Women's Six Nations team-by-team guide: England the team to beat as they target five in-a-row
This year’s Women’s Six Nations is one of transition for all the countries involved, with changes in both playing and coaching teams following last year’s Rugby World Cup.
This is also the first championship when every team has professional contracts – of various forms – in place while WXV qualification is an additional motivating factor, with teams aiming to finish in the top half of the table to make it into the elite tier of the new global competition launching this year.
Here is the lowdown on all six countries involved…
Coaching dept: Simon Middleton takes charge of his ninth and final Six Nations, with assistant Scott Bemand also stepping down at the end of the championship.
Captain: Sarah Hunter and Marlie Packer are co-captains, but the former is retiring after England’s opening match against Scotland.
Hot topic: Are England being lackadaisical in their approach to this championship and beyond? Yes, there is the romance of Hunter finishing where it all started in Newcastle this weekend and Middleton can justify going out on his own terms given his service to the women’s game, but there are big question marks over whether this could stymie their development in a condensed World Cup cycle.
Key player: A calf injury may have ruled Natasha Hunt out of the first match but when the scrum-half – back in the Red Roses squad after her shock World Cup omission – has recovered she will be pivotal to the team expanding their attack beyond their famed maul.
Coaching dept: Gaëlle Mignot, the former France captain and hooker, teams up with David Ortiz in a new-look back-room team.
Captain: Audrey Forlani, the 31-year-old lock who was not selected for the World Cup, takes over from Gaëlle Hermet.
Hot topic: Much like England, France have a long list of absentees. Laure Sansus, Céline Ferer, Marjorie Mayans and Safi N’Diaye retired after the World Cup, key forwards Madoussou Fall and Romane Menager are injured and key backs Caroline Drouin and Joanna Grisez are focusing on sevens. This championship will be a true test of their depth.
Key player: Gabrielle Vernier excelled at last year’s World Cup, both as part of the ‘blue wall’ in defence and when finding holes in the opposition midfield. She is just 5ft 5in but is deceptively strong and is growing ever more important to this France team.
Coaching dept: Greg McWilliams has added former Fiji men’s coach John McKee to his set-up alongside ex-Ireland international Niamh Briggs and Denis Fogarty.
Captain: Nichola Fryday leads the side, but she is not one of the players contracted by the Irish Rugby Football Union as she continues to play in England for Exeter Chiefs.
Hot topic: There was much fanfare to the IRFU introducing professional deals for women’s 15s players for the first time but the salaries, combined with the fact that players had to be based in Dublin, means that a lot of their biggest names turned down offers. Plus, some of those on contracts will be focusing on qualifying for the Olympics with the sevens team.
Key player: Sam Monaghan was Ireland’s breakthrough player last year and this season she has helped Gloucester-Hartpury climb to the top of the Premier 15s table. On top of the hard graft that is a prerequisite for an international lock, she also has soft hands when breaking the gain-line and can deliver pinpoint offloads.
Coaching dept: Andrea Di Giandomenico stepped down after the World Cup having been in charge for more than a decade, with former Italy centre Giovanni Raineri coming in.
Captain: Elisa Giordano continues in the role she took on last autumn, although she has less leadership experience around her with Manuela Furlan and Melissa Bettoni retiring.
Hot topic: The Azzurre became the first Italy team to reach the quarter-finals of a Rugby World Cup (men’s or women’s) last year and the question now is whether they can build on those foundations. Consistency should be their buzzword – and expect them to challenge France in round one.
Key player: Italy, much like their current men’s team, are known for their all-out attack and at the heart of that is inside-centre Beatrice Rigoni. The 27-year-old is now one of the more senior players in the team and relishes testing opponents with the trifecta of her kick-pass-run game.
Coaching dept: Bryan Easson remains at the helm but he has brought in new assistants in Martin Haag (forwards) and Chris Laidlaw (attack).
Captain: Rachel Malcolm first captained Scotland back in 2018 but this year she does so as a professional player for the first time, as one of 28 players contracted by the union.
Hot topic: Can Scotland end their nine-match, year-long losing run? The majority of those defeats have been by single-figure margins and if they are able to turn narrow losses into narrow wins it will have a significant impact on their self-belief. It is not likely to happen in their opener against England but they will surely target their three home matches against Wales, Italy and Ireland.
Key player: No 8 Jade Konkel-Roberts is so often the player to give Scotland front-foot ball but as she recovers from ankle surgery, there will be more responsibility on Christine Belisle to get her team over the gain-line. The tighthead prop also provides solidity at scrum time.
Coaching dept: Shaun Connor joins Ioan Cunningham’s coaching ticket as attack and kicking coach to replace Richard Whiffin, who joined the Highlanders post-World Cup.
Captain: Centre Hannah Jones, who led Wales on occasion during last year’s World Cup, takes on the captaincy full-time following Siwan Lillicrap’s retirement.
Hot topic: Fly-half selection. Elinor Snowsill wears the No 10 shirt in Wales’ first game against Ireland but Lleucu George, who is on the bench, is the coming force in the playmaker role. The 23-year-old has been in superb form and must surely get a chance to start during this championship as she could be the long-term fly-half in this team.
Key player: Wales have twice as many players on contracts as they did this time last year and Alex Callender is amongst them. The flanker was the top tackler at the World Cup and, with Alisha Butchers still sidelined with a knee injury, her influence at the breakdown becomes of greater importance.