Change is in the air at this year’s Women’s Six Nations, which now has its own slot in the calendar and a first title sponsor in TikTok – but that looks unlikely to extend to the outcome.
Champions England start as hot favourites this weekend – no surprise given their 18-game winning run, which includes last year’s championship and a pair of victories over the Black Ferns.
But in what is set to be the most widely televised edition yet, each team also has the added incentive of hitting form ahead of this autumn’s World Cup in New Zealand.
The Red Roses are expected to walk this Women’s Six Nations, and complacency is probably the biggest threat to their chances.
A tweak to the format last year for Covid reasons meant England only played three games yet still finished with a positive points difference of 110.
Former world player of the year Emily Scarratt returns from injury to feature in Simon Middleton’s squad alongside current world player of the year Zoe Aldcroft.
It’s difficult to look beyond England in this tournament but France are their closest challengers and host them in what could prove a final-round title decider.
France have pushed England close in the past and faced them in the final of last year’s modified competition.
Coached by the highly-rated Annick Hayraud, they offer potency in attack and brutality in defence.
They’re in England’s World Cup pool, too, so this could be a chance for Les Bleus to figure out some of England’s weaknesses – and gain a psychological edge by toppling their rival ahead of the showpiece event.
Ireland are on a low. They haven’t won the title since 2015 and are working through the recommendations of a damning report on the women’s programme prompted by their failure to qualify for the World Cup.
Missing out on the tournament was a surprise but the fallout may only make the team more determined to take a scalp or two and show their union that they should be taken more seriously.
Italy joined the Women’s Six Nations in 2007 in place of Spain, bringing the competition into line with the men’s version.
They haven’t suffered the same dismal fortunes as their male counterparts, though. Le Azzurre finished above both Scotland and Wales in 2020, the last time all six sides played one another, and were second only to England the previous year.
While the circumstances surrounding their arrival may have been controversial, Italy have been a welcome addition to the competition and this season will look to win more than one match for the first time since 2019.
Scotland are on a high at the moment, having just qualified for the World Cup with a storming 59-3 play-off win over Colombia. That tie means they have also played more recently than their Women’s Six Nations rivals.
Their last win in the competition came in 2018 when they beat Ireland and the odds of them adding to that in their opening fixture at home to England this weekend will be long, but the round two match against Wales is a more realistic target.
Wales lie seventh in the European rankings, below Spain, and have struggled in this competition lately but their set-up received a boost ahead of this Women’s Six Nations in the form of a string of central contracts.
It is hoped that this change, which follows a similar move by England three years ago, will be a catalyst for improved results, though no one is expecting a quick fix.
They haven’t won a game in the competition since 2019 but Wales have a chance to turn those fortunes around on the opening weekend when they play Ireland.