Can anyone stop England? Women’s Six Nations brings new opportunities and familiar fears

England have won the last five editions of the championship – could this be the year their dominance ends?

Harry Latham-Coyle
Sunday 24 March 2024 09:22 GMT
The five other nations will be hoping to prevent England securing a sixth successive crown
The five other nations will be hoping to prevent England securing a sixth successive crown (Getty)

A glitzy launch in London last week was proof of the Women’s Six Nations’ progress and prominence, but the question ahead of the 2024 edition remains the same – how do you stop the England winning machine? While the tournament is often termed a duopoly, the truth is that you have to go back to 2018 to find the last time that it was not the Red Roses in full springtime bloom come the end of the championship.

Could that change this year? England begin their first full campaign under John Mitchell intent on continuing the evolution that began at WXV1 in the autumn, when the Red Roses, according to their new head coach, “made a statement” by getting revenge on world champions New Zealand in their own backyard. In camp, the talk is not of simply winning this tournament again but of growing the gap and forging an all-court style that will allow them to beat opponents in whichever way they please.

The rest can only hope for some teething problems. Mitchell has laid out his plans to several senior figures to rotate across the first few rounds of the competition ahead of a likely grand slam decider in Bordeaux on the final weekend and has made a number of intriguing selection calls. Among these is the conversion of the great Emily Scarratt into an inside centre on her return from a neck injury, borne out of a desire to best utilise her playmaking acumen and have extra gas in the outside channels. The absence of Sarah Bern, perhaps the world’s best individual player, leaves a hole on the tighthead to be filled, too.

England, led by Marlie Packer, are hoping to retain the title
England, led by Marlie Packer, are hoping to retain the title (Getty)

It is now a 12-game winning run for England against France, who shape-up as their closest foes once again. Eight one-score games tell their own story of French near misses – the feeling is that a psychological advantage has developed.

But France are confident that they can step up and challenge the reigning Six Nations queens, even with Caroline Drouin expected to miss the tournament. Their autumn adventure to New Zealand was less successful overall – one win, two defeats – but that sole victory was over the Black Ferns. When they get it right, France are a match for anyone.

“Last year we showed we weren’t really far from England,” captain Manae Feleu said. “I don’t think there’s much chasing to do. It’s more of a focus on ourselves. In recent years, England have been better than us at working on their strengths and we need to be better at that.”

It could be a furious fight behind the top two, with Wales, Italy, Scotland and Ireland all in the mix for a third-placed finish and, perhaps, giving France and England a scare. Ioan Cunningham’s Wales will grace the Principality pitch on Super Saturday at the end of April, reflecting their growth over the last couple of years and where they may yet go.

Their clutch of Gloucester-Hartpury players, including rising star Nel Metcalfe, will bring with them confidence from their unbeaten club season so far and, in fly-half Lleucu George, also provide one of the purest playmakers in the sport. “I think she can be one of the best 10s in the world,” Cunningham gushed at the launch. “She’s got all the tools in the toolbox and her confidence and belief is growing.”

Lleucu George will take the reins at fly-half for Wales
Lleucu George will take the reins at fly-half for Wales (Getty)

Much the same could be said of Scotland, who pipped Italy to the WXV2 title with both achieving three wins apiece in South Africa. Captain Rachel Malcolm is one of the game’s best figureheads but had grown weary of reflecting on a run of agonising defeats; to have come back with a trophy and on a six-match win streak suggests brighter times to come.

Replacing Jade Konkel-Roberts’ pure ball carrying might will provide a challenge, and the schedule is brutal with only England and France coming to Edinburgh and the rest of their fixtures on the road, but Scotland will hope to push on.

Italy, likewise, have made strides on and off the pitch, with 24 professional contracts and two new domestic teams providing players with greater opportunities. An unpredictable backline catches the eye but it was their defensive development into the third staunchest unit in the competition last year that was most of note.

Ireland are once more something of an enigma. There is plenty of talent for Scott Bemand, the former England assistant coach, to work with, particularly with a few sevens stars returning for this campaign, but all remains thoroughly unstraightforward off the field. Hooker Cliodhna Moloney remains in international exile due to matters not related to her continually impressive performances for Exeter, though has been in contact with Bemand and may be edging towards a recall, while club colleague Nichola Fryday announced a surprise retirement last summer.

Former England assistant coach Scott Bemand is now in charge of Ireland
Former England assistant coach Scott Bemand is now in charge of Ireland (Getty)

The fact that launch day interviews with the coaches and captains were conducted in the gift shop at the Marble Arch venue was an uncomfortable reminder of just how recently it was that the best women’s rugby players in the world were considered little more than a sideshow. But the standalone window has given women’s rugby the spotlight it needed to shine, and gone, thankfully, are the days of being confined to a corner while the men take centre stage – even if some familiar fears remain.

The Women’s Six Nations begins with France v Ireland, 23 March at 2:15 on BBC iPlayer

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