, Randall, Ford, Nowell.

George North is looking forward to the day his children face the big choice: cycling or rugby.

North is also looking forward to the Six Nations Championship, starting this weekend, when Wales begin their title defence against Ireland in Dublin.

There is an awful lot for this 29-year-old to be looking forward to, now that his injury hell has passed.

For now, North is enjoying the freedom of being able to run again, after suffering an anterior crucial ligament (ACL) injury in his right knee last April, playing for the Ospreys.

It ended his year on the rugby pitch, ruining hopes of a starring role for the British and Irish Lions in South Africa and denying him a shot at the Springboks, Australia and New Zealand in the autumn internationals.

North would sooner have been healthy and active of course, but being sidelined has had its upsides. He and his wife, double Olympic cyclist silver medallist Becky James, welcomed their second son, Tomi, a brother for Jac, in October.

Rather than dividing his time between the family and Wales camps, North has been essentially a stay-at-home dad for months on end.

"It's been brilliant. Normally I'm away playing or touring or something," says North, who is a Land Rover ambassador.

"To have this time at home, it's priceless. But Becky's been a superstar. When I had my surgery to start with, I couldn't do much on crutches with Jac, and obviously Tomi's joined us now and he's class.

"I'm in that stage now where effectively I'm in pre-season again, and I'm absolutely battered when I come home from training. And I'm not much use to anyone, but she's been amazing through this whole process.

"It has been tough, but it's been amazing you know, the two boys are amazing. Thank goodness for Becky, because it'd have been a lot harder at one point, with one leg up and hopping around the place. Especially my surgery, it was very tough. But yeah, she's a superhero."

Wales have been Six Nations champions four times in the last 10 years. Despite being holders, however, few are giving them much of a chance this time around.

After all, Wales have been up and down with results in the tournament. Across the last five years, they have trailed in fifth twice, as well as clinching a couple of championships, including the 2019 grand slam.

This time, they head into the tournament without a clutch of key players: North is absent, but so too is captain Alun Wyn Jones, with Taulupe Faletau, Leigh Halfpenny, Josh Navidi, Ken Owens and Justin Tipuric also sidelined.

 

Head coach Wayne Pivac said his squad has lost around 680 caps' worth of experience, but Wales should still be no mugs.

The players Pivac has chosen for the tournament come with an average of 27.1 Test caps of experience, only topped by Ireland's 30.9 among the six teams.

Those that are missing are proven class, however. In last year's championship, Faletau had 66 carries, putting him in third place among all players, while Tipuric made the most tackles (82). Faletau was fourth on that list (74), and skipper Jones was sixth (72).

On the Six Nations all-time list, North, who has featured on the wing and at outside centre, ranks fourth for metres gained (2,548), third for defenders beaten (126), and third for most clean breaks (48).

Jones is top of the all-time tackles chart (719), with fly-half Dan  Biggar a different animal to the absent lock. Biggar sits second on the Six Nations' all-time try assists list, after setting up 17 five-pointers in the competition.

To lose a raft of proven top-level talent would hurt any team, and North is not blind to that. He has been in and around the Wales squad since his late teens, however, so is certain there will be no defeatist attitude in Pivac's camp.

"Obviously there are a number of players out missing, and I think Wayne's come out with a stat of something like 680 caps that he's lost," says North. "That's a tough place to be."

 

But can Wales kick on regardless? North says so.

"Well, that that's the only way you get better, isn't it? By pushing the standards up every time," North tells Stats Perform News.

"I think for us, as Wales, we're used to being the underdogs, and we're always used to being kind of like always wanting more, and I think that shows in the performances that we have and the results we have had of late.

"From the lads' point of view, that's something they will certainly be looking at: how they push on from last year. Obviously winning the championship [is one thing], but you know the next step is backing it up again and as we said, it's going to be incredibly tough for the boys."

In the 2021 Six Nations, Wales made the most tackles of all teams (871), were third for tackle success with a healthy 88.2 per cent record, ranked second for lineout success with 90.8 per cent, and matched France for the most scrum success with 96.2 per cent.

Pivac's side averaged 3.7 points per entry into the opposition 22, making them the only side to average over three points per entry. It is a hard act to follow.

The loss of veteran skipper Jones gives 32-year-old playmaker Biggar the opportunity to lead the team into the championship.

"Yeah, it's not easy following the most capped player in the world is it!" North says. "I wouldn't like to follow Alun Wyn, put it that way.

"But what you're getting with Dan is a fierce competitor who drives the squad from the front row, right the way back all the way through to the full-back.

"He expects high standards of everyone, and he expects those standards of himself. I'm excited to see Dan as captain because what you see on the field is a fierce competitor. And that's not just on the field, that's Monday to Friday, and that's in whatever jersey he is.

"He expects the best for himself, and also the best from others because you know he is a competitor and wants to win."

North has the most international tries of all current players in the world game, and he has spoken of hoping to be available to Pivac at the back end of the championship.  Wales have home games against France and Italy on March 11 and 19 to finish the campaign.

He longs to make his children proud, even though both are much too young to understand his day job, or to understand their mother was a world champion.

From the routines of parenthood to the cauldron of the Principality Stadium, North is focused on pulling out all the stops. Jac and Tomi are keeping him grounded but also fuelling his ambitions.

"Obviously they don't know what Dad does. They don't know what Mum used to do," he says. "And I think that's something that's special.

"I am looking forward to the day that I'd be able to play and Becky can bring the boys to watch. I'm incredibly proud and honoured to be able to play rugby, but to be able to share that with the boys and, you know, show them more. Whatever they want to do in the future, there's always that conversation, is it a bike or a rugby ball?"

North, who during last year's Six Nations became the youngest player to reach 100 caps for any country, is targeting the 2023 Rugby World Cup as a long-range goal.

That could add up to over two months away from home, and given he will be 31 by the time that tournament comes around, it might be a last shot at global glory.

"I've got a fair few steps to cross off before we get back in any jersey. Certainly it's something I want to be able to put my hand up and be fighting for my selection there," he says.

"I've been very fortunate to go to a few now, and you know that's a big push. It's not too far away, and it's something that is certainly exciting."

There he goes again, always looking forward.


:: George North is a Land Rover ambassador. Visit landrover.co.uk

Manu Tuilagi could be fit for England's second match of the Six Nations against Italy at Stadio Olimpico.

The Sale Sharks centre has been sidelined since suffering a torn hamstring when he scored a try in the Red Rose's win over South Africa at Twickenham in November.

Tuilagi is on course to make his return for Sale against Harlequins in the Premiership a week on Sunday, the day after England face Scotland in their Six Nations opener at Murrayfield.

And Sharks director of rugby Alex Sanderson says the 30-year-old powerhouse may be back in international action in Rome on February 13.

"Harlequins is the projected return, and then we will see how he feels for Six Nations," said Sanderson.

"It is a week-to-week thing for Manu, but England have total autonomy over when he plays and doesn't play, and if he looks really good and feels good, he will go straight through to England and it could be Italy."

Sanderson revealed a clash with his former club Leicester Tigers this Sunday came too soon for Tuilagi.

"He is training and looking good, but we think it is too much of a risk to push him this weekend," Sanderson added.

"He is an exceptional trainer and a quick healer, so all of his progressions are done on the back of hitting physiological markers and GPS speeds, re-scans and seeing the specialist, and we would never push him earlier."

England this week suffered a blow when captain Owen Farrell was ruled out of the Six Nations due to an ankle injury.

Fabien Galthie provided an encouraging update on Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack after France's key duo tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the Six Nations.

Les Bleus' preparation for the tournament has been hard hit by a host of contracting coronavirus.  

Bernard Le Roux had to make 11 changes to his 42-man squad, with World Rugby Player of the Year Dupont, fly-half Ntamack and Bernard Le Roux among those who were unable to report for international duty.

Galthie on Wednesday revealed the absentees due to COVID-19 are recovering well ahead of his side's opening game of the tournament against Italy at Stade de France a week on Sunday.

The France head coach said: "We keep in touch with all the players from afar, of course.

"We have good news concerning the players and their state of health and spirit and all are doing well."

Mercurial scrum-half Dupont has not played since December 11 due to a knee injury and coronavirus.

Galthie says the playmaker could return for Toulouse in their Top 14 encounter with Racing 92 on Saturday.

"I have spoken to him: he is doing well. He resumed training two weeks ago," said Galthie 

"He wanted to play against Cardiff but the match did not go ahead. Then of course he tested positive for COVID. But he is fine, and is still training. Today he had a test at his club and depending on the results he will play or not for Toulouse this weekend.

"That is up to his head coach Ugo Mola and I have confidence in him he will take the right decision both for his team and for Antoine."

It is 12 years since France won the Six Nations, but they are favourites to end that title drought this time around and that is music to Galthie's ears. 

"I am very happy with this compliment, we’re very happy and proud to be labelled as favourites," he said.

"We are very happy to hear all those positive comments. It's very rewarding, it's rewarding for our two-year work, it's rewarding for all the commitment of the players, the virtues of the team and their dedication on the pitch."

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.