Women’s Six Nations: England in no mood to give up title

We preview the Guinness Women’s Six Nations 2024, which gets underway this weekend with three mouth-watering matches and forms part of the qualification pathway for WXV 2024 and Women’s Rugby World Cup 2025.

The bad news for England’s rivals ahead of the Guinness Women’s Six Nations 2024 is new head coach John Mitchell believes the defending Grand Slam champions can get even better.

England have not lost a Women’s Six Nations match since 2018 and begin their quest for a sixth successive Championship title on a 24-match winning run in the tournament.

Last year, the Red Roses secured a fifth clean sweep in a row by beating France 38-33 in a pulsating contest played out in front of a women’s world record crowd of 58,498 at Twickenham.

They then followed that up by winning a two-match test series against Canada and claiming the inaugural WXV 1 title in New Zealand, exorcising some of the team’s Women’s Rugby World Cup 2021 demons in the process.

How Women’s Six Nations teams can qualify for WXV, Women’s RWC 2025 >>

But as he attempts to deliver a third Rugby World Cup crown on home soil in September 2025, Mitchell – who enjoyed a watching brief during WXV 1 – has identified a key area where his side can progress. He wants the Red Roses to become “one team in attack”.

“This team has a winning mentality, so that's pretty important to us. But if we just solely focus on that, I don't think it would be too enjoyable,” Mitchell said.

“What I love about the environment is the girls want to improve and they're focusing on improvement. [Four months] ago, I think they sent a message to the rest of the world that we're pretty serious on improving.

“How we go about that is quite simple, we want to get quicker at our game. We want to create more pressure on the opposition, and we want to present opportunities, attacking opportunities but we want to probably give ourselves more multiple options in the way that we attack.”

Captain, centurion

Equally intimidating as Mitchell’s words for the five teams attempting to wrestle the Championship trophy off the Red Roses is the fact that he has been able to welcome Emily Scarratt, Zoe Harrison and Abbie Ward back into his squad.

The importance of that experienced trio to England’s development on the road to Women’s RWC 2025 is highlighted by their presence in the starting XV for their opening match against Italy in Parma on Sunday.

Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi has proved a happy hunting ground for the Red Roses, who have won all three of their matches there, and will be sure to hold a special place in the heart of captain Marlie Packer following this weekend.

Packer is due to become the seventh Englishwoman to win her 100th cap when she leads the Red Roses out in Parma, although she insists the milestone isn’t at the forefront of her mind.

“I’m super excited, but I’m more excited about kicking off the tournament,” she said. “I just want to get out there and play. We’ve got the likes of Abbie Ward, Emily Scarratt, Zoe Harrison coming back.

“We haven’t seen that calibre of players since the World Cup final. I’m more excited to see them come back than to get my 100th cap.”

Italy will want to make a positive start in the final match of round, especially given their disappointing 2023 campaign – in which they won only one match – and the fact the tournament doubles as WXV and Women’s RWC 2025 qualification.

A top-three finish is the target for all six teams as they attempt to get into WXV 1, while the highest ranked nation other than England and France will also secure their place at next year’s showpiece tournament.

“We want to win as much as possible and ride to the qualification for the World Cup,” Italy captain Elisa Giordano said.

“Our first test against England is of course the toughest test we have but we can see this match as a test to improve ourselves and to understand at what point we are.”

France target Grand Slam

The 2024 Women’s Six Nations will get underway in Le Mans on Saturday, when France – runners-up in each of the four previous tournaments – take on Ireland.

Les Bleues came agonisingly close to halting England’s run in the Championship 11 months ago but followed that up with a mixed WXV 1 campaign, beating the Black Ferns but losing to Australia and Canada.

With home matches to follow against Italy and England, France will back themselves to secure their passage back to the top level of WXV, while they are already assured of playing at England 2025 thanks to their performance in New Zealand in 2022.

But speaking at the launch, captain Manaé Feleu suggested her team expected to aim higher than that.

“We’re fully excited about it. I think everyone’s waiting for it and getting ready for the start,” she said.

“We always want to perform, and our objective is to do the Grand Slam.”

Les Bleues’ hopes of doing just that and ending their six-year wait for the title, could hinge on a mouth-watering final match of the tournament against England in Bordeaux.

Saturday’s opponents Ireland, meanwhile, head into the Championship buoyed by victory in WXV 3 and targeting Women’s RWC 2025 qualification.

“Qualify for the World Cup, simple as that,” co-captain Edel McMahon, who missed last year’s wooden spoon campaign through injury, said when asked about Irish objectives.

“We’ve spoken as a squad and that is what we are desperate to achieve, World Cup qualification. That is so important for us.”

Wales, Scotland renew tight rivalry

Arguably the standout match of the opening weekend will be the middle one, as Wales and Scotland go head-to-head at Cardiff Arms Park.

Wales will be determined to hold onto their place in WXV 1 and maintain the progress they have made over the last two years with a third successive top-three finish in the Women’s Six Nations.

However, Scotland head into the Championship on a six-match winning run – their best sequence of form in more than two decades – and with the confidence that comes from pipping Italy to the WXV 2 title in October.

Making the step up to WXV 1 is a logical target this year and we will have an idea of where both teams stand following the final whistle in Cardiff.

This has been one of the most keenly contested fixtures in the recent women’s test history, with six of the sides’ last eight meetings in all competitions being decided by seven points or fewer.

And although Wales have won the last three, they needed a late Ffion Lewis try to secure a come-from-behind 24-19 victory at Cardiff Arms Park during the 2022 Women’s Six Nations.

Whoever comes out on top will take huge confidence into the rest of the tournament, but there will still be plenty of work to be done – for Scotland especially, who only have two home matches this year, against perennial favourites France and England.

“Up in Scotland we’re really excited at the minute just about the interest,” Scotland captain Rachel Malcolm said.

“We're probably gonna have record crowds for both our home games. [There’s the] potential to sell out a stadium for the first time and that's what we've been pushing towards for so long, is to inspire more people in Scotland to take interest in the women's side and inspire more people to get involved.

“So, I think that little bit of excitement has added another layer to this year. But also, I think the squad that we've got going into this Championship is probably the strongest squad I've been a part of with Scotland.”

Last updated: Mar 22, 2024, 6:26:49 AM
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