Writer, Sam Bryan, discusses the upcoming Six Nations and what the implications of last year’s World Cup mean headed into the tournament.
Winter has reared its unwelcoming but significantly warmer head in Europe and that can only mean one thing, the Six Nations tournament is upon us. Europe’s most famous yearly rugby tournament will commence in February, pitting the continent’s finest (and most exhausted) players against each other in five rounds of fantastic rugby. The tournament comes in a troubled time however, the British Isles are swept by storms Isha and Jocylyn, disrupting travel plans, and diverting air travel thousands of miles off route – possibly to the detriment of traveling fans. Each nation is also sliding down the back of the recent Rugby World Cup in which two of the best teams (Ireland and France) did not even make it past the Quarter Finals. The tournament has left many teams in a rebuild phase with new captains, fresh younger players, changes in coaching and an expectation of the ‘World Cup cycle’.
From a fan perspective the importance of the tournament has been overshadowed by the importance of the World Cup and viewership at home via BBC and ITV has become much harder. Government legislation to not include the tournament as part of Group A events will reduce the coverage of the tournament despite the popularity of the competition. This will force fans to either pay for subscription services such as TNT sports (formerly BT sport) and Sky Sports, or go to the pub as early as 2026. However, the tournament will remain in group B, leaving highlights packages and secondary coverage to be free.
England is in a precarious position this year. Following a 3rd place finish in the World Cup, which can be cynically attributed to a relatively easy pool and quarter final opponent Fiji, the squad has an opportunity to either solidify itself on the world stage or prove critics right after Eddie Jones’ departure. Current head coach Steve Borthwick is in the process of building up his squad and systems of play after initial testing in France, and has made some tough choices regarding selection after the loss of veteran captain, Owen Farrell, to Racing 92 and the retirement of Courtney Lawes from international rugby. England selection is facing a possible talent crisis, with foreign clubs such as Racing 92 snatching up significant players such as Henry Arundel with far more lucrative contracts than what can be offered in the Premiership. This is because clubs in countries with a much larger/non-existent salary cap can spend far more as an incentive for players to join. With the current discriminatory rules of the RFU surrounding eligibility to play internationally, it’s possible a large portion of England’s best players may drop off soon to pursue financial success. If English premiership rugby is unwilling to pay them competitively, there’s no reason for them to stay eligible, especially for a team that hasn’t won a world cup since 2003. The injury factor in this crisis is also a concerning issue, with star fly half, Marcus Smith, being ruled out of the opening clash with Italy due to a calf problem.
The premiership is also in a heavy decline, which can have a significant impact on the international side of the game. Teams are dropping like flies, going bankrupt left and right because the distribution of finances is in complete disarray. Teams like Worcester and Wasps have already succumbed to bankruptcy, displacing players across the board and threatening the balance of power in the league. Club rugby is generally a good indicator of how an international team will perform, in tournaments such as the Champions cup, which pits European and South African sides against each other, has generally given some good context to the strength of their respective international sides. The lucrative and healthy French clubs did well in the tournament, with La Rochelle winning in 2023 and the ever-dangerous South Africans winning the World Cup show how a healthy club foundation can help prop up teams for international success.
It is not all bad for the English however, as in this year’s English Champions Cup, competing teams, Harlequins and Northampton Saints, have had great runs and are set to place well, potentially indicating an in-form side to be fielded in the Six Nations. The announced squad has some new young talent and a significant number of older players to hold the reins with decades of combined experience at international level. Newer players such as Theo Dan (KCL student) and Ollie Chessum have already had some practice in the World Cup whilst emerging talents, Fraser Dingwall and Tom Roebuck have received a chance to prove themselves this year. Veterans of the squad, Danny Care, Joe Marler, Maro Itoje and Elliot Daly will be returning under the well-earned captaincy of England legend, Jamie George, ensuring a plethora of experience in the squad. Borthwick’s coaching will be supported by back-to-back World Cup winning coach, Felix Jones, who aims to bring a new level of intensity to the side, stating:
“I have had one meeting and I know for a fact the England defence is going to take a lot of time and space away from the opposition. How aggressive we’re planning on being is hugely exciting. When you add that to the calibre of players we have at our disposal, it’s going to be an amazing Six Nations.”
Defending champions, Ireland, and close runner ups, France, will be enjoying their first fixture of the tournament against each other. Both are extremely strong sides with an undeniable level of talent and drive for victory, making the debut fixture possibly the most important of the tournament for both. Results will most certainly impact each teams campaign this year and set the tone for later fixtures, placing it high up on the list of ‘must win’ games. Both sides have undergone significant changes since the last torment and the World Cup. Les Bleus have unfortunately lost the keysone of their squad, the fantastic Antoine Dupont, to the French 7s side in hopes of an Olympic Gold. Ireland have similarly lost a legend of the sport and key player in the squad to retirement. Johnny Sexton, a household name in rugby, who led the team through an honourable WC campaign and Six Nations victory last year stepped back from the game at the age of 38. After a notably long career in professional rugby his time had come, leaving big shoes to fill as both the captain and fly-half of the squad. Captaincy replacement Peter O’Mahony is a fantastic choice for a replacement and will hopefully have a chance to show off his leadership skills on the world stage.
Irish Head coach Andy Farrell is also hoping to break Ireland into new territory, a scary thought for English fans who fell victim to the already progressive attack style patented by the team. The new Lions head coach and chief architect of Irish running rugby made it very clear that despite the loss of Sexton and a disappointing placement in the WC the establishment does not need to go into a rebuild phase. In an interview with the guardian Farrell stated:
“It’s not because of everything we’ve been through. We want to continue to grow and you don’t do that by just cutting the legs off it. Competition for places is premium and it has to stay that way. I don’t buy into all the talk of a four-year cycle that tends to come around when World Cups are finished.”
Ireland is clearly keen to continue their momentum from the previous year, intending to subvert the sinkhole that is the beginning of the four-year world cup cycle. This is however far easier said than done. On paper anyone can ask for a group of people to keep marching through with momentum previously gathered, however after such an arduous year of rugby and the loss of significant players like Sexton, I find it hard to believe Ireland will maintain their position in world rugby. Instead, I can see a small rebuild phase coming in, a focus will be given to Lions selection for the upcoming 2025 Australia tour. Considering Farrell’s new position as head coach his priorities now must be split between both sides, dividing his time and attention.
Wales are also key factor when discussing lost talent and phases of rebuilding. After disappointing World Cup and Six Nations endeavours, the team is keen to regain some pride in their national sport under new leadership. With the retirement of Rugby legend and all around lovable man Alun Wyn Jones and the shock move of Louis ‘golden boy’ Reece-Zammit to the NFL academy there is plenty of room for new stars to emerge. 21-year-old newly appointed captain Dafydd Jenkins is one of these players, a talented Lock with strong leadership potential on and off the field, has proven himself for the Exeter Chiefs and has been given the opportunity to lead his country back into Six Nations glory. Head coach, Warren Gatland, has taken a different approach to the world cup cycle than his Irish counterpart. Gatland has stated an intent to take Wales through a much longer cycle of two World Cup’s, taking a less intense stance on the Welsh rebuild. This is a large investment to make especially as a head coach, 8 years is a long time in international rugby and a lot can change in the span of two full cycles including head coach job security depending on results. Welsh rugby is further plagued by the regional difficulties suffered by England in recent years, champions cup competitors Cardiff rugby have struggled to maintain a position in the tournament and have been significantly outclassed by South African and French sides. As mentioned, teams that struggle in this tournament tend to have weaker foundations for their international sides, spelling trouble for the boys in red. Scrum half, Gareth Davies, disagrees however, maintaining faith in the Welsh system to produce a well performing side despite the lack of promising evidence, however a players perspective is very different to one of a journalist and his first-hand experience with the team may be far more promising.
Overall, the upcoming tournament is set to be a precedent-setter in European rugby union. Teams are in precarious positions and the outcome is fairly uncertain following the World Cup. One thing is for sure though, some great rugby will be played and we can expect emerging talents to prove themselves on the world stage.