THE 2024 Six Nations will kick-off with a titanic collision between the two dominant teams from recent championships.
Both France and Ireland will have plenty of World Cup frustration and regret to exorcise when they meet at Stade Vélodrome in Marseille on Friday night after their respective quarter-final losses.
In the first instalment of a three part series, Iain Morrison runs the rule over the prospects of the two pre-tournament favourites –
- Coach: Fabien Galthie
- Captain: Gregory Alldritt
- Welcome to the circus: As if La France doesn’t produce enough homegrown behemoths, they have imported a foreign monster in the shape of Kiwi-born (of Samoan parents), Aussie-raised lock Emmanuel Meafou who stands 6’ 8” and tips the scales at a handy 145kgs (or almost 23 stones). There are six uncapped players in all with Racing scrummy Nolann Le Garrec likely to make the biggest splash after Meafou.
- Missing the action: Antoine Dupont is concentrating on Sevens ahead of the Paris Olympics and his half-back buddy Romain Ntamack is injured. One time skipper Anthony Jelonch tore his knee ligaments playing for Toulouse in their European match against Bath two weekends ago. Lanky lock Thibauld Flament is also injured and free-scoring winger Gabin Villiere was a surprise omission after struggling with an ankle issue.
- Reasons to be cheerful: France has such depth in numbers that they can probably manage the loss of their inspirational half-backs. Rugby has become a game of power and France has plenty to call upon, not least Jonathan Danty in the midfield and any number of big lumps up front, especially after the thwarted Sumo star that is Uini Atonio reversed his decision to retire from Test rugby. And while Alldritt lacks Dupont’s stardust he leads by example and speaks fluent English, so he communicates with referees far better than the little scrummy ever managed.
- Don’t mention: The recent Rugby World Cup. France put a lot of eggs in that particular basket and emerged empty handed despite dominating great swathes of the quarter final against South Africa. (Never let a rugby ball bounce, Gael). Just how much damage to their psyche that reversal has done will determine how France performs in this Championship. They have the squad to win the title, possibly the slam, but they have to put the pieces of the jigsaw back together again and Ireland offers a fierce challenge first up.
- Making his mark: Who else but the giant Meafou (although he misses the opening game in Marseille), but look out too for fly-half Matthieu Jalibert who is on electric form and will want to remind everyone that he was once the coming man.
- Recent results: 2nd in 2020 then 2nd, 1st and 2nd … (almost) always the bridesmaid.
- Our best guess: France face Ireland and England at home and, while neither game is a “gimmie”, they will hope/expect to win both, which leaves Scotland at Murrayfield as a potential banana skin for Galthie’s side. Even without the best player on the planet, Les Bleus have an exciting squad drawn from clubs, especially Toulouse and La Rochelle, who are coming good in Europe at the right time. France boasts the best squad in Europe and the prize is theirs for the taking but only if they’ve quit greeting over that untimely World Cup exit?
- Coach: Andy Farrell … recently asked to lead the Lions in Oz
- Captain: Peter O’Mahony … it beats retirement, which he threatened, briefly
- Welcome to the circus: He already had nine caps to his name but this is the first time Munster’s out-half Jack Crowley will have stepped into the Irish number 10 shirt with a view to making it his own. There are no uncapped players in Farrell’s squad but there are three “training panelists” who get to come in for the experience: prop Oli Jager formerly of the Crusaders, Connacht breakaway Cian Prendergast and his little brother, Leinster wunderkid Sam, just in case Crowley trips up.
- Missing the action: Wingers Mack Hansen and Jimmy O’Brien are injured so Munster’s Calvin Nash will add to his sole cap or either Jacob Stockdale/Jordan Larmour will get the opportunity to resurrect their international careers. Probably the latter because Stockdale is a leftie (boot and wing) with James Lowe a shoo-in for the No 11 shirt.
- Don’t mention: The lack of depth in Ireland’s front row. Forget about hookers, Ireland has a surplus of them, it’s props that could prove a problem. Tadhg Furlong has a lot of miles on the clock at tight-head after almost a decade at the coal face and is struggling to recover his very best form. There is precious little lining up behind him. It is similar on the loose-head side of the scrum where Andrew Porter could be backed up by the 36 years old Cian Healy, who has even more miles on his clock after 15 years in the trenches.
- Making his mark: A few years ago Irish fans were salivating over the emergence of lock James Ryan. Now they are kicking up a storm about another second-row forward, Joe McCarthy, still only 22-years-old but already a little more physically imposing than the talented Mr Ryan.
- Recent results: 3rd 2020 in 2020 then 3rd, 2nd and 1st
- Our best guess: Ireland are in a similar position as France, both nations nursing a nasty RWC hangover and having lost their talisman half-back, Johnny Sexton in this case. Are some cracks appearing in the once impregnable Ireland facade? A month or so back Leinster lost at home to Ulster who are no one’s idea of world beaters, and some of the Irish stalwarts are beginning to show their age. How does Andy Farrell refresh/renew/reinvigorate this squad of players with RWC’27 a long way off? Or is the prospect of back-to-back Grand Slams more than enough to get the green blood pumping? We think Ireland will finish second to France but only after England gives them a fright at Twickenham. Let’s see what happens in Marseille first, it may determine the ultimate victor?
- Tomorrow: Italy and England come under the spotlight