Women's Six Nations Preview: England favourites for the title

Women's Six Nations Launch (Action Images via Reuters/Peter Cziborra)

Reigning Grand Slam champions England will begin the defence of their title on Sunday when the Women’s Six Nations kicks off with a blockbuster triple-header of games, writes Andy Baber.

The Red Roses are favourites to win a second successive Championship crown but face a real test of their title credentials in their curtain-raiser against 2018 champions France in Pau.

Elsewhere, Italy will be looking to go one step further after finishing runners-up last year while Ireland, Scotland and Wales have their own agendas going into the tournament.

England

Coach: Simon Middleton

Captain: Sarah Hunter

The Red Roses were a cut above their rivals in the 2019 Women’s Six Nations, completing the clean sweep to claim their 15th title and 14th Grand Slam triumph in the process.

Other than a couple of new additions, Simon Middleton’s squad is largely the same one that won last year’s Championship – the first since 28 England players were given full-time contracts.

England will be without the experience of Marlie Packer in the back row, but welcome back Harriet Millar-Mills after the best part of two years out with injury.

Their first game against Les Bleues is likely to be a title-decider but should they come through that unscathed, it’s hard to see anyone dislodging the Red Roses from the top of the pile.

“You look forward to big games and there is no better way to kick off the tournament,” said captain Sarah Hunter. “We are now champing at the bit to get the competition started.”

France

Coach: Annick Hayraud

Captain: Gaelle Hermet

Last year’s Championship was nothing short of a disappointment for France as three wins and two defeats saw Les Bleues finish third behind both England and runners-up Italy.

In fact, since beating the Red Roses to the title 2018, France have lived up to the unpredictable tag that has traditionally been attributed to the men’s teams over the years.

Defeat to Italy in the 2019 Women’s Six Nations was certainly a shock but they then overcame defending world champions New Zealand and hosts the United States in the Super Series.

But four defeats to England last year suggests Hunter and co have Les Bleues’ number – an impression Annick Hayraud’s side will be keen to banish in their opener in Pau.

Captain Gaelle Hermet said: “We need to promote our game, we need to play with intensity, with pace, with rhythm. That is our DNA. We have to be demanding and accurate to beat England.”

Ireland

Coach: Adam Griggs

Captain: Ciara Griffin

Adam Griggs’ outfit never recovered from the 51-7 pummelling they received at the hands of England in their opening game of last year’s Women’s Six Nations.

They ultimately finished in fifth place after winning just one of their five games, but there have been encouraging signs since then – including a narrow defeat to rivals Wales in November, and a win in  a warm-up fixture against the same opposition earlier this month.

They are also one of three Six Nations teams with one eye on the World Cup qualification tournament in September as they look to build momentum for that pivotal test.

Ireland captain Ciara Griffin said: “Our first match is at home (against Scotland) so we are looking to hit the ground running and keep that momentum going for all our other matches.”

Italy

Coach: Andrea Di Giandomenico

Captain: Elisa Giordano

Italy go into this year’s Championship with a target on their back after defying all expectations to finish second behind England in 2019 – their best-ever Women’s Six Nations result.

They beat France, Ireland and Scotland but were frustrated by Wales as they were held to a 3-3 draw, while England proved too good for the Azzurre at Sandy Park.

Only one of their three victories came on the road last year and they will need to perform better on their travels this time around, starting with back-to-back trips to Cardiff and Limoges.

They will have to do that under new captain Elisa Giordano who will look to fill the void left by the absence of injured full-back Manuela Furlan.

Italy star Giada Franco said: “We want to do our best like every year, try to improve game by game and we will see what happens. It will be a massive challenge for us to face Wales away first up.”

Scotland

Coach: Philip Doyle

Captain: Rachel Malcolm

Improvement will be the operative word from the Scotland camp as they look to put last year’s miserable Championship campaign behind them and climb up the Championship table.

They lost all five of their games in the 2019 Women’s Six Nations, scoring just seven tries in the total, and with World Cup qualification on the horizon – they need to start closing the gap quickly.

The appointment of Philip Doyle, who guided Ireland Women to their first Grand Slam in 2013, should certainly aid their effort when they kick off their challenge in Dublin and a recent win over Spain will see the team enter the campaign brimming with confidence.

“Our main aim is to improve our performances, so we are really trying to work towards our World Cup qualification in November,” said Scotland skipper Rachel Malcolm.

Wales

Coach: Chris Horsman

Captain: Siwan Lillicrap

Wales are something of an unknown quantity coming into this Championship, with confusion surrounding their preparations and the continued absence for coach Rowland Phillips.

That said, they already have a World Cup place in the bag thanks to their seventh-place finish at the 2017 tournament while they showed plenty of ambition in their packed autumn schedule.

And the coaching trio of Chris Horsman, Geraint Lewis and Gareth Wyatt are already putting their own stamp on the squad, with experienced forwards Carys Phillips and Sioned Harries left out.

Captain Siwan Lillicrap said: “We're buying into everything the management and coaches are trying to do. Team morale is very good at the moment. I haven't felt anything but positivity.”

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