It is tough to look past Ireland and France because the principal contenders for this season’s Guinness Six Nations title.
The match’s most eagerly-awaited opener for years will unfold between the primary two groups on a Friday evening in Marseille – and everybody else may very well be enjoying catch-up from day one.
There will undoubtedly be many twists and turns alongside the way in which, however whichever staff triumphs at Stade Velodrome can anticipate to be nailed on as Six Nations favourites.
In some ways, it ought to be no shock provided that Ireland are ranked second on World Rugby’s official rankings and France fourth, whereas Les Bleus gained a Grand Slam in 2022 and Ireland replicated the feat final yr.
Both groups may also be pushed by recollections of crushing World Cup disappointment. Backed in lots of quarters as potential winners, they made quarter-final exits with Ireland shedding to New Zealand and France being toppled by South Africa.
Their current dominance of European rugby can’t be understated, though the bid for silverware this time round takes place with out talismanic figures.
Ireland not have imperious fly-half Johnny Sexton on the helm following his post-World Cup retirement, and his fellow former world participant of the yr – genial France scrum-half Antoine Dupont – is enjoying sevens in pursuit of a Paris Olympics dream.
Both absences will inevitably be felt, but there’s nonetheless comfortably ample squad depth for Ireland and France to stay an excellent furlong or two away from the sector.
They aren’t the one nations coping with key losses, as retirements, accidents and tales of the sudden have taken centre stage.
The pre-Six Nations headlines had been dominated by Wales wing Louis Rees-Zammit’s shock resolution to stop rugby and goal a profession in American soccer.
It all unfolded throughout a frantic hour forward of Wales head coach Warren Gatland’s Six Nations squad announcement, and Rees-Zammit was added to a listing of absentees that included Test rugby retirees Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams, who’s now primarily based in Japan, and an injured trio of Taulupe Faletau, Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake.
England knew in late November that their World Cup skipper Owen Farrell would miss the Six Nations, having opted to take a world break as he prioritised his and his household’s psychological wellbeing.
The Saracens fly-half has subsequently signed for French membership Racing 92 on a two-year deal from July, which is able to lengthen his spell away from Test rugby as Rugby Football Union guidelines prevents gamers plying their commerce overseas enjoying for England.
Outside of Farrell’s scenario, Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs and Mako Vunipola – greater than 300 England caps between them – have left the worldwide stage, however a crop of thrilling newcomers embody Exeter wing Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, Northampton fly-half Fin Smith and Sale’s Tom Roebuck.
England seem best-equipped to move the chasing pack, however like Wales and Scotland, who meet on the opening weekend in Cardiff, they might want to begin strongly in a contest the place momentum is essential.
Italy, in the meantime, face a tall order to keep away from ending backside of the pile for a ninth successive marketing campaign, though they’ve a brand new head coach in Gonzalo Quesada and main Italian membership Benetton, who contribute 17 gamers within the nationwide squad, have gained seven out of 9 United Rugby Championship video games this season and maintain second spot.