Preview: Women’s 6 Nations 2016

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Running concurrently to the men’s tournament, this year’s women’s Six Nations will be a fascinating tournament to watch unfold. With several star names absent in preparation for Rio, the title is firmly up for grabs, and with a World Cup to come in 2017, there is a real chance for some players to lay down a marker while the big names are away.

IRELAND

Two Six Nations wins in three years by Ireland has put an end to the seven year dominance of the tournament by the English. Ireland improved in leaps to win a grand slam in 2013 and weathered a competitive field last year to seal a win with a comprehensive finish against Scotland.

A pre-season friendly against Wales yielded a surprising loss for the reigning champions, but this could be as much attributed to the need to blood new players in the match as Wales’s improvements over the past years. Ireland boasts one of the highest turnovers in playing personnel over the past couple of years and there are bound to be new faces who catch the eye this season – potentially more from Ireland’s goldmine of female athletes in GAA with experience in their competitive top league. An opportunity has appeared for them after the first choice back line was drawn away to 7s.

Player to watch: Sophie Spence
It’s difficult not to concentrate on the big names from previous tournaments; Captain Niamh Briggs and opportunistic flanker Paula Fitzpatrick are standouts from last year’s 6 Nations. However it is impossible to pass over the World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year nominee Sophie Spence, who is so important to Ireland’s forward momentum and a vital part of their pack’s performances.

FRANCE

It has been a long time since the French heyday of the early 00s in the European competition, but a solo win in 2014 has masked huge steps forward in their domestic leagues which are sure to have an impact on the international stage which left them so close to winning the title again last season.

After the incredibly successful 2014 World Cup in Paris no less than three major TV stations began fighting over the rights to the top level of French domestic women’s rugby. The clubs have also started taking a leaf from the books of their men’s sides and begun importing talent from abroad – specifically Italy and Ireland – with both Heather O’Brien and Paula Fitzpatrick moving south this season.

However, the national side is hampered by the same major stumbling block as England and Ireland – the draw of 7s and the Rio Olympics. France was particularly badly hit last year by the loss of players to the shortened version of the game but the side seems to have found its step with newer faces from the Top 8 and a strong U20s side bolstering already impressive strength in depth.

Player to watch: Gaëlle Mignot
It’s impossible to mention the French without reference to their talismanic captain Gaëlle Mignot, nominee for Player of the Year award and around whom the ethos of the French side is built – a vital sense of self discipline, telling Scrum Queens this year is about a different type of mission: “”Revenge, perhaps”, says Gaëlle, “but if so it is perhaps against ourselves.”

ITALY

Italy took a while to warm up to the challenge after entering the Six Nations at the expense of Spain in 2007. But the last couple of years have also seen their first two finishes above 5th, and they show no sign of their progress slowing down.

After breaking into the tournament Italy have taken their time finding their feet – coming to a head in 2015 with a squad filled with experience which came from behind to batter Scotland and Wales and shock France to finish in third, relegating England to the bottom half of the table.

The impact of this win on their confidence cannot be understated but they are understandably wary, as no one will be caught by surprise this year. Part of the obstacle in their path is a tough set of fixtures – with only England and Scotland at home. A win over Scotland must be a vital target to ensure a World Cup place by the third round.

Player to watch: Frederica Cippola
Italy’s side may be relatively new to top-flight rugby but some have hit the ground running. One of those has caught attention on the sevens circuit: Frederica Cippola. A substitute through most of the games last year she has the handling skills to unlock defences in the shortened edition of the game and it will surprise few if she manages a few speeding breaks in this tournament.

ENGLAND

For seven years England held the Cup, an absolute dominance of the tournament bolstered by a thriving domestic league system and one of the longest histories of the game. Last year was a crushing disappointment, a significant setback after a World Cup win and so much said about what could be done to take full advantage of that legacy.

Past captain Catherine Spencer led a series of stinging attacks on the RFU for their mishandling of this progress that reached a crescendo with none of the 20 professionally contracted sevens players released for club duty this season, stripping some of the most promising and successful clubs of their strongest players.

Despite all of this England are still challengers for the championship. They have one of the strongest domestic leagues in the world and deep roots in girls’ rugby that continue to produce exceptional U20s players through a competitive UK league system. Last year’s loss of the sevens athletes opened up the ranks for new faces who now go into a second tournament aware of what’s to come – and the hurt of 2015 is a fantastic motivator.

Player to watch: Hannah Gallagher
This season flanker Hannah Gallagher steps into the shirt of the retired giant of the game Maggie Alphonsie. They may be big boots to fill but the ex-centre Gallagher brings a new dynamism to the England back row which may catch many of her opposition off guard.

WALES

Wales 13 – 0 England. That was the score line in last year’s game in Swansea and it was a ringing endorsement of the advances of a side that had been threatened with relegation to a separate competition (along with Scotland and Italy) so recently. However, their campaign didn’t spark and losses to Italy, France and Ireland put paid to a first top-three finish for Rhys Edwards’ side.

Without England’s player depth or Ireland’s ready-made GAA talent pool, Wales has engaged in Talent Identification days in order to track down the athletes needed to unseat the big names from the top half of the table. This has meant a surge of new players in the past two seasons and a high turnover – bringing in six new players in the 28-strong squad after having the second youngest team last year.

Although this is all part of the need to bring in new athletes the Welsh don’t have the chance to rest easy. They must finish ahead of Scotland in order to qualify for the next World Cup by the end of the tournament.

Player to watch: Bethan Dainton

With the Welsh focus on developing new talent it comes naturally to tip one of their newest prospects to shine. Another sevens white-line finisher, Bethan Dainton enters the squad for the first time this year and will be determined to translate her try-scoring ability to the full version of the game.

SCOTLAND

Scotland have had a pretty torrid time in the 6 Nations. They haven’t won a single game since 2010 and what had been a relatively promising campaign in 2015 ended with a demolition at the hands of winners Ireland, 3 – 73.

However, the tournament did give them their largest points haul in five years and recent developments at Scottish Rugby suggest this improvement should continue in 2016. The Ireland loss was followed by the departure of coach Jules Maxton and the arrival of the first full-time head coach in Shade Munro, previously assistant coach at Glasgow Warriors and a real show of investment in women’s rugby by their home union.

Under his leadership the national side has significantly increased their time playing together with two camps so far this season. The introduction of women into the new Scottish academy system should also help bolster the fitness and preparation of their top youth talent. All of this progress should pay dividends this year – and may even earn the underdog side their first win in six years.

The stakes could not be higher; without a good showing Scotland lie at a high risk of losing out on a 2017 World Cup place, with Spain keen to stand between them and the place they missed out on in 2014 yet again.

Player to watch: Karen Dunbar
Scotland’s strength this year seems to lie in their back row, with several members of the loose forwards also involved in their sevens programme and some intense competition for starting places. Flanker Karen Dunbar picked up the Keri Holdsworth award for player of the match in the inaugural Donna Kennedy Cup, a regional competition pitching east vs. west, and she should be expected to make an impact on the international field just as swiftly.

By Tristan Gray (@RuckingGray)

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