The Six Nations returns today, 98 days since the climax of the 2023 Rugby World Cup final, in which the European continent was disappointingly not involved despite much anticipation.
France and Ireland will begin proceedings in what could again prove the deciding match-up of the tournament as both sides look forward to a new cycle of international rugby having both been narrowly squeezed out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage.
England showed signs of resurgence as the best-placed team in France last year and Scotland will be eyeing a famous first Six Nations title, whilst Italy and Wales will be hoping to show signs of progress and improvement over the next eight weeks.
Ireland and France were both beaten in their respective quarter-finals at the 2023 World Cup but will start the Six Nations as overwhelming favorites, given their positions as the second and fourth-best teams in the official world rankings.
Both nations have retained a strong core of their squad heading into 2024, however, both will be without some legendary names for the first time in years as they begin new eras on the eventual road to the 2027 World Cup in Australia.
France will be without talisman and the 2021 World Rugby Player of the Year, Antoine Dupont. The scrumhalf has been a consistent game-changer for club and country for years and should be heralded as the best in his position of all time.
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Dupont, at 27, has already tasted victory in the Six Nations (in 2022) and proven himself as a fantastic player in the sport, so, understandably, has taken a step back to target a gold medal with the national rugby sevens squad at the Paris Olympics this summer instead.
Ireland, meanwhile, will begin a new era without their record points scorer, Johnny Sexton, who bowed out of the spotlight last year, aged 38. Peter O’Mahony (pictured) has come in as the new national captain but the big question now revolves around Sexton’s replacement at number 10 – the most pivotal and influential position for any rugby team.
Jack Crowley, Ross Byrne, and Joey Carberry will be vying to make that spot their own but whether any of them can step up and sufficiently fill the hole left by such an icon of the sport remains to be seen.
The absence list at this year’s Six Nations doesn’t stop with France and Ireland, with England and Wales having both been rocked by their own high-profile losses in the lead-up to the 2024 tournament.
England’s third-place finish at the World Cup saw them ranked as the best European nation and emerge with a lot more credit than they had going into it (on the back of a historic friendly loss to Fiji in their last warm-up match), pipped to a place in the final only by eventual world champions, South Africa.
This short resurgence and build-up of momentum could be derailed by the decision of their captain, Owen Farrell, to join on French side, Racing 92, and step back from international duty.
Despite the big loss of a captain and a player with the quality of Farrell, it does offer a bit more clarity and certainty for England this Six Nations. The nation has struggled to fit its star players in its starting 15 in recent years, with constant changes, trying different variations of players in different positions, all of which has been to their detriment.
With Farrell out of the squad, it is in one way one less headache for Steve Borthwick, with both Marcus Smith and George Ford established, quality players ready to make their positions in the back line their own.
One of the most surprising announcements in the world of rugby in 2024 must be the news that Louis Rees-Zammit, Wales’ most prized talent, would leave the sport to try his hand at American Football.
As a big fan of the NFL, Rees-Zammit joined the NFL’s International Player Pathway Programme, intending to take his talents to the land of riches in the United States. At just 22 years of age, his decision initially appears a brave one to make, having established himself as a generational Welsh talent and a guaranteed starter with 31 Wales caps already to his name.
He does, however, have plenty of time on his side, where rugby union can remain a backup option should his American dream not materialize in the way he hopes. Should he be able to transfer his speed, skills, and talent to a pigskin ball, however, then the NFL offers an exciting world full of riches that the sport of rugby could never offer.
But his absence will be an unbelievable miss for Wales as an attacking threat this Six Nations, as the national team continues to struggle through this new era of change.
The team offered a mixed showing at the World Cup to eventually get knocked out at the quarter-final stage, but the team remains in a period of transition and will be looking for a solid showing of progress more than anything at this tournament this year.
2023 was an even tougher 12 months for Wales off the pitch, following player contract disputes and reports of a history of a toxic and vindictive culture throughout the organization. Welsh fans will be hoping for more to cheer about over the next five international matches.
Serial wooden spoon winners have often shown progress at times during the Six Nations in recent years but remain favorites for yet another wooden spoon in 2024.
The Italians, like the Welsh, will be hoping for more encouraging signs of progress as they look to cement their seat at the Six Nations table, given the constant mutterings of new teams, such as Georgia, being owed an opportunity to compete, which one day could result in a promotion-relegation type scenario being introduced.
The Italians also had a poor showing at the World Cup, finishing with a negative 132 points difference in their two tough matches in the group stage, against New Zealand and France. Former Argentinian player, Gonzalo Quesada, has come in for his first taste of international coaching, as the nation again looks for new ideas to improve and close the gap with bigger tier one nations.
Scotland went into the World Cup feeling aggrieved that their best squad in history was grouped alongside Ireland and South Africa but held onto that ever-optimistic Scottish spirit. What played out for the Scots was, however, the same old story, as they were ultimately easily upended by the two higher-ranked sides in the group, resulting in failed progression.
That disappointment aside, Scotland have not lost any of their star players like their rivals and still consider a generational pool of talent within their squad and have reason for continued unwavering optimism that 2024 can be the year the team finally wins the Six Nations.
History would, however, suggest their best result will be a game five shattering loss away in Dublin to remain alongside Italy with no Six Nations titles to their name.
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