Rugby-France and Ireland set for blockbuster Six Nations opening night


By the time Italy host England and Wales play Scotland on Saturday, the destination of this year's title will, for many people, already have been decided, such is the superiority of the continent's current two heavyweights.

However, as both found to their cost last October, form and "favourite" status does not always win out, and the enduring appeal of the world's oldest national rugby competition is that an upset or two is almost guaranteed.

Ireland beat France 32-19 in a classic encounter in Dublin last February, setting themselves up for their Grand Slam triumph, and another great game is in prospect at the Velodrome as France play their home games around the country while the Stade de France is prepared for the Olympics.

Both teams are without their driving forces of 2023, with Ireland flyhalf Johnny Sexton retired and France scrumhalf Antoine Dupont temporarily switching to Sevens duty for the Olympics.

However, both remain packed with talent and if Friday's match is a patch on last year's, then the tournament really will start with a bang.

England have lost their opening game in the last four Six Nations - three of them to Scotland - but they should end that run when they kick off in Rome on Saturday having never lost to Italy.

Coach Steve Borthwick has promised that he will be giving the championship his full commitment, accepting that England's dire recent record of two wins in each of the last three seasons is nowhere near good enough as focus was wandering towards the World Cup.

His team will look markedly different to that which reached the semi-finals in France, due to retirements, sabbaticals, defections to France and injuries.

Hooker Jamie George is the new captain in place of the absent Owen Farrell but it is the backline where Borthwick has the most questions to answer.

At the World Cup England's backs functioned primarily as defenders and kick chasers, and fans are desperate to see more from them as an attacking force.

The absence of Marcus Smith due to injury may open the door for 21-year-old Fin Smith to make his debut, though the ever-pragmatic Borthwick is likely to start with experienced George Ford at 10.

Italy showed a huge amount of promise without getting any wins in last year's tournament but a humiliating World Cup spelled the end for coach Kieran Crowley and he has been replaced by former Argentina flyhalf Gonzalo Quesada.

A victory in Cardiff in 2022 remains their sole success in eight years, an astonishing 41 defeats from 42 games, and yet another last-placed finish looks very much on the cards.

Wales and Scotland, who meet in Cardiff on Saturday, had contrasting fortunes in 2023, making their meeting a tough one to call.

Wales had a terrible Six Nations, managing only one win against Italy as returning coach Warren Gatland tried to rush in some new blood, but then found their way at the World Cup and really should have beaten Argentina in the quarter-finals.

Scotland had a flying start, including a 35-7 thrashing of Wales, to spark talk of "the best Scottish team ever", only to fall away and then see it all go horribly wrong at the World Cup.

Both teams have lost 100-plus cap stalwarts in the shape of Scotland's Stuart Hogg and Wales's Alun Wyn Jones and Dan Biggar, and though there is plenty of fresh blood, the fixture still very much has the feel of a mid-table scrap.

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, Editing By Hugh Lawson)

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