Five new captains give Six Nations fresh feel
A post-Rugby World Cup Six Nations always has something of a reset feel about it but this year's championship, featuring five new captains, a new coach and missing four icons of the sport, feels even more like the start of the next four-year cycle.
Jamie George (England), Dafydd Jenkins (Wales), Peter O’Mahony (Ireland), Gregory Alldritt (France) and joint captains Finn Russell and Rory Darge (Scotland) will don armbands next month, with Italy's Michele Lamaro the only man left standing.
The competition will also feel slightly different without Alun-Wyn Jones, Johnny Sexton, Owen Farrell and Antoine Dupont, though the Frenchman's absence is temporary as he switches to Sevens ahead of the Paris Olympics in August.
Cap centurions Stuart Hogg, Dan Biggar and Courtney Lawes have also called it a day, while Louis Rees-Zammit has left the sport altogether to try his hand at American football.
There is more stability on the coaching front, with Gonzalo Quesada, in for Kieran Crowley in Italy, the only new face.
The changes, alongside the relative easing of pressure on coaches no longer operating under the pressure of a looming World Cup, should, in theory, invigorate the competition.
France enter as favourites and many observers consider the title will be decided before four of the teams have even taken to the field as the French host 2023 Grand Slam winners Ireland in a blockbuster opening night in Marseille on Friday, February 2.
France are playing their three home matches around the country as the Stade de France is out of commission for Olympic preparation but, as anyone who was in Marseille during the World Cup can attest, heading to the Velodrome will hardly be a disadvantage.
The teams' clash in Dublin in 2023, when Ireland emerged 32-19 winners, was one of the all-time great Six Nations games, but both sides ended the year in a world of pain after their World Cup quarterfinal exits.
Both countries now need to start again without their most inspirational players, scrumhalf Dupont and flyhalf Sexton.
The ever-busy Maxime Lucu looks set to take over as France number nine, having shown during much of the World Cup when Dupont was injured that he was up to the task, while Alldritt's leadership will compensate Dupont's captaincy absence.
Ireland look strong and brilliantly coached in all areas, with long-serving Munster skipper O'Mahony a natural leader, but filling the flyhalf hole will be far more daunting.
With Sexton so far ahead of his rivals for over a decade, the three flyhalves Ireland have picked have just 12 caps between them.
The pressure will fall most keenly on Munster's talented but relatively untested Jack Crowley. The 24-year-old has started three times since making his debut 14 months ago and his Six Nations experience amounts to three minutes off the bench against Italy last season.
Since winning the 2020 championship, England's record has been dire — only two wins in each of the last three seasons.
Coach Steve Borthwick said last week that it was not good enough and he has always promised to value every Six Nations match, rather than treating the competition as a glorified World Cup warm-up event as per his predecessor Eddie Jones.
England's confidence was buoyed by their run to the World Cup semifinals but fans will now be desperate to see them add some attacking variety to the effective but dull kick and territory game that took them to the brink of the final.
It is a similar story for Wales, who looked all over the place in last year's Championship when they lost four of their five games but, under the guiding hand of Warren Gatland, found form and confidence at the World Cup.
They have experience of being without Biggar but the shock loss of Rees-Zammit has left them reeling and looking short of firepower.
Scotland had the opposite experience, enjoying another win over England en route to a third-place Six Nations finish, only to fall flat at the World Cup to lower expectations for 2024.
After Italy ended their 36-match, seven-year losing streak by beating Wales in 2022, they were back to normal last season with five more straight losses and will need to find something special to avoid another clean sweep of defeats this year. — Reuters
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