England will be without Manu Tuilagi for their Six Nations clash with Wales after the centre suffered a hamstring injury.

Tuilagi had been set to return from an injury lay off to feature at Twickenham on Saturday, having been named in the team that Eddie Jones confirmed on Thursday.

However, England have been dealt a blow as scans after training revealed a hamstring problem for the 30-year-old.

England have recalled Joe Marchant, who will train with the squad on Friday. However, an updated team will not be confirmed until the day of the game.

Tuilagi had been set to play alongside Henry Slade in midfield for Jones' team, who bounced back from their defeat to Scotland in the opening match by beating Italy last time out.

He has represented England in 46 Tests so far since making his debut in 2011.

Manu Tuilagi and captain Courtney Lawes will make their returns from injury in England's Six Nations showdown with Wales at Twickenham, while forward Taulupe Faletau will make his first appearance since last year's competition for the visitors on Saturday.

Both sides have posted a win and a loss in their two games so far to trail early leaders France in the table.

England bounced back from a 20-17 loss to Scotland by thrashing Italy 33-0 last time out, while Wales beat Scotland 20-17 after opening their title defence with a 29-7 defeat in Ireland.

Lawes returns from a concussion-enforced layoff which has kept him out of action since January, and regains the captaincy he held against South Africa last Autumn, replacing stand-in Tom Curry in the role.

Tuilagi also makes a welcome return from injury, but Ben Youngs will have to wait to win a record 115th cap after being named on the bench, as Eddie Jones makes four changes to the team which impressed in Rome, with Luke Cowan-Dickie and Kyle Sinckler also coming in.

Looking ahead to the match, Jones told England Rugby that he was content with his side's preparation, and was excited ahead of the showdown.

"We've prepared very well for this game, the squad have really come together on and off the pitch," said Jones. 

"Wales are a good, tough side and Six Nations champions, and it will make for an exciting Test match in front of a full Twickenham crowd.

"We've got a talented, young, hungry squad who have trained with real intensity this week. We're ready to go at them and can't wait to play in front of our supporters again."

Taulupe Faletau has been called up to the Wales squad for the remainder of the Six Nations ahead of their clash with England on Saturday.

The Bath forward suffered a leg injury in the second Test between the British and Irish Lions and South Africa in July, leading to a seven-month injury lay-off.

Faletau returned to action with a brief stint against Wasps earlier in February before playing the whole game against Leicester Tigers last Saturday.

Christ Tshiunza has been sent back to Exeter Chiefs with a hamstring problem, opening the door for Faletau – who has 86 international caps to his name – to come into Wayne Pivac's squad for the visit to Twickenham.

"It was a rolled ankle, and I probably ran back too early and just had issues with my calves for a rolling two weeks that ended up being seven months," Faletau said of his previous leg injury.

"It was a rolling two weeks for a long time, then I would get to the end of that two weeks, I would run again and it would ping again. It was basically that for the whole time.

"I am just enjoying getting out there, whether it's Bath or Wales. Whatever it is, I just want to enjoy the games because seven months out wasn't fun."

The 31-year-old will leave Bath to join Cardiff Rugby at the end of the season.

Current coach Neal Hatley reserved special praise for the back rower, who he feels will be an undoubted success on the international stage again.

"He is like a chameleon," Hatley said. "You put him in a level up and he just blends in.

"He has that innate ability that, whatever the quality of the players he is playing with, he is the best player on the pitch and he has done that for ages."

Pivac's next decision will be whether to include Faletau in his matchday squad against Eddie Jones' England, after Taine Basham, Jac Morgan and Ross Moriarty all performed strongly against Scotland.

Wales sit fifth in the Six Nations table after bouncing back from a 29-7 loss against Ireland with a 20-17 victory over Scotland in round two as they look to defend their title.

Courtney Lawes and Manu Tuilagi could make a welcome return for England in their Six Nations showdown with Wales at Twickenham.

Lawes may have been installed as England skipper for the tournament if he had not been sidelined due to concussion.

The towering lock missed the loss to Scotland and a win over Italy, but head coach Eddie Jones is hopeful he can face defending champions Wales a week on Saturday.

Centre Tuilagi could also be unleashed on Wayne Pivac's side, having been back in action for Sale Sharks after recovering from a hamstring injury.

Lock Joe Launchbury (knee) and flanker Lewis Ludlam (ribs) could also be back in contention. 

"Potentially we'll have Launchbury, Tuilagi, Lawes and Ludlam," Jones said.

Tom Curry has captained England in the absence of the injured Owen Farrell and Lawes.

But Lawes could have the honour of leading the Red Rose out once again in a battle between two sides who have won one and lost one of their matches heading into a weekend off.

The Australian added: "We'd be hopeful that by the end of next week Courtney will be training fully.

"He's making some great progress and the medical staff have done some terrific work with him. He's not far away now and we're really hopeful he'll be back in full training and able to play against Wales."

Jones said of Tuilagi: "Just having a power running centre would give us a different option.

"Everything we're doing now is about trying to create opportunities through finesse and that's through good running lines and passing.

"But to have someone who can take you forward quickly and engage two or three defenders then allows you to try and finesse extra space, which would be really useful to us.

"We've had three centres play and I think Sladey [Henry Slade] has been very good. Joe Marchant and Elliot Daly have had their moments, but we need to get more out of that and we understand that."

Wales hooker Ryan Elias hailed his side's "never-say-die attitude" in their tense 20-17 victory over Scotland at the Principality Stadium on Saturday.

After suffering a heavy loss to Ireland last weekend, Wales gave their Six Nations title defence lift-off thanks to the kicking expertise of Dan Biggar.

The fly-half kicked 15 points on what was his 100th Test outing, including a drop-goal 11 minutes from time to seal the victory for Wales in Cardiff.

Scotland were a man down at that point after Finn Russell, who himself kicked 12 points, was yellow carded for a deliberate knock-on.

Wales trailed by five points in the first half and were again behind approaching the hour mark, but they rallied to avoid successive losses to begin a campaign for the first time since 2007.

"It's huge," Elias told BBC Sport. "We needed a big reaction from last week, especially for the crowd here today.

"We didn't turn up last week physically or in a lot of aspects of the game. I don't think we fired any shots last week.

"We had a long hard look at ourselves in the week. We were physical, we had that never-say-die attitude. Hopefully we can just keep building on that now."

 

Russell's yellow card was his fourth in Test rugby, each of those coming in the Six Nations – including one in a defeat to Wales seven years ago.

Biggar took full advantage by kicking for the three points soon after, rather than playing the ball out wide as Wales closed in on the try-line.

After expertly seeing out the win, however, centurion Biggar was left to reflect on a memorable day.

"This is one of my best victories in a Welsh shirt," he said. "It's been a really difficult week. We've had to put up with a lot of flak – and rightly so. 

"To come back here and put on a show like that, to grind a result out like that, is one of the best victories in my 100 games.

"We put in a huge shift defensively, our forwards fronted up, and it laid a really strong foundation.

"Off the back of the week we've had, this team has shown if anything it's resilient and can hit back after a poor performance."

Scotland beat England 20-17 in last week's Calcutta Cup clash and started strongly through a Darcy Graham try in Cardiff.

But after failing to push on, they have now lost 10 of their 12 away matches against Wales in the Six Nations, including the last nine in a row at the Principality Stadium.

And Scotland skipper Stuart Hogg was left to reflect on an ill-disciplined display from his side in the Welsh capital.

"We're bitterly disappointed," he told BBC Sport. "The stuff that we're in control of, when we're on the front foot, we're really dangerous. At times, we weren't allowed to do that.

"We're a lot better than what we showed. That’s international rugby – you have to take your chances or you end up on the wrong side of the scoreline.

"[Poor discipline] was absolutely a factor. One penalty or knock-on is fine, but when we compound error upon error that's frustrating, because we know we're better than that.

"Credit to Wales, they were fairly good at times. It's a horrible feeling right now but that is Test match rugby."

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.

Dan Biggar and Grant Gilchrist are set to make landmark appearances when Wales and Scotland clash in the Six Nations on Saturday.

Wales skipper Biggar will make his 100th Test appearance, with Jonathan Davies in line to join him in the century club when he comes off the bench in Cardiff.

Wales boss Wayne Pivac hailed the pair's achievements at international level as he named his team on Thursday, revealing delight that both players get to reach the milestone in the same game.

"To get 100 Test matches in total for any player from any country, it's just a magnificent achievement," Pivac said. "It shows the hard work and dedication they have put in and the sacrifice they have made over a number of years to get to this stage.

"I'm very, very happy for both of those players to achieve it and to do it on the same day. They've played a lot of Test matches together in the past – it's just going to be fantastic to see them both out there at some stage."

Off the back of a humbling 29-7 defeat to Ireland in Dublin, Pivac's side to face the Scots features four changes.

Ross Moriarty, Alex Cuthbert, Owen Watkin and Jac Morgan - making his Test debut - start ahead of Aaron Wainwright, Ellis Jenkins, Johnny McNicholl and Josh Adams, with Wales facing a Scotland side who began the championship with a gutsy victory over England.

Pivac said: "We expect Scotland to come down full of confidence. They've started with a good win. Across the board, they are a very competitive and committed side that throws everything at every play."

Scotland boss Gregor Townsend makes five alterations to his team, despite clinching the Calcutta Cup 20-17 last Saturday, although Gilchrist is retained as he reaches his own milestone of 50 Scotland appearances.

Sam Skinner, Pierre Schoeman, WP Nel, Stuart McInally and Sione Tuipulotu come into the starting line-up.

Scotland team: Hogg (c), Graham, Harris, Tuipulotu, Van der Merwe, Russell, Price; Schoeman, McInally, Nel, Gray, Gilchrist, Skinner, Watson, M Fagerson.

Replacements: Turner, Sutherland, Z Fagerson, Bradbury, Darge, White, Kinghorn, Redpath.

Wales team: L Williams, Cuthbert, Watkin, Tompkins, Rees-Zammit, Biggar (c), T Williams; Jones, Elias, Francis, Rowlands, Beard, Basham, Morgan, Moriarty.

Replacements: Lake, Thomas, Lewis, S Davies, Wainwright, G Davies, Sheedy, J Davies.

The United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland have dropped plans to stage World Cup 2030 and will instead focus on a bid for Euro 2028.

A joint announcement from the football associations of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic confirmed the decision following "an extensive feasibility study".

The committee chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Julian Knight, had previously derided the World Cup bid as a "giant, expensive vanity project".

The joint statement on Monday confirmed: "The feasibility study included an analysis of the economic impact, the political football landscape and likely costs of hosting major international tournaments. On balance, the five associations have decided to focus solely on an official bid to host UEFA Euro 2028, and have agreed not to bid for the 2030 FIFA World Cup.

"Hosting a UEFA Euro offers a similar return on investment, with the European tournament carrying a far lower delivery cost and the potential of the benefits being realised sooner.

"It would be an honour and a privilege to collectively host UEFA Euro 2028 and to welcome all of Europe. It would also be a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate the true impact of hosting a world-class football tournament by driving positive change and leaving a lasting legacy across our communities.

"We believe the UK and the Republic of Ireland can offer UEFA and European football something special in 2028 – a compact and unique five-way hosting collaboration that will provide a great experience for the teams and the fans."

England, which last hosted a major tournament when it staged the Euros in 1996, failed in a bid for the 2018 World Cup, which took place in Russia.

London and Glasgow were among the host cities for Euro 2020, with the semi-finals and final taking place at Wembley Stadium.

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 Six Nations is upon us for 2022, as Wales bid to defend their crown.

Wales won in 2021 without completing the Grand Slam, just the second time they have tasted victory without beating all five opponents, as their success came at the expense of France, who were frustrated by Scotland at the last.

Wayne Pivac's men are by no means favourites this time, however. They come into this Championship without Alun Wyn Jones, their captain and a great of the game, while George North leads a glut of star names also absent through injury.

Should Wales triumph, they would match a feat previously achieved only by England, while France are looking to end a long drought of success in the tournament.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform digs into some of the most intriguing facts ahead of the Six Nations.

Wales set England's record in their sights

The past 11 editions of the Six Nations have been won by either England, Ireland or Wales.

England and Wales have won the Championship four times each during that period.

If Wales defend their title successively, they would become the second team, after England, to win the competition seven times since the turn of the century, when it became the Six Nations.

But Pivac has some big names missing – none more so than Jones. Saturday's match against Ireland will be first time since 2006 that Wales have played in the Six Nations without him, while only Sergio Parisse (also 15) has appeared in as many editions of the Championship as Jones.

Can France finally strike gold?

In total, 86 tries were scored in the 2021 edition, the most in a single edition of the tournament. However, despite the free-scoring nature of the games, eight matches were decided by margins of five points or fewer, more than in any other previous Championship.

 

France were on the wrong end of one such fine margin, as they saw their hopes of winning the tournament for the first time since 2010 dashed in a postponed meeting with Scotland, which was played after the rest of the schedule had been completed.

Les Bleus' 11-year wait to win the Six Nations is the longest such stretch in their history, having joined the tournament in 1947.

France's squad is stacked full of talent, though. After recovering from COVID-19, Antoine Dupont is in line to play against Italy this weekend – only Wales' Louis Rees-Zammit (nine) made more clean breaks than the scrum-half last year (eight), with three other French players in the top 12 by that metric.

Dupont beat a defender on 13 occasions and topped the charts for offloads (nine) and try assists (five), ranking second for kicks in play (41) after Scotland's Finn Russell (47).

Romain Ntamack missed much of last year's tournament due to a jaw injury but is also set to feature.

Time for Scotland to step out of the shadows?

Scotland have never won the Six Nations, but they impressed in 2021. They enjoyed 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), and their tally of 9.8 entries into the opposition 22 per game was also the highest.

Duhan van der Merwe beat 31 defenders, surpassing Brian O'Driscoll's record for the most in a single edition of the Six Nations (30 in 2000) – it was also the first time that a Scotland player has ended a campaign as the outright top try scorer (five tries; excluding years with joint top-scorers).

 

Van der Merwe also tallied both the most metres carried (482) and the most post-contact metres (208) of any player. Hamish Watson, meanwhile, has now completed 149 tackles in a row in the Six Nations, having not missed one since 2019. Only Lionel Nallet (154) has made more consecutive tackles without missing in the history of the tournament.

England and Ireland out to prove their quality

England have won three of the six editions of the Six Nations since Eddie Jones took charge at the beginning of 2016, with only Bernard Laporte (four) having coached his team to more Championship wins this century.

Jones' team had the best lineout success rate (95 per cent) in the 2021 tournament, losing just three of 58 throws. Luke Cowan-Dickie landed 32 of 32 throws, the most ever by a player in an edition of the tournament not to miss a throw.

Yet that proficiency in the lineout was not enough to propel England to success, as they won only twice to finish a disappointing fifth. 

Ireland finished third, on the other hand, despite losing their first two games.

Andy Farrell's team converted 94 per cent of their kicks last year, the best rate of any nation, missing just one penalty goal attempt and one conversion (29 of 31). In fact, it was the best ever success rate by a team to attempt 25 or more kicks at goal in an edition of the tournament, with captain Johnny Sexton the top points scorer (65).

 

Italy just making up the numbers?

Italy lost all five games again last year, picking up a 16th wooden spoon. They have lost 32 successive Tests in the competition, the longest run in Five/Six Nations history.

The wooden spoon has been theirs in each of the past six years, this after finishing bottom of the Championship just once in the four campaigns before that.

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.

Wales will give Josh Adams his first international start at centre when they take on Ireland in their opening game of their Six Nations title defence at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

The Cardiff Blues star, who has scored 17 tries in 35 Tests for Wales, will be given the number 13 jersey for the first time as head coach Wayne Pivac attempts to rediscover the magic achieved in last year's tournament when he moved George North to the role.

Adams will play in the midfield alongside Nick Tompkins, while Will Rowlands is back in the starting line up alongside vice-captain Adam Beard.

Taine Basham will be making his debut in the Six Nations in the back row with Aaron Wainwright and Ellis Jenkins.

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

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