The Women’s Six Nations returns today, reverting back to its normal round-robin format following a truncated 2021 edition because of the pandemic.
In a World Cup year for the women’s game, this year’s championship takes on added significance, with video-sharing app TikTok coming on board as its first title sponsor.
Below you can read our team-by-team guide, with squad news, predictions and players to look out for in what is set to be the most competitive women’s Six Nations yet.
Prediction: 1st (Grand Slam)
2020 finish: Grand Slam champions
Can dominant England breeze to a third straight Grand Slam? If Simon Middleton’s side fall short of that target, it would surely constitute a failure given their imperious form. For the fourth year running, the Red Roses will be the only fully professional team in the tournament and are on a ruthless 18-match winning streak. They have not lost in more than two calendar years, having underlined their World Cup credentials by walloping world champions New Zealand last autumn.
Middleton has stuck with his winning formula of cherry picking the most in-form players in the Premier 15s, but has also selected others who previously dropped off the radar. The inclusion of experienced scrum-half Natasha Hunt is a big one – not least because most thought her international career was over after taking time away from the England set-up last year. Emily Scarratt, who did not feature in the autumn period after sustaining a broken leg, also returns and could receive her 100th cap during the tournament.
Player to watch: Sadia Kabeya
Keep an eye out for 20-year-old flanker Kabeya, who is a mini star in the making after shining all season for Loughborough Lightning. She is likely to remain an understudy to Marlie Packer for much of the championship, but after gaining her first senior England cap last autumn, expect her to punch holes in defences. “I don’t think she understands how good she is,” Sarah Hunter, the England captain, said earlier this week. “She’s 20 and she’s got such a bright future ahead of her.”
Predicted finish: 2nd
2020 finish: 2nd
France are on a quest to win their first Grand Slam since 2018. They face England in their own backyard in Bayonne on the final weekend of the tournament, in what will almost certainly be a championship decider. The French have been galvanised by Antoine Dupont and co after winning their first Grand Chelem in 12 years and if that isn’t enough of an incentive to end a nine-match losing run against the Red Roses, nothing will be.
“There’s a lot riding on that game. It’s a big opportunity and we want to prove ourselves before the World Cup,” said captain Gaelle Hermet, whose team has struggled to psychologically front up to England. With only three-quarters of its squad professional, France are still very much Grand Slam underdogs.
Nippy scrum-half Laure Sansus was one of France’s star players last year and can make the No 9 shirt her own with veteran player Pauline Bourdon missing out. Even without big players like Safi N’Diaye and Céline Férer, Les Bleues are still bursting at the seams with talent. Whether it is the towering presence of lock Madoussou Fall, or the unpredictability epitomised by the emerging talent of young fullback Emilie Boulard, they are sure to pack some punch.
Player to watch: Rose Bernadou
Bernadou burst onto the scene in last year’s shortened championship, fronting up to the physicality that England brought in a high-tempo game. The young prop unofficially delivered the ‘tackle of the tournament’ on Poppy Cleall, who paid tribute to Bernadou’s knack for flattening defenders after England ran out 10-6 winners last year at Twickenham Stoop.
Predicted finish: 3rd
2020 finish: 6th
Things are looking a lot rosier for Wales than in previous years. Former internationals took matters into their own hands after the side’s winless campaign last time round and accused the Wales Rugby Union of decimating player pathways for women. The WRU eventually bowed to pressure and its new performance director, Nigel Walker, has played a significant role in helping secure 12 full-time contracts and 11 retainer contracts, which were unveiled at the start of the year. That will not be enough for them to win the tournament, but they should certainly climb the table.
The return of 58-time capped Sioned Harries, who played for Wales for the first time in more than two years in their 31-23 Six Nations warm-up defeat by the USA, is reflective of a wider culture shift within the Wales camp. Harries’ omission from the last two Six Nations campaigns remains a mystery. Those sticky times now look to be in the past with the return of the Worcester No 8, who could push captain Siwan Lillicrap out of a starting spot given her rich vein of form.
Player to watch: Sisilia Tuipulotu
Teen sensation Tuipulotu is Wales’ most exciting female player in a generation, having impressed with her immense ball-carrying ability for Gloucester-Hartpury in the Premier 15s. Blessed with raw power, the 18-year-old lock hails from rugby stock – her father Sione played for Tonga and she counts Taulupe Faletau and Scarlets’ Carwyn Tuipulotu among her cousins.
Predicted finish: 4th
2020 finish: 4th
Italy have enjoyed slightly better fortunes than their male counterparts in the past seven years – recording 12 Six Nations wins since 2015 – but they have always struggled with consistency throughout the tournament. That said, they are a team renowned for punching above their weight.
Investment in the women’s side has been minimal over the past year, coming in the form of 15 player support grants from the Italian Rugby Federation. But that did not stop Italy from winning the European Cup qualifier to book their place at the World Cup last September. They are certainly flying high on confidence and they need to be – data from the FIR has shown a fifth of adult female rugby players stopped playing rugby altogether during Covid – so this is the time to re-inspire a generation of women in the country.
There is no shortage of experience in Andrea Di Giandomenico’s squad, which includes captain Manuela Furlan, an 81-time capped international and Italy’s most capped player in Sara Barattin, who has 101 appearances and counting.
Player to watch: Vittoria Ostuni Minuzzi
Minuzzi burst onto the Test scene two years ago and has been a source of creativity in Italy’s backline and has thrived at full-back, pushing Furlan out to the wing.
2020 finish: 5th
Predicted finish: 5th
When Jade Konkel became the first female Scottish rugby player on a full-time contract in 2016, it looked as if Scotland were well on their way to full-time status. But six years on, progress has stagnated. The Scottish Rugby Union have remained tightlipped around investment in its women’s set-up, confirming that its 35-strong squad is benefiting from bespoke support packages. Mood is high within the Scottish camp after Bryan Easson’s side secured World Cup qualification last month in Dubai – the first time in 12 years Scotland have qualified for women’s rugby’s showpiece event.
With Wales having partly upgraded to professional status, serious questions will be asked of Scotland, who have lost to England by an aggregate scoreline of 105-10 over their last two meetings. Without full-time contracts, how can they get near the Red Roses’ superiority?
“I think it’s challenging,” Rachel Malcolm, the Scotland captain, told Telegraph Sport. “They will always be a challenge for any team they play against regardless of whether we are full-time or not, just because they are so far ahead at the minute. It’s about closing that gap and doing everything we can to close it.”
Back-rower Konkel, who has been in lightning form for Harlequins, is a welcome addition to the squad after taking time away from rugby last year to pursue firefighter training.
Player to watch: Alison Wilson
Scotland have thought outside the box when it comes to additional prop power after calling up Wilson, a former judoka. A gold medallist at the Northern Ireland Open in 2015, Wilson is one of three uncapped players in Scotland’s squad.
Predicted finish: 6th
2020 finish: 3rd
Ireland have endured a tumultuous time in the build up to this year’s championship, where they will be the only nation who will not feature at the World Cup. The team hit an all-time low when it failed to qualify for the tournament last September, which triggered a major review by an under-fire IRFU. The body eventually held its hands up over its longstanding neglect of the women’s team – but only after 62 current and former players wrote to the Irish government stating they had lost faith in the union. Such player activism was widely praised by the rugby community and the IRFU recently announced an additional €1million for the women over the next year.
The shock omission of Cliodhna Moloney, who likened comments made by the now-axed director of women’s rugby, Anthony Eddy, to “slurry spreading” could turn out to be one that bites the Irish. Moloney is a hugely versatile player who has operated at outside centre for Wasps this season in the Premier 15s.
Kevin Potts, the CEO of the IRFU, has insisted the controversial decision to axe her was based on her current form and had nothing to do with her remarks aimed at Eddy. Sene Naoupu is another key name to miss out – another sign that Ireland are in a rebuilding phase.
Nichola Fryday, who plays her club rugby at Exeter Chiefs, has been handed the captaincy and insists the recent drama has been unifying. “We’re taking every positive we can out of this situation, there’s no point dwelling on it any more,” said Fryday, adding her team have had enjoyed a series of team-bonding days which included Gaelic classes to “get the craic going again.”
Player to watch: Neve Jones
Jones made her debut in the 2020 championship and is yet to hit her straps for her country. A player who dabbled in netball, swimming and jiu-jitsu growing up, the hooker will have big boots to fill in Moloney’s absence.