The wait for the Women’s Six Nations 2022 will finally come to an end on Saturday when defending champions England take on Scotland in Edinburgh.
England have not tasted defeat in the Championship in almost four years and have put together an 18-match winning run in all competitions to build a 7.68 rating point lead at the top of the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini.
Coach Simon Middleton and captain Sarah Hunter will hope the Red Roses can maintain their form with less than seven months to go until Rugby World Cup 2021, playing in 2022, but they have their work cut out over the next five weeks.
France, who will play England in Pool C at RWC 2021, were narrowly beaten in last season’s Women’s Six Nations final and are keen to claim a first Championship title since 2018.
"One championship closes, well another championship opens!" 🏉 🏆@nickheathsport takes us behind the scenes of the @Womens6Nations launch including grabbing a chat with Women's 15s Player of the Year, @zoealdcroft_ #SixNations360 pic.twitter.com/knfHR8tjAM— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) March 21, 2022
Meanwhile, Scotland, Italy and Wales will use the tournament to build team cohesion and squad depth on the road to New Zealand, and Ireland are at the beginning of what they hope will be a bright new era.
It all means there is plenty to play for between now and the end of April as the best players on the continent take to the field in a standalone window for the second successive season.
“We want to develop women’s rugby because it’s a big opportunity, the World Cup,” France captain Gaëlle Hermet said.
“Each team is going to want to improve and show that they’re ready for the World Cup – especially us!”
“A team full of world-class players”
England forward Zoe Aldcroft was an ever-present as the Red Roses followed up the 2021 Women’s Six Nations title with another win over France, back-to-back record defeats of New Zealand and victories against Canada and the USA.
Her form led to her being named World Rugby Women’s 15s Player of the Year 2021, in association with Mastercard, but at the start of a potentially momentous eight months, Aldcroft refuses to get carried away.
“I hear the commentators all the time and they're like 'World Player [of the Year]' and I'm like, ‘Oh, please stop saying it’,” Aldcroft said.
“I'm just trying to play, I'm just the same as every other player in the team. We've got a team full of world-class players that could have won that award, [but] it was me that got voted for it, basically.
“There are so many players in that squad that are absolutely amazing, and I think I've just got to not think about it too much.”
According to Aldcroft, the motivation within the England squad to win another Women’s Six Nations remains “very high” but conversations within the camp have not gone further than Saturday’s opener at DAM Health Stadium.
“We’ve been speaking about building on our performance from the autumn internationals and not taking a step backwards,” she added.
“Just starting where we left off in the first match against Scotland.”
Their hosts in Edinburgh come into the Championship riding a wave of euphoria having become the 12th and final team to book their place at RWC 2021 in Dubai last month.
Qualification had dominated the thoughts of Scotland’s players for much of the previous six months, but captain Rachel Malcolm insisted they had not found it difficult to switch their focus to the Women’s Six Nations.
“Now we've got that monkey off our back, it's almost really refreshing to have something new to work towards,” she said.
“If I'm honest, I actually feel re-energised, excited and refocused. It probably sounds ridiculous, but I actually think we're probably in a better place now to take on a new challenge than ever.”
Building squad morale
Italy had pipped Scotland, and Ireland, to automatic RWC 2021 qualification, winning the Europe Qualifier in Parma in September.
The Azzurre will return to Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi twice over the next five weeks and centre Beatrice Rigoni says her team-mates are full of confidence as they build towards New Zealand.
“We will try to win as many games as possible and then what happens, happens,” she said.
“[The Championship] is key because it provides us with an opportunity not only to test some new playing mechanisms but also it provides new players, who are now joining the squad, with an opportunity to play and to gain experience in such important games.”
Ireland missed out on a place on the plane to New Zealand, but the 2022 Championship represents the start of a new age under coach Greg McWilliams.
Nine uncapped players were included in McWilliams’ first squad and new captain Nichola Fryday revealed how the players had bonded through off-field activities, including learning Irish.
“It’s been really enjoyable,” she said. “Greg's main focuses are skills, ball-in-play time.
“We're getting exposure to high levels of skills and when we're on the pitch, we're playing full contact, we're repping everything that we need to rep.
“So, I think it's been really fun and that's the element that it's bringing back, the fun, but it's also bringing out the best of us as players as well.”
Fryday added: “We’re united as a group, so we're just enjoying our time together and the build-up to this Six Nations is exciting.
“So, I suppose that excitement feeds through the group then and on the pitch you’re raring to go again.”
Whatever happens between now and 30 April, the penultimate match of the Championship between France and England is one that has already got fans’ pulses racing.
Stade Jean Dauger in Bayonne is expected to be full of home fans keen to find out whether Les Bleues can end a nine-game losing streak against the Red Roses. The last time they beat England, in 2018, they won the Grand Slam.
“It’s one of the highly anticipated matches of the tournament,” Hermet said.
“It’s the last, so there will be a lot riding on that match. We want to make this tournament a big success and also a big success in that last match against England.”