The first weekend of February is a special one for Rugby fans, with the Six Nations making its annual return.
Fans are set for some hefty grudge matches, with all six contenders on a recovery mission after World Cup heartbreak in the Autumn, something that would have hurt Ireland and France particularly badly – although I imagine England will not want to see their semi-final defeat to South Africa again.
It kicks off in style with a blockbuster game between France and Ireland on Friday night – here’s a guide to the teams!
We also have a Six Nations Trader Chat Q&A available HERE to get the lowdown on betting narratives for this year’s event.
Six Nations Championship 2024
Friday 2nd February – Saturday 16th March
Live on BBC & ITV in UK, S4C in Wales, RTE in Ireland, and France Sport TV in France
Past Six Nations Winners
2023: Ireland (Grand Slam winners)
2019: Wales (Grand Slam winners)
2018: Ireland (Grand Slam winners)
2016: England (Grand Slam winners)
There’s still an air of heartbreak surrounding the French, who were favourites to win a first World Cup on home soil and lost one of the best games ever seen in the sport when going down by a solitary point in a pulsating quarter-final.
Les Bleus – who started the tournament with a 27-13 win over New Zealand – didn’t put a foot wrong there and whilst that heartbreak will sting forever, they are well placed to take revenge on their European rivals.
Much attention has been focused on the fact that they will be missing the legendary Antoine Dupont – he’s aiming for an Olympic Gold in Paris in the Sevens – and Romain Ntamack (still sidelined with the injury that made him miss the World Cup, but stand in scrum half Maxime Lucu has been phenomenal for Bordeaux in the Champions Cup (along with his replacement Nolan Le Garrec for Racing 92) and Matthieu Jalibert was outstanding at the World Cup and has kept up that form since.
France are missing some key players – losing Toulouse forwards Anthony Jelonch and newly qualified second-row Emmanuel Meafou in the last round of the Champions Cup was a blow – but their strength in depth is phenomenal and they face Ireland with just five changes to the starting XV that began the Rugby World Cup final.
Damian Penaud scored six tries at the World Cup and has continued in that same vein with seven tries in the Top 14 and four in the Champions Cup, Jonathan Danty and Gael Fickou are two of the best centres in Europe, the same applies to Thomas Ramos at fullback and there’s a monster pack to go to war with as well.
Cyril Baille, hooker Peato Mauvaka and Uini Atonio continue in an unchanged front row, with new skipper Alldritt joined at the back of the pack by flankers Cros and Charles Ollivon, and France – who can draw on the red hot form of Bordeaux and Toulouse in Europe – are well placed to bounce back.
Ireland (TOP PRICE)
A heartbreaking defeat to New Zealand in Paris could well have been the end of an era for Ireland, but it’s evolution rather than revolution as Andy Farrell continues with much of the same side that beat New Zealand down under and then landed a Grand Slam in last year’s edition.
Having been peerless for the past 18 months, Ireland had few weaknesses to think about – although some have suggested that their gameplan is slightly too one dimensional, not a help when trying to chase the game against the All Blacks of all sides – but they now must look to life after Johnny Sexton.
Munster’s Jack Crowley has performed exceptionally well considering the injury crisis there and is a fly-half of immense promise – along with Ciaran Frawley, Harry Byrne and Sam Prendergast – but it’s no doubt that there’s huge shoes to fill in Sexton’s absence.
Little has changed to the Leinster based core of the side – Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan and Tadhg Furlong in the front row, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris in the back row (sandwiching Munster’s Peter O’Mahony), along with Jamison Gibson-Park, Garry Ringrose, Hugo Keenan and James Lowe in the backs – whilst centre Bundee Aki and lock Tadhg Berine are amongst the best in their position, and one of few certainties is that Ireland will be extremely hard to beat this year.
England went into the World Cup under a cloud – they’d lost to Scotland, France and Fiji at Twickenham in 2023, were suffering with injuries and were unable to execute the basics of the game at some point during their matches – but they bounced back with a dominant win over Argentina and ended up pushing eventual winners South Africa to the limit in their semi-final.
Steve Borthwick deserves huge respect for rebuilding the confidence of England in such a short space of time, and there’s reason for him and Red Rose fans to be hopeful over the coming weeks. Premiership Rugby has faced a lot of issues over the past two years but Borthwick has been able to pick from in form teams, with Northampton and Bath in particular impressing in the Champions Cup.
The return of red-hot Exeter centre Henry Slade to the fold is a major bonus, in the Saracens trio of Jamie George, Ben Earl and Maro Itoje they have three forwards with the X-Factor needed to change games, as they’ve shown for years.
England will miss Owen Farrell from the setup as he takes a sabbatical, and it remains to be seen what style of play George Ford – chosen to start at flyhalf against Italy on Saturday over Northampton’s Fin Smith, with Marcus Smith injured – employs for their opening fixture, but there’s definitely plenty to look forward to.
Scotland’s recent improvement in this tournament – they won three matches in a campaign for the fifth time in seven years, having managed it just once in their initial 17 campaigns (2006) – was maintained last year, with a win at Twickenham in the Calcutta Cup and a close fought defeat to France in Paris which deserved a losing bonus point. However, Ireland were much too strong for them the week after and at the World Cup they weren’t able to lay a glove on South Africa (lost 18-3) and Ireland again (lost 36-14), a return which was maybe lightly disappointing given the talent Gregor Townsend ha at his disposal.
The Scots go to war again with a high-quality squad, led by the mercurial and in form Finn Russell, enjoying a fine time at Bath, the much loved centre pairing of Huw Jones and Sione Tuipulotu. and the giant (and terrifyingly speedy) Duhan van der Merwe to boot.
Don’t forget Zander Fagerson, Richie Gray, Scott Cummings and Matt Fagerson in the pack either – the Scots can front up plenty these days – but can they do so enough to bridge the gap to the very best? It remains to be seen.
Is it Groudhog Day? Warren Gatland leads Wales into another Six Nations campaign, and one with the odds presumably stacked against them. 12 years ago a young, unfancied Welsh team entered a Six Nations campaign under Gatland with limited expectations before going onto clinch what would be the first of back-to-back crowns.
Can he repeat the same trick this time? Never say never but Wales are arguably the worst hit side by injuries and absences, with Dan Biggar now retired, Louis Rees-Zammit heading to the NFL and Jac Morgan injured.
Those three were the outstanding players of Wales’ World Cup, when they stormed to victory in Pool D before quarter-final defeat to Argentina and replacing them will be incredibly difficult to say the least.
There’s bright spots of hope – Tomos Williams and Kieran Hardy can provide pace from scrum-half if given then the chance, Rio Dyer and Josh Adams are quality finishers, George North remains eternally present and Dafydd Jenkins has been outstanding for Exeter Chiefs – but Wales start the tournament with a lot to prove. But then, don’t they always?
It’s a new year and a new coach for Italy, who were unable to carry on with their strong progress from 2022 (ended their losing streak with victory against Wales, and then beat Australia in Autumn) despite a really good showing against France in their opening game.
Italy didn’t disgrace themselves last year – none of their losses came by more than 17 points, and that margin was against the eventual Grand Slam winners – and their infamous second half record is now improving, as well (won the second half in two of their fixtures last year, and lost two by small margins).
If the Six Nations provided promise the Rugby World Cup brought them back to earth – Italy qualified for the next World Cup with win over Uruguay and Namibia, but they were blown apart 96-17 by New Zealand and 60-7 by France in September and they’ll have to be much better this time round.
There’s hope that might be the case though. 17 of Italy’s squad play for the Bentton Treviso side that are currently sitting second in the URC to Leinster, including the forward quartet of Michele Lamaro, Federico Ruzza, Sebastian Negri and Lorenzo Cannone.
New coach Gonzalo Quesada does have genuine quality to choose from – There’s a lot of quality in a starting backline Tommaso Allan, Ange Capuozzo, Juan Ignacio Brex, Tommaso Menoncello, Monty Ioane, Paolo Garbisi & Alessandro Garbisi – and Italy are capable of pushing their rivals, but will their promising club form translate to the international level?
On any given day there’s less between all six teams than the market might suggest, but France and Ireland set a high standard to aim at and the fixture list – they face Ireland and England at home, albeit away from the Stade de France – could give them the key edge. They completed a Grand Slam with this set of fixtures in 2022 (as Ireland did last year) and whilst some fret over the absence of Antoine Dupont and Roman Ntamack, Matthieu Jalibert has already proven himself at 10 and in Maxime Lucu and Nolan Le Garrec they have two of Europe’s most in form scrum halves and there are little to no personnel concerns outside of those two, whilst they should have ferocious home backing if the World Cup was anything to go by.
Ireland must bounce back from their World Cup heartbreak and replace Johnny Sexton, but they can at least count on a lot of continuity from year to year and they look worthy second favourites, for all that trips to France and England are going to be extremely testing for Andy Farrell’s side.
England can look forward to the next few weeks with optimism – there’s plenty of in form players at Steve Borthwick’s disposal and morale should be high – and they could test the top two in the market more than the odds suggest, especially if Steve Borthwick can find cohesion quickly.
Scotland will be hard to beat, but they will need to improve on their World Cup performance, Wales’ injury and absence issues make them hard to fancy and Italy are exciting on paper but must translate Benetton’s club form into international performance.
BACK France Outright Winner 5pts at 11/10 (
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BACK France 1st Ireland 2nd Straight Forecast 1pt at 3/1 (
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BACK France 1st England 2nd Straight Forecast 1pt at 11/2 (
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BACK Wales Finishing Position – 5th 2pts at 6/4 (
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PROFIT/LOSS (FEB 2024): 0.00 points