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.

Wales will go into the Guinness Six Nations with a new-look squad containing five international rookies and a 21-year-old captain.

But head coach Warren Gatland believes it is “incredibly exciting” as his players embark on the long road towards World Cup 2027 in Australia.

Although the last World Cup finished just four months ago, only 18 of that 33-strong squad feature for a Six Nations campaign that Wales kick off against Scotland before facing successive appointments away from home with England and Ireland.

The list of absentees is startling, highlighted by wing Louis Rees-Zammit’s career switch to American football, Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny retiring from Test rugby and Liam Williams now playing in Japan.

There are tournament-ending injuries to the likes of World Cup co-captains Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake, plus number eight Taulupe Faletau, with France-based props Tomas Francis and Henry Thomas also missing out.

The uncapped contingent comprises Cardiff quartet Cameron Winnett, Evan Lloyd, Alex Mann and Mackenzie Martin, in addition to Bath prop Archie Griffin, while almost half the squad have eight caps or fewer.

It could well be a case of short-term pain leading to long-term gain for Wales, but Gatland is relishing what lies ahead.

“It is incredibly exciting,” said Gatland, who named Exeter lock Dafydd Jenkins as his skipper. “If you look at the squad we have got some talent, we’ve got some experience there from players we had with us at the World Cup.

“We have lost a lot of experience, but it is a new cycle for us to go through. We probably need a little bit of time and a little bit of patience from the Welsh public.

“I hope they can see that given some time together we can develop a squad over the next few years.

“I think this for us, looking at Wales having such a small group of players in terms of a Tier One nation, it is something that we need to plan and look at how we implement that plan over the next three or four years.

“Some of that is doing it right from the start. I think that despite all the negativity around Welsh rugby I think there are a lot of positives.

“There are a lot of negatives financially, but the financial challenges mean that we are giving opportunities to lots of youngsters that we may not have seen a few years ago, and for me that is a massive positive.

“We are not going to benefit in the short term, but I think that in the next three or four years we are going to benefit from us giving them those chances.

“Despite what people are talking about, the financial challenges, I see it differently as a real positive and a real chance for a reset in Welsh rugby that is going to put us in good stead over the next few years.”

With Biggar having departed the Test scene, considerable attention will focus on his fly-half successor – 22-year-old Sam Costelow – and his fellow squad number 10s Ioan Lloyd and Cai Evans.

Gatland added: “We are pleased with the progression of Sam in the time that he has been with us, but he has still got a little bit of learning.

“With Ioan it has probably been a little bit difficult for him over the last couple of seasons in terms of nailing down a position. He has played a lot of 10, he can cover 15 as well.

“The important thing for him is just to be playing regularly in one or two positions, and we are also thinking we can spend some time with Cai Evans in terms of giving him a little bit of time in that 10 position just to give us an option.”

Steve Borthwick feels that England supporters “deserve better” when it comes to performances and results in the Guinness Six Nations.

While England’s seven Six Nations titles put them top of the tree, the tally also gives a slightly distorted picture.

Three of those successes came during the competition’s first four seasons – and before England won the 2003 World Cup – and it has been a mere 20 per cent success-rate since then.

One title over the past six years underlines how tough England have found it and they have their work cut out again this time around, given the dominant form of Ireland and France.

“What has happened sometimes is England have been coming into the tournament and we are often talked about being favourites, and essentially England’s performance has not been anywhere near that level,” England head coach Borthwick said.

“The team knows that and the team wants to deliver better and the supporters deserve better.”

England will arrive in the competition after a third-place finish at the World Cup, an outcome that exceeded many expectations.

And the fixture schedule has been relatively kind as games against opening opponents Italy in Rome and Wales at Twickenham could see them generate early momentum.

But given it is then a Murrayfield appointment with Scotland, chasing four successive victories over England for the first time since 1972, then Ireland before a finale against France in Lyon, starting well is pretty much non-negotiable.

With World Cup captain Owen Farrell deciding to miss the Six Nations as he prioritises his and his family’s mental well-being, hooker Jamie George takes over as skipper.

Borthwick’s 36-strong squad includes seven uncapped players, headlined by 21-year-old Exeter wing Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, with only 17 survivors from the World Cup.

Experienced forwards Kyle Sinckler and Billy Vunipola missed out, while Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs and Mako Vunipola retired from Test rugby, but approaching half the squad have each won 30 caps or more

Borthwick added: “I think you can see from my selections that I value the importance of having experience in there with younger, less experienced players and having that sort of support around them.

“I think that’s really important on the international stage. I think it is important at any level.

“You look at the effect Jamie George has in gluing the team together. It is just awesome. And I am delighted that we have got Joe Marler and his experience around the group, Dan Cole as well, just to mention a few.

“So I think getting that balance right with the experience and with these exciting players, younger players coming in is going to be really important.

“Our intent is to hit the ground running in Rome the way we want with the intensity that we want to, which is something that England have not done in recent years.

“At times, we have not jumped into this tournament and have been caught in that first game.

“We want this to be a different mindset for England, a different way of approaching the game and the tournament.

“We are taking a different approach because we need different results to previous tournaments.”

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

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

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

No Owen Farrell for new-look England

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

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

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

Big boots to fill for Ireland’s fly-halves

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

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

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

All change for Warren Gatland’s Wales

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

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

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

Scots need to banish World Cup blues

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

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

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

Absent friends have left fond memories

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

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

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

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

Ireland begin the Guinness Six Nations as reigning Grand Slam champions but on the back of familiar World Cup quarter-final disappointment.

Head coach Andy Farrell has kept faith with 26 of the 33 players who ultimately suffered a last-eight defeat to New Zealand in France less than four months ago as he opts for evolution over revolution.

The Englishman, whose squad alterations are enforced by retirements, including that of former captain Johnny Sexton, and injuries, believes “completely cutting the legs off” a system which previously brought sustained success would be detrimental.

He has appointed veteran Munster flanker Peter O’Mahony as his new skipper and is very much focused on immediate challenges, rather than the next World Cup cycle as a whole.

“I was unbelievably proud how we connected with our fans and did it together (at the World Cup) – that for me continues with how we get back on the horse,” said the 2023 World Rugby coach of the year.

“What I’m talking about is being proud of how we go about our business to want to keep evolving our game. The journey continues.

“I think completely cutting the legs off something and starting again can damage not just the team but the individuals within that.

“Dealing with the here and now and the medium term is pretty important to be able to get to the long term in good shape, in my opinion.

“I could be wrong but that’s my experience of it over the years.”

Ireland once again failed to win a World Cup knockout match, suffering a fourth quarter-final elimination in a row and an eighth overall.

Yet they have been victorious in 29 of their last 32 Tests, including a historic tour triumph over the All Blacks in 2022, and spent a prolonged period at the top of the world rankings.

While Farrell plans to build on existing foundations, he is eager to keep generating competition for places and ensure players do not become complacent.

“I think the best thing you can do for the squad as a coach is stay open minded because if you’re fixed on (selection decisions) then people tend to get downhearted or too comfortable,” said the new British and Irish Lions head coach.

“The pressure that they put on each other is the main thing really because ultimately all you’re trying to do as a professional is get the respect of your peers.”

Ireland’s title defence begins on February 2 against France in Marseille.

The major transition facing Farrell is undoubtedly in the most influential position following the departure of talismanic fly-half Sexton.

Munster’s Jack Crowley, who has started just three of his nine Test appearances, is expected to begin as first-choice number 10, with Leinster pair Harry Byrne and Ciaran Frawley, who have only three caps combined, as understudies.

The injury absence of Connacht wing Mack Hansen is a major blow, while front-row forwards Rob Herring and Dave Kilcoyne, fly-half Ross Byrne and versatile back Jimmy O’Brien are also sidelined.

Captain O’Mahony has urged the squad to learn from the World Cup exit at the hands of the All Blacks.

“All the good that we did last year, that’s not gone, far from it,” said the 34-year-old.

“You’ve got a decision to make, do you want that game to make you better? Or do you want to leave it hanging over you?

“Of course we’re going to grab it and be better for it and getting ahead of the game is where you have to be to be competing for championships, which is exactly what we want to do.”

It is difficult to look beyond Ireland and France as the principal contenders for this season’s Guinness Six Nations title.

The tournament’s most eagerly-awaited opener for years will unfold between the main two teams on a Friday night in Marseille – and everyone else could be playing catch-up from day one.

There will undoubtedly be many twists and turns along the way, but whichever team triumphs at Stade Velodrome can expect to be nailed on as Six Nations favourites.

In many ways, it should be no surprise given that Ireland are ranked second on World Rugby’s official rankings and France fourth, while Les Bleus won a Grand Slam in 2022 and Ireland replicated the feat last year.

Both teams will also be driven by memories of crushing World Cup disappointment. Backed in many quarters as possible winners, they made quarter-final exits with Ireland losing to New Zealand and France being toppled by South Africa.

Their recent dominance of European rugby cannot be understated, although the bid for silverware this time around takes place without talismanic figures.

Ireland no longer have imperious fly-half Johnny Sexton at the helm following his post-World Cup retirement, and his fellow former world player of the year – genial France scrum-half Antoine Dupont – is playing sevens in pursuit of a Paris Olympics dream.

Both absences will inevitably be felt, yet there is still comfortably sufficient squad depth for Ireland and France to remain a good furlong or two clear of the field.

They are not the only nations dealing with key losses, as retirements, injuries and tales of the unexpected have taken centre stage.

The pre-Six Nations headlines were dominated by Wales wing Louis Rees-Zammit’s shock decision to quit rugby and target a career in American football.

It all unfolded during a frantic hour ahead of Wales head coach Warren Gatland’s Six Nations squad announcement, and Rees-Zammit was added to a list of absentees that included Test rugby retirees Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams, who is now based in Japan, and an injured trio of Taulupe Faletau, Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake.

England knew in late November that their World Cup skipper Owen Farrell would miss the Six Nations, having opted to take an international break as he prioritised his and his family’s mental wellbeing.

The Saracens fly-half has subsequently signed for French club Racing 92 on a two-year deal from July, which will extend his spell away from Test rugby as Rugby Football Union rules prevents players plying their trade abroad playing for England.

Outside of Farrell’s situation, Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs and Mako Vunipola – more than 300 England caps between them – have left the international stage, but a crop of exciting newcomers include Exeter wing Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, Northampton fly-half Fin Smith and Sale’s Tom Roebuck.

England appear best-equipped to head the chasing pack, but like Wales and Scotland, who meet on the opening weekend in Cardiff, they will need to start strongly in a competition where momentum is key.

Italy, meanwhile, face a tall order to avoid finishing bottom of the pile for a ninth successive campaign, although they have a new head coach in Gonzalo Quesada and leading Italian club Benetton, who contribute 17 players in the national squad, have won seven out of nine United Rugby Championship games this season and hold second spot.

Finn Russell believes his appointment as Scotland co-captain is testament to the newfound harmony he and head coach Gregor Townsend have found following a fractious past.

The 31-year-old was named in the role on Sunday, along with back-rower Rory Darge, ahead of the upcoming Guinness Six Nations.

Russell being handed such a responsibility was particularly notable given he and Townsend have had a strained relationship at times, with the stand-off admitting there is no way he would have been considered for skipper duties back in 2020.

Four years ago, the pair had a well-documented fall-out when the fly-half left the squad ahead of the Six Nations after being disciplined for failing to turn up for training following a drinking session.

And then in 2022, Russell’s Scotland career looked in jeopardy once more when – in the wake of another unauthorised night out during the Six Nations earlier that year – he was surprisingly omitted from the squad for the autumn tests.

Russell and Townsend held clear-the-air talks midway through that series 15 months ago which led to a recall and they have managed to get themselves “on the same page” since then, culminating in the head coach choosing the Bath number 10 to lead the Scots into the Six Nations after opting to relieve Jamie Ritchie of the captaincy.

“I think 2020 would have been the closest to that,” Russell said when asked on Wednesday if he ever thought his Scotland career was over.

“I was still young enough then that I wouldn’t have said I’d have been done (with Scotland), but with the relationship me and Gregor had, it was potentially tough at the time to see a way back for both of us but I think it shows how well we’ve both dealt with it since then.

“At the time it wasn’t great for either side but it shows both our characters that we’ve managed to get over that to where we are now. Going back to 2020, you wouldn’t have picked me as captain three or four years later, would you?

“It shows how we’ve both changed and adapted off the back of that situation. These things happen in high-pressure environments when things are potentially not going as planned.

“A bust-up happened, that’s kind of all it was, but six months later we were back on good enough terms that I then came back that November.

“And then in 2022, there was another slight fall-out again I suppose, but then I came back again in the November and we were both back on the same page. It’s been great since then, that’s all in the past. It’s not something me and Gregor talk about much.”

Having put their stormy past behind them, Russell feels the fact he and Townsend have forged a genuinely strong bond can help Scotland prosper.

“I’d say our relationship is the best it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s much more relaxed now actually, if that makes sense.

“It’s still a player-coach relationship but it feels more relaxed and open than that in terms of just blethering away, whether it’s rugby stuff or just chatting about off-field things.

“I think the relationship between me and Gregor is in a great position right now for us to ideally drive the team on to a title.”

Dafydd Jenkins has admitted he was left shaking after the phone call from Warren Gatland that elevated him to lofty heights as Wales’ youngest captain for 56 years.

The 21-year-old Exeter lock is set to lead his country against opening Guinness Six Nations opponents Scotland on Saturday week.

Not since a 20-year-old Gareth Edwards skippered Wales for the first time – also against Scotland in Cardiff – during the 1968 Five Nations, has there been such a youthful captain.

Jenkins, though, already has plenty of experience having first captained Exeter at 19 and this season steered them into Gallagher Premiership title contention and the Investec Champions Cup knockout phase.

Recalling the moment that he described as “a dream come true”, Jenkins said: “I was in Exeter, at the club and I had a call from a number I didn’t have (in his phone), and Gats obviously said who it was.

“So you’re just going along with it, really. I was not too sure it was actually him or one of the boys playing a prank.

“So I spoke to him and I was pretty convinced it was him, coming off the call.

“After I put the phone down a few of the boys around me were asking me who it was. I was shaking afterwards. It was class.

“I had it (Gatland’s number) on WhatsApp and we have a few other Welsh boys at Exeter like Joe Hawkins, so I compared the number with him.”

Recent Wales captains Jac Morgan, Dewi Lake and Ken Owens were soon in touch to offer congratulations, along with former Wales and British and Irish Lions skipper Sam Warburton.

Jenkins’ father Hywel was an outstanding back-row forward who gained Wales A recognition at representative level, while his grandfather played in the same Wales schoolboys side as Edwards.

“My mum’s dad played in the same team as Gareth Edwards – Welsh schoolboys – and went on to play for Aberavon. My father played for Llanelli,” he added.

“I like trying to lead by example on the field and around the training pitch. Obviously, the nines and 10s are great talkers and there are other leaders within the team, so I just try to do my bit on the pitch and hopefully people follow.

“I think you try and lead with your actions. There is no point telling other people what to do when you are not doing it yourself.”

Jenkins has just 12 caps to his name and he features in a highly-competitive second-row area with the likes of Will Rowlands and Adam Beard.

But Gatland has seen the same qualities in him as Exeter rugby director Rob Baxter, handing him the top playing job in Welsh rugby job barely a month after his 21st birthday.

He will take a charge of an inexperienced squad – almost half the 34-strong group have cap totals in single figures – while Wales’ Six Nations prospects have been dismissed by many, especially given the absence of players like Morgan, Lake, Taulupe Faletau, Dan Biggar, Liam Williams and Louis Rees-Zammit.

“I think a lot of people have written us off already, which is a dangerous thing to do with us,” Jenkins said.

“Obviously, with the young squad, they wouldn’t be in there if they weren’t talented enough and if Gats didn’t think they could do a job.

“I think a lot of people are underestimating what this team can do. They have in the past, and as a country we have proven people wrong time and time again.”

Wales, meanwhile, have eased any fears surrounding centre George North, who suffered a shoulder injury during Ospreys’ European Challenge Cup victory over the Lions in Johannesburg on Sunday.

Wales assistant coach Neil Jenkins said: “George is going to be alright. He might do a little bit this afternoon, but hopefully he will be able to train (on) Friday.”

England’s midfield options for their Guinness Six Nations opener against Italy are dwindling after Ollie Lawrence and Oscar Beard withdrew from Steve Borthwick’s squad because of injury.

Hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie has also been replaced in a triple setback as the squad departed for their pre-Championship training camp in Girona.

Beard suffered concussion in Harlequins’ European victory over Ulster on Saturday while Cowan-Dickie was replaced early in the second half of Sale’s defeat by La Rochelle a day later because of an undisclosed medical condition.

Ollie Lawrence finished Bath’s loss at Toulouse on Sunday but there are no details of his injury.

Bath’s Max Ojomoh and Will Muir have been called into England’s 36-man Six Nations squad to plug the gaps in midfield, while Jamie Blamire of Newcastle replaces Cowan-Dickie.

If he is definitively ruled out against Italy on Saturday week, Lawrence will be a significant loss given he was expected to form a centre partnership with Henry Slade at the Stadio Olimpico.

Lawrence has been a force for Bath this season and, crucially, is able to switch from his preferred position at 13 to 12 where England are short of credible options.

Slade has filled inside centre in the past but is a better fit at outside, leaving the uncapped Fraser Dingwall in pole position to secure the number 12 jersey.

Beard will still travel to Girona as he completes the return to play protocols for concussion but Cowan-Dickie will remain at home to see a specialist.

Finn Russell believes Owen Farrell will be the ideal fit for Racing 92 as England’s fly-half follows in the footsteps of his 2021 Lions team-mate.

Farrell will become ineligible for England selection until 2026 after agreeing a two-year deal that will bring an end his trophy-laden time at Saracens, his only professional club.

The move to Paris next season will reunite the 32-year-old with Stuart Lancaster, Racing’s head coach who gave Farrell his England debut in 2012.

Russell spent five years with the Top 14 leaders before joining Bath after the World Cup and the Scotland playmaker, speaking before Racing confirmed the move on Monday, is backing Farrell to make it a success.

“I loved my time in Paris,” Russell told the PA news agency at the premiere of Netflix’s Six Nations: Full Contact documentary series.

“It’s really close to London so it will be easy for him to go backwards and forwards to his family.

“I don’t know what it’s like under Stuart Lancaster and it will potentially be better for Owen with Stuart being there. The two of them will know each other from the past because of Lancaster’s time at England.

“It’s a great club and a great city to live in. I loved my time there. Owen will be great, he will fit the way they are playing just now really well.

 

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“Everyone views him as a kicking 10 but he’s got a great attacking game as well. He will be great for them.”

Russell’s own change of scenery has revitalised the 31-year-old as well as Bath, who are riding high in the Gallagher Premiership and have reached the knockout phase of Europe.

Scotland fans will be hoping some of that magic rubs off on their team heading into the Guinness Six Nations in the wake of a disappointing group exit from the World Cup, albeit having competed in one of the toughest pools in the tournament’s history.

What is being seen as a ‘golden generation’ of Scottish talent has yet to produce tangible success in the Six Nations and Russell, one of two co-captains for the Championship, wants to end a period of underachievement.

“For us the Six Nations has been frustrating over the last few years,” Russell said. “Last year we got off to a good start but never managed to continue it.

“This year it’s ideally about doing a bit better and winning the first two, three or four games if we can.

“It would definitely be frustrating if we didn’t manage to finish up with a title given the players and strength in depth that we have in the squad. However, all the other teams are getting stronger as well.

“We’ve got great strength in depth in the squad now and we potentially have the chance to win something, but we’ve had that for the last few years and we haven’t managed it.”

Owen Farrell’s departure for Racing 92 next season has been confirmed with the Saracens captain agreeing a two-year deal with the Parisians.

The ramifications for England and the Gallagher Premiership are significant and place the Rugby Football Union’s eligibility rules under the spotlight.

Here the PA news agency looks at the key questions surrounding the England and Lions fly-half’s move to France.

Why has Farrell joined Racing 92?

Farrell has not spoken publicly since news of his potential move to the Top 14 broke earlier in the month, but there are myriad reasons explaining its appeal. The 32-year-old has spent his entire career at Saracens where he has won every honour in the game and could be revitalised by a fresh challenge in a thriving league. There is the obvious financial appeal of playing in France when the generous salary cap means he could command close to £1milion a season. But the big question is just how much his departure from Saracens is a result of the intense and at times vicious scrutiny on England’s captain, especially during the build-up to the World Cup in France and during the tournament itself. Perhaps his decision to rule himself out of this year’s Six Nations to prioritise his and his family’s mental wellbeing provides the answer.

What does it mean for England?

 

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Eligibility rules dictate that Farrell will be unavailable for selection when he leaves the Premiership, denying England the services of their talisman, leading Test points scorer and third most capped player. Farrell could realistically have expected to remain in contention for the number 10 jersey for the next two years – the duration of his Racing contract – so head coach Steve Borthwick is losing an influential player with much still to offer, raising the possibility that the World Cup bronze final victory over Argentina in October was his final international.

Could the eligibility rules change?

No. Instigated by the Rugby Football Union with the full backing of Premiership Rugby, they will remain in place for the foreseeable future despite the number of England players heading across the Channel. The rules are seen as critical to keeping the best talent on these shores, strengthening the English top flight and giving Borthwick greater control over his stars during international periods. Each nation has its own approach to the selection of overseas-based players – for example New Zealand have the same policy whereas South Africa have no restrictions whatsoever – but there is no will in England to loosen current rules.

Should England fans be worried?

Of England’s World Cup squad Farrell, Jack Willis, Joe Marchant, David Ribbans and Henry Arundell will be playing in the Top 14 next season with Lewis Ludlam and Kyle Sinckler set to join them. Other Red Rose internationals are already there. The size of the contingent is growing but two names really jump out – Farrell and Marchant. England did not want to lose their captain and fly-half at this point and Marchant was their first-choice outside centre at the World Cup, but his decision to join Stade Francais comes with the caveat that it was made before he had nailed down a place in Borthwick’s starting XV.

Is it Borthwick’s biggest concern?

While the departures of Farrell and Marchant are clearly a blow to England and the Premiership, Borthwick has more pressing concerns than the unavailability of a group of players on the fringes of the starting XV. A priority is to find two scrummaging props to take over from remarkable veterans Dan Cole and Joe Marler, whose set-piece expertise was proven to be so crucial at the World Cup. And the perennial problem position of inside centre still has only a stop-gap solution at best as the injury-prone Manu Tuilagi nears the end of his Test career.

Owen Farrell could have played his last game for England after French club Racing 92 confirmed that he will join them next season.

The Saracens fly-half and captain will link up with the Parisians from July 1 on a two-year deal.

It will bring to an end his long and successful Saracens career that began in 2008 and has been littered with European and Premiership titles.

Farrell, 32, had already announced that he would miss this season’s Guinness Six Nations in order to prioritise his and his family’s mental well-being.

And he will become ineligible for international selection when he moves to France due to Rugby Football Union rules that do not permit players who ply their trade abroad to be selected for the national team.

His last England appearance was the World Cup bronze medal match against Argentina in Paris on October 27, which England won narrowly.

Racing are coached by Stuart Lancaster, who gave Farrell his Test debut in 2012 when he was England boss.

Farrell has gone on to win 112 caps, lead his country in the last two World Cup campaigns and is England’s record international points-scorer.

He would be 34 if he leaves Racing after two years and returns to England, suggesting any international return would be unlikely.

Farrell, though, would be on the British and Irish Lions’ radar for their 2025 Australia tour, which will see his father Andy fill the role of head coach.

A statement from Racing read: “Racing 92 formalises the signing of Owen Farrell within its professional men’s team.

“The English international player is committed to two sporting seasons and will join the Ciel et Blanc squad from July 1, 2024.”

Farrell will link up with the likes of South Africa’s double World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi at Racing, along with exciting England back Henry Arundell.

Speaking after he announced his Six Nations squad last Wednesday, England head coach Steve Borthwick said: “I think what’s important is that Owen makes a decision that is right for Owen and his family.

“Will a player of Owen’s calibre be missed if he chooses to play outside of England? Yes, of course.

“Do I want him in some point in the future to come back? Yes. But I also want him to do what’s right for him and his family and have the experiences and the memories that he wants to make.”

Farrell’s decision will be a major blow for Saracens, although Racing’s announcement will not have caught them on the hop as Saracens rugby director Mark McCall recently revealed that he knew what decision Farrell had made.

Farrell apart, a number of players who were key to Saracens’ sustained European and Premiership successes over the past 10 years are unlikely to be involved after this summer.

Some will be out of contract and departing, and others retiring, and McCall said last week: “Everybody realises the adventure we’ve been on is coming to an end, and there is a new adventure about to start with a group of younger players we are incredibly excited about who have signed up for the longer term.

“Players are going to retire or they are in the twilight of their careers – it is just the cycle of a team.

“I suppose all good things come to an end, and there is a re-energising effect and impact of a new group.

“We have met with the players who we believe will grab hold of it over the next three or four years. We have met with them regularly over the past couple of months.

“There is a new dawn coming, and it is exciting for everybody.”

Saracens have lost five of their last eight games and slipped outside the Premiership top four.

But they recovered from a record 55-15 European defeat against Bordeaux-Begles to book an Investec Champions Cup round-of-16 place by beating Lyon on Saturday.

French club Racing 92 have confirmed England fly-half Owen Farrell will join them next season.

The 32-year-old will leave Saracens after 15 seasons to move across the Channel after agreeing a two-year contract.

Farrell, who is to miss the Six Nations in order to prioritise his mental well-being, will become ineligible for international selection due to Rugby Football Union rules.

The RFU does not allow players who are plying their trade abroad to be selected for England.

Racing are coached by Stuart Lancaster, who gave Farrell his Test debut in 2012 when he was England boss.

A statement from the Paris club said: “Racing 92 formalises the signing of Owen Farrell within its professional men’s team.

“The English international player is committed to two sporting seasons and will join the Ciel et Blanc squad from July 1, 2024.”

Jamie George has been named England captain for the Six Nations.

Jamie George insists he is ready for the pressure that accompanies the England captaincy despite seeing the toll it took on his close friend Owen Farrell.

George will lead England into the Guinness Six Nations in what he describes as the “greatest achievement of my life”, starting against Italy in Rome on February 3.

When first offered the role by Steve Borthwick earlier this month, the 33-year-old Lions hooker was told to take a weekend to make his decision in a nod to recent events that have seen Farrell take a break from Test rugby that could yet be permanent.

It was the fierce online scrutiny of Farrell leading into the World Cup and his booing by fans in France that compelled him to rule himself out of the Six Nations in order to prioritise his and his family’s mental well-being.

Borthwick turned to one of England’s most influential figures to take over and having considered all aspects of the captaincy, George knew he only had one choice.

“When you’re given the weekend to go and think about things, the obvious thing to do is to go and look at both sides of the coin,” George said.

“And for me, there are so many positives that come with this. This is the greatest achievement of my life. Stepping out on the field in Rome is going to be one of the best moments that I will ever experience.

“And I felt like it was a decision that if I had turned down for other reasons I would have absolutely regretted because I’m at a good stage of my career to step up and take this on.

“I have a good understanding of what might be out there to come, but at the same time I’m also hopeful that we’ve learned a lot of lessons from the Owen situation.

 

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“A lot of people out there have a better understanding of the reality of life, the reality of professional rugby players, that we are all human beings. So I’m hopeful for a much more positive environment to be able to work in.

 

“I’m not hiding away from the fact there is additional pressure and responsibility.

“I personally think that pressure is a privilege.

“I spoke to Owen about it. He was probably one of the first people I told when Steve asked me. That was the natural thing to do because Owen and I are very, very close.

“The only thing he said to me was that if I needed anything, he is the first person I should call and that he would always be there to have a conversation. That is invaluable to me.”

Even when offering the ultimate position in English rugby, Borthwick made it clear that it comes with challenges.

“We sort of tip-toed our way around the captaincy conversation, but we also laid the foundations for it,” George said.

“We spoke a bit about what it might look like and then Steve was amazing and said ‘take the weekend to have a think about it because it can have a big impact on you, as we’ve seen’.

“It was a bit like a proposal! At the time I wanted to snap his hand off and say yes, but it was good to be able to speak to my family over the weekend and get their thoughts on it all. I phoned him first thing on the Monday to accept.”

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