Fabien Galthie says France must learn to play without star man Antoine Dupont and has challenged Maxime Lucu to fill the void ahead of their Guinness Six Nations opener against Ireland.

Toulouse scrum-half Dupont is a major absentee for the championship as he focuses on his country’s sevens squad for this year’s Paris Olympics.

Understudy Lucu will wear Les Bleus’ number nine shirt for Friday evening’s curtain-raiser in Marseille, with uncapped Racing 92 player Nolann Le Garrec, 21, providing cover from the bench.

La Rochelle number eight Gregory Alldritt has taken on the captaincy from Dupont, who was crowned player of the tournament in the three of the past four years.

Head coach Galthie told a press conference “It’s the moment to acknowledge Antoine.

“He chose an opening for the Olympics. It’s good to breathe, get out of what is usual in whatever way possible.

“He leaves a space, an opportunity for other players to take his shirt. Maxime Lucu has been with us since the start of our (journey) pretty much. He’s always been very good.

“It’s up to him to take charge of things, with his qualities, calmness, what he can do.

“We feel Nolann is ready to take on the role. I see this competitiveness in French rugby as a positive thing.

“Greg as a captain, leader, (full-back) Thomas Ramos and Maxime Lucu are part of them (the leadership team) now, they have to learn to play without Antoine.

“It will be interesting to see this different side of the French national team.”

Galthie’s starting XV shows five changes from the team which began France’s 29-28 Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to eventual winners South Africa on October 15.

 

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by AD (@antoinedupont9)

 

Yoram Moefana is preferred to Louis Bielle-Biarrey on the left wing, while Paul Gabrillagues and Paul Willemse are Les Bleus’ new lock pairing.

Francois Cros replaces the injured Anthony Jelonch at blindside flanker in the other alteration.

France, who were dethroned as Grand Slam champions by Ireland last year, are title favourites going into the competition.

“In four years, there hasn’t been a game without a requirement to win,” said Galthie.

“We’ve always heard the music in the background of requiring a win.

“There will be obstacles. The obstacles are the opponents. Before the World Cup, Ireland were world number one, now they’re world number two.

“We’re conscious of the run of games we have, South Africa, now Ireland, who also lost in the quarter-finals (to New Zealand).

“Defeats are part of the journey, as are obstacles. We like it, pressure, requirements, it’s not a problem for us, we’re here for that. We’re solid.”

Munster wing Calvin Nash and Leinster lock Joe McCarthy will make their Guinness Six Nations debuts in Ireland’s championship opener against France but centre Garry Ringrose misses out due to a shoulder issue.

Jack Crowley has been selected at fly-half for Friday evening’s curtain-raiser in Marseille following the retirement of former captain Johnny Sexton after the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Andy Farrell’s starting XV, led by flanker Peter O’Mahony, shows just four changes from Ireland’s 28-24 quarter-final defeat to New Zealand on October 14, with Robbie Henshaw coming in for the sidelined Ringrose in the other alteration.

Twenty-six-year-old Nash, who won his only previous cap as a replacement in a 33-17 World Cup warm-up win over Italy last August, will line up on the right flank in place of the injured Mack Hansen.

McCarthy, 22, featured twice at the tournament in France and will partner Tadhg Beirne in the second row after being preferred to experienced duo James Ryan and Iain Henderson.

Ringrose was an option to switch positions and fill the void left by Connacht star Hansen but he has been ruled out by a bang on a shoulder.

The 29-year-old Leinster co-captain is expected to be back in contention for the round-two clash with Italy on February 11.

His absence sees Henshaw return to midfield, alongside 2023 World Rugby player of the year nominee Bundee Aki.

Munster number 10 Crowley, who has nine international caps, will make his full Six Nations debut to stake his claim as long-term successor to Sexton.

The 24-year-old’s only previous action in the championship was a three-minute cameo against Italy 12 months ago.

Ciaran Frawley, who – like Nash – won his one and only Test cap by coming on against the Azzurri last summer, will provide fly-half cover from the bench, while Harry Byrne – the younger brother of the injured Ross Byrne – must wait for his opportunity.

Title holders Ireland defeated France 32-19 in Dublin last February en route to dethroning their rivals as Grand Slam champions.

Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan and Tadhg Furlong continue in an unchanged front row, with fellow Leinster players Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris joining new skipper O’Mahony at the base of the pack.

Jamison Gibson-Park retains the scrum-half role ahead of Conor Murray, with James Lowe on the left wing and Hugo Keenan at full-back.

Veteran prop Cian Healy returns to the bench at Stade Velodrome after missing the World Cup with a calf injury.

The 36-year-old loosehead is joined by Ronan Kelleher, Finlay Bealham, Ryan, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Murray and Frawley.

Ireland team: H Keenan (Leinster); C Nash (Munster), R Henshaw (Leinster), B Aki (Connacht), J Lowe (Leinster); J Crowley (Munster), J Gibson-Park (Leinster); A Porter (Leinster), D Sheehan (Leinster), T Furlong (Leinster), J McCarthy (Leinster), T Beirne (Munster), P O’Mahony (Munster, capt), J van der Flier (Leinster), C Doris (Leinster).

Replacements: R Kelleher (Leinster), C Healy (Leinster), F Bealham (Connacht), J Ryan (Leinster), R Baird (Leinster), J Conan (Leinster), C Murray (Munster), C Frawley (Leinster).

Ryan Elias has praised Wales’ Six Nations newcomers and their impact on a squad preparing for Saturday’s tournament opener against Scotland in Cardiff.

Head coach Warren Gatland’s 34-strong group contains just 18 players who were involved in a World Cup campaign that ended only last autumn.

The list of absentees reads like a Welsh rugby who’s who, headlined by players such as Louis Rees-Zammit, Liam Williams, Dan Biggar, Gareth Anscombe, Tomas Francis, Dewi Lake, Jac Morgan and Taulupe Faletau.

Wales have a new skipper – their youngest since 1968 – in 21-year-old Exeter lock Dafydd Jenkins, while Cardiff quartet Cam Winnett, Evan Lloyd, Alex Mann and Mackenzie Martin are among five uncapped players.

It represents a considerable reset on the World Cup road to Australia 2027, but experienced campaigner Elias has been enthused by preparations for Scotland’s Principality Stadium visit.

“There are a lot of young, new faces and they bring a lot of energy to the sessions. They want to learn,” Wales hooker Elias said.

“To be honest with you, it was a bit odd in the first day or two.

“You are so used to seeing the old boys and experienced heads that have been there for years. I remember watching them growing up, people like Dan Biggar, who have been stalwarts for the country.

“Other boys get the chance to – and have to – step up. It is very competitive in training.

“There is a competitive and physical edge. These young lads are sharp, so you have to be on the ball.

“People might not be giving us much of a chance because there have been so many changes, but we are just concentrating on ourselves to put a performance in we can be proud of.”

Wales face successive trips to Twickenham and Dublin after hosting Scotland, which underlines the importance of a first game where recent history strongly favours Warren Gatland’s team.

Scotland have suffered 11 successive defeats in Cardiff, comprising nine Six Nations encounters, a World Cup warm-up game and an autumn Test.

And if Wales can continue that trend it would make an immediate statement not only to their rivals, but also the bookmakers predicting a fifth-place finish with only Italy below them.

Wales assistant coach Neil Jenkins said: “We always believe we can prove ourselves.

“I think most people have written us off already, there is no doubting that. It is not something we tend to worry about.

“It is momentum isn’t it, the Six Nations? I always say with us that we generally get better as the tournament goes on, so the first two games are always massive for us.

“There are quite a few new players involved in this group, and it will be the first time for them in terms of experiencing a Six Nations game.

“It is a settled Scotland side and I am sure they will be fancying their chances, but we’ve just got to focus on ourselves.”

France scrum-half Maxime Lucu will start in place of the absent Antoine Dupont for Friday evening’s Guinness Six Nations opener against Ireland.

Fabien Galthie’s starting XV shows five changes from the team which began Les Bleus’ 29-28 Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to South Africa on October 15.

With Dupont missing the tournament in order to focus on sevens ahead of this year’s Paris Olympics, understudy Lucu will partner Bordeaux team-mate Matthieu Jalibert for the championship curtain-raiser in Marseille.

Uncapped Racing 92 scrum-half Nolann Le Garrec, 21, will provide cover for Lucu from the bench at Stade Velodrome.

Yoram Moefana is preferred to Louis Bielle-Biarrey on the left wing, while Paul Gabrillagues and Paul Willemse are Galthie’s new lock pairing.

Francois Cros replaces the injured Anthony Jelonch at blindside flanker in the other alteration.

La Rochelle number eight Gregory Alldritt has taken on the captaincy from Dupont, who was named player of the championship in three of the past four years.

Cyril Baille, hooker Peato Mauvaka and Uini Atonio continue in an unchanged front row, with new skipper Alldritt joined at the back of the pack by flankers Cros and Charles Ollivon.

Behind the half-back pairing of Lucu and Jalibert are centres Jonathan Danty and Gael Fickou, while Damian Penaud, who scored six tries at the World Cup, lines up on the right wing and Thomas Ramos starts at full-back.

Le Garrec and Bielle-Biarrey are joined among the replacements by Julien Marchand, Reda Wardi, Dorian Aldegheri, Romain Taofifenua, Cameron Woki and Paul Boudehent.

France went on to clinch the Grand Slam after beating Ireland 30-24 in Paris two years ago.

Current title holders Ireland avenged that defeat 12 months ago with a 32-19 Dublin win en route to a tournament clean sweep.

France team: T Ramos (Toulouse); D Penaud (Bordeaux), G Fickou (Racing 92), J Danty (La Rochelle), Y Moefana (Bordeaux); M Jalibert (Bordeaux), M Lucu (Bordeaux); C Baille (Toulouse), P Mauvaka (Toulouse), U Atonio (La Rochelle), P Gabrillagues (Stade Francais), P Willemse (Montpellier), F Cros (Toulouse), C Ollivon (Toulon), G Alldritt (La Rochelle, capt).

Replacements: J Marchand (Toulouse), R Wardi (La Rochelle), D Aldegheri (Toulouse), R Taofifenua (Lyon), C Woki (Racing 92), P Boudehent (La Rochelle), N Le Garrec (Racing 92), L Bielle-Biarrey (Bordeaux).

Maro Itoje has committed his future to Saracens by signing a new long-term deal with the club.

The 29-year-old England lock has made 175 appearances to date for Sarries, having made his debut for them in 2013.

He has enjoyed great success, winning five Premiership titles and three European crowns and has played 76 times for his country.

In addition to his new Saracens contract, Itoje has been offered an enhanced Elite Playing Squad (EPS) contract by the Rugby Football Union.

The news is a boost to the domestic game and to England following his team-mate Owen Farrell’s departure to French club Racing 92.

Itoje had himself been linked last year with a move to France but says he “couldn’t be happier” to be staying at the club he has represented for more than a decade.

“Looking back I am very proud of what we have achieved over the last 10 years and it is the best place for me to keep progressing,” he said.

“With the squad we have I really believe we have some massively exciting times ahead and I can’t wait to be a part of it moving forward.”

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall said: “Maro has gone from a promising academy prospect to a global figure in rugby. He is a world-class player, but what sets Maro apart is his dedication to his craft; the standard he sets, how he goes about his work – on and off the field – and how this expresses his love for the club and for the game.

“We are delighted he will continue to be at the heart of the Saracens project. We know the best of Maro is yet to come.”

Jamie George insists England are determined to make Twickenham a “horrible” place for opponents to visit while also reassuring fans that their intent is to score more tries.

England open their Six Nations against Italy in Rome on Saturday but George, their captain for the tournament, believes it is the home fixtures against Wales and Ireland that provide crucial opportunities to reconnect with fans.

Head coach Steve Borthwick has highlighted a win ratio of only 50 per cent from the past six Championships as evidence of significant underachievement and George is keen for that to be addressed with a flourish.

“We want to get Twickenham back to being a place that is horrible to play in for opposition,” George told the PA news agency.

“But at the same time we want to love representing England at Twickenham. Steve’s very passionate about that too and it’s a message I love hearing.

“We need to take fans on a journey with us and we have a responsibility for that through the way that we play, the brand of rugby we play and by showing how passionate we are when we’re on the field.

“If we do that it will feed into the crowds and we saw that in the South Africa and Fiji games at the World Cup. That’s the sort of environment we want to try to create.

“Style has a role to play. Ultimately we are a team that makes the right decision at the right time, but the way we play the game is also important to get people off their seats.

 

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Jamie George (@jamiegeorge2)

 

“Constantly throughout the World Cup – and we didn’t achieve it quite as much as we wanted to – how we attacked was a focus point because we want to score more tries.

“You get people on their feet when they see tries being scored. We want to create more chances to score. That for me will lead to more excitement in stadiums.”

A feature of George’s World Cup was the sheer volume of minutes he played due to the inexperience of supporting hookers Theo Dan and Jack Walker.

And with Luke Cowan-Dickie missing the start of the Six Nations for undisclosed medical reasons, the Saracens front row could be set for another heavy workload – a prospect he relishes.

“I was pleased with how the World Cup went. There are certain areas that I need to be better at, but that’s natural,” he said.

“In terms of playing minutes, I want to be on the field in every minute of the game. I would never complain about that because I’ve been on the other side of the coin and sat on the bench for 80 minutes, which isn’t very nice.

“I will never complain about playing too much rugby, I absolutely love it. I will never take it for granted being on the field at any stage. For me, it’s something I love so much.

“A strength of mine has always been my fitness and my ability to stay involved in a game. The more time I spend in a game the better I feel almost.”

England are reeling from the loss of Marcus Smith for Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations opener against Italy because of a calf problem.

Smith suffered the injury at the squad’s training camp in Girona on Monday and England are waiting for a second opinion on the scan before confirming a return date, raising the possibility that he could miss additional matches.

The 24-year-old was in strong contention to start the Rome showdown at fly-half, competing with George Ford and Fin Smith for the jersey.

“He won’t make this weekend sadly,” assistant coach Kevin Sinfield told reporters.

“It is a calf injury. We got the scan report through but we are waiting to understand exactly what that means for us moving forward. He’s not fit for this weekend.

“It just happened in training, the early part of the session. Just one of those things. The boys have had two days off (for) recovery and Marcus being the bundle of energy that he is was doing his thing.

“Unfortunately these things happen. We are gutted for him because he’s been amazing to work with and we hope it will not be too long.”

Wales assistant coach Jonathan Humphreys knows from personal experience how “noisy and intimidating” the Principality Stadium can be for visiting teams.

And Scotland – Wales’ opening Guinness Six Nations opponents in Cardiff on Saturday – have found it tougher than most.

They have lost 11 successive games in the Welsh capital – nine Six Nations fixtures, a World Cup warm-up match and an autumn Test.

Humphreys was part of the Scotland coaching staff for two of those losses, a 51-3 reversal when Stuart Hogg was sent off in 2014 plus a 27-23 defeat two years later.

It is 22 years since Scotland last won at the venue, when current head coach Gregor Townsend lined up in a team that won by five points courtesy of injury-time penalties from Brendan Laney and Duncan Hodge.

The Scots did claim an away victory four years ago but that encounter was played at Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli, with the Principality Stadium being turned into a hospital during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think people underestimate the stadium – how noisy and intimidating it is,” former Wales captain Humphreys said.

“When you are the other side of that it hits you. It is not a nice place to come, especially if Wales are on the front foot and going well and the crowd are behind them.

“That is a challenge in itself. I know lots of people talk about the atmosphere.

“When the stadium was built, there were a few of us who were asked our opinion from the old stadium, and what we wanted was the ability still to be enclosed like the old Arms Park was.”

Despite recent history, the bookmakers are confidently predicting a Scottish win against a Wales team without many familiar faces.

Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny retired from Test rugby after the World Cup, Liam Williams is playing in Japan and Louis Rees-Zammit has quit rugby union to try and forge an American football career.

Injuries have also hit Wales, with World Cup co-captains Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake set to miss the whole Six Nations along with 104 times-capped number eight Taulupe Faletau.

Almost half of Wales’ 34-strong Six Nations squad have cap totals in single figures, while they are captained for the first time by 21-year-old Exeter lock Dafydd Jenkins.

On the squad newcomers, Humphreys added: “It has been good. There is loads of energy, and they are lapping it up.

“The reason they are in here is because we feel they can play international rugby, and their form with the clubs has shown that.

“They are super-keen, super-hungry and they will have experience of Test rugby during this campaign.

“The level of expectation within the group is high. You are still expected to perform, you are still expected to win.

“We want to get these boys up and running as quick as we can, we want them to experience success as quick as we can. Whenever that comes, the sooner the better, really.

“It is difficult to tell people what it’s like to run out in front of 70,000 people in a Six Nations game.

“You can’t really prepare that. All you can do is try and mimic the intensity of what it is in training, and try and make it more intense and make sure this game does not pass you by.”

Sebastian Negri insists Italy are determined to show the World Cup was an aberration by delivering the upsets needed to make their Guinness Six Nations a success.

The Azzurri are overseen by new head coach Gonzalo Quesada, whose first assignment is plotting the downfall of England in Saturday’s opener at the Stadio Olimpico.

Quesada must repair the damage caused by heavy defeats to New Zealand and France – 96 points were leaked against the All Blacks – at last year’s World Cup, results that stalled the clear progress being made.

Wales and Australia were toppled in 2022 and in the ensuing Six Nations it was only a lack of conviction and accuracy that cost them in near misses against France and Scotland.

“The World Cup hurt, it really hurt. It was a setback but the good thing is that we’ve got the opportunity to make it right against some of the best teams in the world,” Negri told the PA news agency.

Italy have a win rate of only 11 per cent since joining the Six Nations and the powerful back row added: “It’s a tough tournament for us but what keeps us going is the belief that we can get the results we want.

“It’s hard. Judged on results, it is what it is at the end of the day. We have a responsibility in the Six Nations to get a couple of results and to keep on building on what we’ve built over the last 12-18 months.

“We had a few setbacks at the World Cup but we’ve come a long way in the way we play and we’re hoping to have a good, balanced Six Nations.

“We want to keep building because we’re on to something special, we have a really good group of young players who are gaining more and more experience.

“I wouldn’t be playing international rugby if I didn’t believe in the process we are going through.”

It would be a seismic upset for Italy to topple England for the first time in 31 meetings even if Steve Borthwick’s team are rebuilding after winning the bronze final at last autumn’s World Cup.

“England are a physical side with a really good set-piece and kicking game. We’ll have to match that and not go off the boil and start chucking the ball around,” Negri said.

“We need a balanced approach and if we underestimate them we’re in trouble. They showcased what they can do at the World Cup. They maybe don’t play the prettiest brand of rugby but they get results and that’s what counts.”

England fly-half Marcus Smith is awaiting scan results on a leg injury sustained in training just five days before the Guinness Six Nations’ opener against Italy.

Steve Borthwick’s squad are on a training camp in Girona and the England head coach is scheduled to announce his starting line-up on Thursday.

England’s Six Nations’ hopes would be given a huge blow if Smith is ruled out as fellow fly-half Owen Farrell is ineligible for selection following his move from Saracens to French side Racing 92 last week.

Farrell had already made himself unavailable for this season’s Six Nations in order to focus on his mental well-being and Smith was a leading contender to fill his boots.

Smith left England’s training camp on crutches and headed for a scan after his session had been cut short.

England attack coach Richard Wigglesworth told several national media outlets: “Hopefully it’s very precautionary, but if he is not (available) it would definitely be a blow for us.

“It wasn’t a big incident. He was just jogging, but he pulled up and happened to be right next to a physio by the sideline, so they walked off after that. All the usual stuff (medical assessments) will happen.”

Steve Borthwick insists England’s battle-hardened players are ready for the Guinness Six Nations as a result of facing greater club demands than any of their rivals.

Borthwick’s 36-man squad have comfortably racked up the highest number of minutes played since the World Cup due to their Gallagher Premiership and European commitments.

But while they will enter the Six Nations depleted by a greater workload – they have accumulated over two hours of game time more per player than next highest France – Borthwick believes they have benefited from the competitiveness of English clubs.

Six Premiership teams have reached the knockout phase of the Investec Champions Cup while the domestic league itself is more compelling that ever following its reduction in  teams.

“The players are match-hardened, so that’s a great benefit. Generally I will try to look at the positive side and I have a group of players that are match-hardened. They are ready to go,” Borthwick said.

“The other thing is the nature of the Premiership. All of the games are counting so the leverage of all these games is huge.

“And there have been teams fighting in Europe to get qualification, fighting to find a way to win which, again, is a real positive.

“Everything we’re getting is saying all the clubs are running more than they were 12 months ago, so that’s a real positive.”

England may enter Saturday’s opener against Italy in a fitter state than they were at the equivalent stage in 2023, but Premiership duty will not have equipped them for breakdown and contact area demands of a Six Nations.

And Borthwick has also told his players that there is a minimum requirement every time they pull on a Red Rose jersey.

“The Six Nations is a real contest. It’s breakdown contest game so we need to ensure that we’ve got that running right as well as the level of repeatability around the contact area,” Borthwick said.

“We are going to improve as a rugby team. We will get tactically and technically better, and we will get fitter.

“The supporters also need to see that this team fights all the time, is competitive all the time and plays at the intensity required in an England team.

“That is the base standard and if you have that, you can add the technical and tactical elements that will then follow.”

Argentinian coach Gonzalo Quesada took charge of Italy after the World Cup, replacing Kieran Crowley, and Borthwick insists England will have to think on their feet to contain a repurposed Azzurri.

“Under Kieran Crowley Italy played a phased attack game,” he said.

“They beat Australia, pushed South Africa, beat Wales in Cardiff and in the first game of the Championship last year they went very close to beating France. This is a very dangerous team.

“Quesada played a very different style to that at the Jaguares and at Stade Francais, much more of a blend of forward dominance with competitive kicking, lower phase count.

“They are two contrasting styles so the interesting question for Italy is what can they put together in that first game? We’ll have to be ready to recognise what style they are bringing very early in the game.”

Glasgow wing Kyle Rowe has declared himself ready to step into the Scotland starting line-up in the absence of the injured Darcy Graham for Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations opener away to Wales.

The 25-year-old has scored seven tries so far in his first season since returning to Warriors following the demise of previous club London Irish last summer, including three in his last two outings before meeting up with Gregor Townsend’s squad.

Edinburgh wing Graham will miss at least the first two matches of the championship, in Cardiff and at home to France, with a quad issue.

Townsend must decide whether to replace Scotland’s joint second-highest try-scorer of all time with Rowe, who has one injury-stunted cap to his name, his Glasgow team-mate Kyle Steyn, who has just returned after three months out, or the uncapped Sale flyer Arron Reed.

“You never want to see anyone getting injured, but Darcy’s injury has given me an opportunity to potentially get a starting spot,” said Rowe. “If not, I’m just looking to get better as a player and person over this period. My main goal is to try and get as many games in the Six Nations as possible.

“Glasgow and Scotland are pretty similar in terms of attack and defence so it’s a pretty seamless transition from one set-up to another.

“I feel like what I’ve done over the course of the first half of the season has put me in good stead for potential selection.

“It’s about taking the confidence I’ve got in my game at the minute and bringing it to Scotland.”

The Scotland squad are currently training in Spain before travelling to Wales on Thursday, and Rowe acknowledges he faces a stiff challenge in the days ahead as he bids to prove he deserves the chance to add to his solitary cap.

“The back three is such a competitive area, even with Darcy being out,” he said. “We’ve got Duhan (van der Merwe), Blair (Kinghorn), Kyle, myself, Arron and Ross McCann, who are all capable of playing at the top level.

“All of the players in the back-line can score tries, so we’re pretty dangerous. We all go into training looking to prove to the coaches we can train and play at this level, so we’ll see what happens.”

Rowe’s Scotland debut away to Argentina in July 2022 lasted just 10 minutes after he damaged his ACL and part of his MCL, sidelining him for the entirety of last season.

“It was one of the worst injuries I could get,” he said. “It was very mixed emotions for me that day. It was a very proud moment for myself and my family and then to basically have that all taken away from me was pretty devastating.

“Not everybody does their ACL but you get those big injuries from time to time and it was devastating that my big injury had to come during my first cap for Scotland.”

After recovering from injury, Rowe was included in Scotland’s pre-World Cup training squad last summer before being cut from the final 33 for the showpiece in France.

“If I had come back a little bit quicker, I might have had an outside chance. but during the summer when I was coming into training I knew in my heart and my head that it was only a slim chance and it was a long shot that I was going to go to the World Cup,” he said.

“I didn’t hold any grudges or anything about not getting selected, I knew it was a long shot.

“I’m back in the squad now which is really good so I’m just looking to build on what I’ve done in the first part of the season and get a game for Scotland.”

South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus is recovering in hospital after undergoing a medical procedure for chemical burns.

The 51-year-old, who led the Springboks to World Cup glory in 2019 as head coach, sustained the injury in a “freak accident using a powerful detergent product”.

Erasmus is expected to be able to return to work fully “within weeks”.

A statement from South Africa Rugby said: “Rassie Erasmus, SA Rugby’s director of rugby, is recovering in hospital following a medical procedure for chemical burns sustained in a freak accident using a powerful detergent product.

“He is otherwise in good health and expects to return to full-time working within weeks.”

Aaron Wainwright has handed Welsh rugby a major pre-Six Nations boost by agreeing a new contract with the Dragons.

The Wales back-row forward, who looks set to line up at number eight in next week’s Six Nations clash against Scotland, has agreed what the Dragons described as “a multi-year” deal.

The 26-year-old would undoubtedly have courted considerable interest elsewhere, given his Test experience of 43 caps and outstanding displays during the Rugby World Cup in France.

“Lots of positive conversations have gone on between Dai (Dragons head coach Dai Flanagan), myself and the club,” Wainwright said.

“I am looking forward to the next few years. I love the Dragons, I am a home boy.

“I love turning up to Rodney Parade, seeing fans out on the terraces, and that’s what I want to keep doing, turning up on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday and playing well, trying to make them happy.

“I am happy to have re-signed and I am excited to see what the next few years have to hold.”

Wainwright made his Wales debut in 2018 and he has developed into a player whose consistency of performance is an invaluable commodity for head coach Warren Gatland.

Only six players – and just two forwards – have more caps than him in Wales’ 34-strong Six Nations squad, and he is comfortably the senior back-row figure.

With Taulupe Faletau sidelined for the whole Six Nations, along with flanker and co-captain Jac Morgan, through injury, Wainwright will head up Gatland’s back-row resources.

A move from blindside flanker can be expected, unless Gatland hands uncapped Cardiff number eight Mackenzie Martin an opportunity and leaves Wainwright in the number six shirt.

“It is a fairly young group at the moment. It is definitely exciting, and it is about how we build on that,” Wainwright added.

“When I came in for my first campaign, some of the back rows in the squad – Tips (Justin Tipuric), Lyds (Dan Lydiate), Taulupe (Faletau) – it’s trying to be a figure to them like those boys were to me. I am just trying to be the best role model for them.

“I am not always the loudest of talkers. I hope to do it through my actions.

“We have been pushing each other in training, and everyone has fitted in well really quickly. We’ve only had three days of training, but information is being taken on really quickly.”

Scotland have not beaten Wales in Cardiff since 2002 – current head coach Gregor Townsend was their fly-half that day – losing 11 successive Tests in the Welsh capital.

But they have been strongly backed to end that sequence, particularly given Wales’ inexperience and the absence of players like Faletau, Morgan, Louis Rees-Zammit, Liam Williams and Dan Biggar.

The squad’s cap total is 735, but 438 of those appearances have been made by just seven players – Wainwright, Josh Adams, George North, Gareth Davies, Tomos Williams, Elliot Dee and Adam Beard.

England continue to face disruption to preparations for their Guinness Six Nations opener against Italy after Nick Isiekwe was forced to return from their camp in Girona because of illness.

Isiekwe will be unable to take part in the Stadio Olimpico showdown on Saturday week with the gap created in Steve Borthwick’s 36-man squad being taken by Charlie Ewels.

Isiekwe was a possible bench option for the round one fixture in Rome and his departure from England’s warm-weather training base in Spain is another setback for Borthwick.

A crisis has developed in midfield after Ollie Lawrence was ruled out until later in the Championship because of a hip problem, while Oscar Beard is out with concussion.

It raises the prospect of either of the uncapped Fraser Dingwall or Max Ojomoh partnering Henry Slade in the centres in another overhaul of England’s midfield.

Only Dingwall and Ojomoh have played regularly at inside centre with the options available to Borthwick already depleted by Owen Farrell’s absence from the Six Nations for mental wellbeing reasons and Manu Tuilagi’s groin issue.

Hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie has also been ruled out against Italy because of an unspecified medical condition, but he could return for the round two appointment with Wales at Twickenham.

Ewels, the Bath second row, won the last of his 30 caps in the 2022 Six Nations and will be competing with Alex Coles to provide bench cover for Maro Itoje and Ollie Chessum.

England depart Girona for Rome on Thursday when Borthwick will name a starting XV that will be led for the first time by Jamie George.

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.