Ireland seek back-to-back Grand Slams, France redemption

Josh van der Flier in action for Ireland. File photo

Ireland will start their bid for a historic back-to-back Six Nations Grand Slam when they take on France in Marseille in the tournament’s mouth-watering opening match on Friday.

Andy Farrell’s Irish side and Fabien Galthie’s French both stumbled at the quarter-final stage of the Rugby World Cup, beaten by New Zealand and eventual winners South Africa respectively.

Of the Six Nations teams, only England made the semi-finals.

While Irish and French fans struggled to swallow the bitter pills of defeat at the World Cup hosted by France, this year’s Six Nations marks a turning point with a host of missing faces for the five-round February 2-March 16 tournament.

Ireland stalwart Johnny Sexton has retired while talismanic France skipper and scrum-half Antoine Dupont has opted to play rugby sevens at the Paris 2024 Olympics and is thus likely to take part in two World Series sevens tournaments while the Six Nations happens.

Long-time England captain Owen Farrell will also be absent, having stepped away from international rugby to “prioritise his and his family’s mental wellbeing”.

Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg and Wales stand-off Dan Biggar have retired, while Wales’ star winger Louis Rees-Zammit has opted to turn his back on rugby in favour of a potentially lucrative career in America’s National Football League.

Only Italy’s Michele Lamaro remains of the captains from the Six Nations last year.

Grow and develop 

It will be Andy Farrell’s last Six Nations before he takes up his temporary post as head coach of the British and Irish Lions for the 2025 tour of Australia.

“The forthcoming Six Nations presents an opportunity for us to grow and develop,” said Farrell, who has however avoided wholesale personnel changes in Ireland’s post-Sexton era, retaining 26 of the 33 players he took to the World Cup.

“The Six Nations is one of the biggest stages in world rugby and this year’s competition will be keenly fought.

“It doesn’t get much tougher than France away in the opening weekend, but it is a challenge that we will approach in a positive frame of mind,” added the former rugby league legend, who has overseen 29 wins from their last 32 Tests.

Ireland’s team has a solid, dependable feel to it, but a lot will ride on Sexton’s likely successor, Munster’s Jack Crowley, with Ross Byrne out with an arm injury.

France suffered a hammerblow with news that flanker Anthony Jelonch, a stand-in skipper at the World Cup when Dupont was injured, had been ruled out of the Six Nations with a knee injury.

Galthie named outstanding No 8 Gregory Alldritt as captain as the French aim to win back their fans left shell-shocked by their early World Cup departure at the hands of the Springboks.

“South Africa was tough but we have digested it and analysed it and we will go forward from it,” said Alldritt.

With the Stade de France being prepared for Summer Olympic duties, France play three home matches at Marseille, Lille and Lyon.

Wales and Ireland also have three home games, with the final weekend seeing Wales host Italy, while Ireland entertain Scotland and England are away to France.

Strong Scotland

Gregor Townsend’s Scotland, who have both France and England at home, finished third in the Six Nations last year, but failed to get out of a tough group at the World Cup.

Full-back Blair Kinghorn, scrum-half Ben White and stand-off Finn Russell have all thrived after moves to Toulouse, Toulon and Bath respectively and they complement a strong-looking squad.

In a tournament where winning momentum is crucial, much will depend on whether Scotland — with Russell named co-captain — can get off on the right foot against Wales in Cardiff, a venue where they have not won for more than two decades.

Not many observers expected England to be the best performing northern hemisphere team at the World Cup, but the ever-pragmatic Steve Borthwick guided them to third place.

Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes and Johnny May have all retired after the tournament, however, and all eyes will be on Marcus Smith potentially taking the keys to number 10 in Farrell’s absence.

Wales coach Warren Gatland is managing a considerable player turnover, with 15 of his squad from the World Cup now unavailable, including injured flanker and skipper Jac Morgan. There are 12 players looking to make their first Six Nations appearence.

“You write us off at your peril,” warned the New Zealander, adding: “I am definitely thinking about the future.

“The Six Nations is such an important competition for us but it is also a question of how do I give youngsters the experience.

“We have an average age of 25 which is really young. They will learn from it and develop from it.”

Italy, with Kieran Crowley replaced by former Racing and Stade Francais head coach Gonzalo Quesada, were a massive disappointment at the World Cup.

Quesada will need key players like Lamaro, Paolo Garbisi and Ange Capuozzo to take charge to avoid the wooden spoon.

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