France and Ireland kick off Six Nations
It is hard to see the last two Grand Slam winners losing out on the main prize
It is perhaps fitting that the Six Nations, recently put into sharp focus on Netflix, kicks off its latest instalment with a blockbuster at the start of the weekend.
It’s France against Ireland under Friday night lights in Marseille with the winner more than likely going on a triumphant march to a Grand Slam title.
The rest of the field may think that churlish, but such is the gap the last two Grand Slam winners have opened up on the rest of the pack it is hard to see both losing out on the main prize.
Naturally in a post Rugby World Cup (RWC) environment big names have fallen by the wayside. That, however, brings excitement and possibility of the unknown.
Luminaries such as Johnny Sexton, Stuart Hogg, Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, Alun-Wynn Jones and Dan Biggar have all retired, while Owen Farrell and Liam Williams are taking a timeout.
Having missed out on lifting “Bill” in 2023, France's talisman Antoine Dupont has set his sights on the Olympics in Paris, Romain Ntamack and Mack Hansen are recovering from injury, while speed merchant Louis Rees-Zammit is pursuing a very different pot of gold on the other side of the Atlantic.
Though they are without their influential leaders, France and Ireland will start the tournament ahead of the pack in every sense.
Both will have to put crushing RWC disappointment behind them, but they both possess depth to weather whatever storms head their way.
As much as Ireland will miss the raging influence of Sexton, France will likely lament the loss of the diminutive general.
In the impeccable La Rochelle No 8 Grégory Alldritt, France have an able replacement for Dupont as captain but his replacement in the No 9 jersey Maxime Lucu is likely to invite much scrutiny.
So much of France’s attack is either orchestrated or channelled through Dupont, they may have to amend their ways when they have ball. Lucu’s ability to stand up to the challenge will be central to France’s prospects.
Ireland’s ability to “go-again” will be tested in this championship but their player pool, coaching expertise and carefully forged structures should keep them moving forward.
The durable and at times irascible Peter O’Mahoney takes the reins which will only embolden Ireland in their white knuckle pursuits.
Playing the Tricolores away from home will be a tall order but should they win at France's historical gateway, Ireland will likely conquer Europe again.
If England continue their upward trajectory under Steve Borthwick, France's closing match in Paris may live up to the reputation of Le Crunch.
In Farrell’s absence England have turned to Jamie George as captain, and while that decision has largely been lauded Borthwick has not been spared selection headaches. Marcus Smith, the live wire flyhalf who was expected to replace Farrell was injured earlier this week and looks an unlikely starter for Saturday’s opener against Italy in Rome. In fact, Borthwick now looks set to be without the bulk of his backline from last year’s RWC, with Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence injured and Johnny May retired.
Like his French, Irish and English counterparts Gregor Townsend has had to scratch his head over who to name as his captain. In the end Scotland's head coach settled for an unconventional arrangement that will see Rory Darge and Finn Russell co-captain.
As Scotland’s game driver Russell’s elevation holds merit but it also underlines how he and Townsend have patched up their relationship.
Scotland too had a disappointing RWC but they will draw from their last Six Nations experience. Progress for Scotland will mean beating Ireland or France, the only teams they did not beat in last year’s Six Nations.
The RWC perhaps proved they don’t have the depth to challenge the competition’s best but in Russell, wing Duhan van der Merwe, centre Huw Jones and prop Pierre Schoeman they have players that can occasionally grab the headlines.
Gonzalo Quesada is the only new head coach in the Six Nations mix after Italy let go grizzled Kiwi coach Kieran Crowley. Italy were competitive last year but they lacked killer instinct and as such the wooden spoon. There was also the suspicion from within that they aren’t physical enough.
Quesada too brings vast experience having coached widely in France as well as back home in Argentina with the Jaguares before Super Rugby was brought to an abrupt halt.
The suave, multi lingual Quesada has quite a job on his hands. Italy copped massive defeats to the All Blacks and France at last year's RWC.
Quesada, who believes the Azzurri needs to clearly define its identity before they can move forward, will remind those who want instant success that Rome wasn’t built in a day.
While Quesada will largely lean on the players that he inherited from Crowley, Wales have to start afresh.
Head coach Warren Gatland last year had to blend vast experience with some green horns but this year the former is in short supply.
If Wales are going to make an impression they will have to catch Scotland cold in Cardiff on Saturday. Their two other home games are against France and Italy, with the latter, given recent history, no longer in the realm of points-in-the-bank.
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