The build-up to the Women’s Six Nations 2023 has not been short of talking points.
Some of the biggest names in the women’s game have hung up their boots since the culmination of Rugby World Cup 2021 while two modern-day greats, Sarah Hunter and Jessy Trémoulière, have signalled their intention to do so over the coming weeks.
France and Italy are getting used to life under new coaching set-ups as they prepare for the Championship, which will be the last of Simon Middleton’s trophy-laden England reign.
It is undoubtedly an interesting time for the tournament, and the introduction of contracts for players from Ireland, Italy and Scotland should only help make the 2023 Women’s Six Nations more competitive.
With that in mind, there is one big question facing the tournament on the eve of its opening weekend: Can anyone stop the Red Roses juggernaut?
It is now five years since England last lost a Women’s Six Nations match, against France in Grenoble, and the Red Roses conceded only 22 points as they sauntered to a fourth successive clean sweep last season.
Winning can sometimes breed complacency but Middleton’s side is not short on motivation as they prepare to face Scotland at a sold-out Kingston Park on Saturday.
Record-breaker. Leader. Legend.@sarah_hunter8 has announced her retirement from rugby after playing her last game in her home city of Newcastle this upcoming Saturday.#ThankYouSarah pic.twitter.com/0YaPMCuXUs— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) March 21, 2023
Not only will the heartache of losing the Rugby World Cup 2021 final in such agonising fashion drive them on but there is the incentive of giving their captain and coach a fitting send-off.
Hunter will hang up her boots following the match against Scotland, ending her playing career where it started, at the home of English Premiership club Newcastle Falcons.
The England number eight made her test debut as a replacement against the Scots in 2007 and she will set a new appearance record in the fixture when she faces them for a 13th and final time on Saturday.
“I really want to make sure that I take the moment in because I think sometimes in life you don't get to take the moments in that you're never going to get [again],” Hunter said this week.
“I think it's really important to do so because I'm never going to get that opportunity to run out in an England shirt again and you almost want to bottle it up and take it with you.”
Middleton has included four uncapped players in his match-day squad for the visit of Scotland, while Holly Aitchison deputises for the injured Zoe Harrison at fly-half.
Scotland have lost each of their 21 previous Championship meetings with England since it became the Six Nations in 2002, and head into the latest instalment without the retired Hannah Smith and Megan Gaffney, while Rhona Lloyd is playing for Great Britain in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
Francesca McGhie, who played for The Thistles during the recent Celtic Challenge, will make her debut on the left wing, while Evie Gallagher, who missed RWC 2021 through injury, returns at number eight.
“We’re really excited to play against the best team in the world at a sold-out stadium in Newcastle,” coach Bryan Easson said.
“We’ve got a lot of new young faces and lot of experience still in here, and a squad who are really excited to get going.”
Prior to Scotland’s trip to Newcastle, Wales and Ireland will get the 2023 Championship underway when they meet at Cardiff Arms Park.
Wales were victorious in the corresponding fixture in Dublin last year to kickstart their own professional era, but they have won only one of their last five home Six Nations matches against Ireland.
New captain Hannah Jones is joined in the Wales starting line-up by six team-mates from high-flying English Premier 15s club Gloucester-Hartpury.
However, it was Ireland who came out on top home and away when the Combined Provinces XV met the Welsh Development XV in the Celtic Challenge in January and February.
Uncapped prop Sadhbh McGrath impressed coach Greg McWilliams during that tournament and the 18-year-old has been selected to make her test debut on Saturday.
McGrath is one of 11 players picked to start at Cardiff Arms Park who featured for the Combined Provinces XV in the Celtic Challenge.
“It’s been brilliant. I guess it meant our girls were getting exposed to our system and our structures ahead of time essentially,” Ireland captain Nichola Fryday said.
“It bridged that gap from club to international level. So, it’s been a hugely positive thing.”
France, the last team to dethrone England as champions in 2018, and Italy enter the fray on Sunday when they meet at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in Parma.
The match will be the first for both coaching teams as Giovanni Raineri takes charge of the Azzurre and the Gaëlle Mignot-David Ortiz partnership guides Les Bleues.
France will also be led by a new captain in Parma, Audrey Forlani, who has come back into the squad following the retirements of fellow second-rows Céline Ferer and Safi N’Diaye.
Italy have not beaten France at home in the Six Nations since a 31-12 win in Padova four years ago and were beaten 39-3 by Les Bleues in the RWC 2021 quarter-finals.
Following Sunday’s opener, the Azzurre will travel to Northampton to play England and prop Silvia Turani joked the team’s start would be a “nice warm-up” for the Championship ahead.
“We will focus on each performance and each game by game,” she said. “The first step is France and then England and we’ll just do what we have to do.”