History suggests that the winner of this year’s Women’s Six Nations will come from one of three teams: France, England or Ireland.
In the last decade, England have won five titles, France three and Ireland two, with those teams finishing in the top half of the table, in various permutations, in each of the last four seasons. However, England’s return of just one Championship title in the last five years, the Grand Slam campaign of 2017, is something the Red Roses will be desperate, and expected, to address.
The move to full-time status sees Sarah Hunter’s charges enter the competition with more expectation on them than ever before, even though France claimed the Grand Slam 12 months ago.
On paper, England have the trickier of the two assignments in the opening round, taking on Ireland at Donnybrook in Dublin on Friday, while Les Bleues host Wales in Saturday’s solitary match at the Altrad Stadium in Montpellier. The second Friday game sees Scotland up against Italy at Scotstoun Stadium in Glasgow.
We take a look at the team news and stats and facts and how the World Rugby Women's Rankings (in brackets) may be affected by the weekend's results.
Ireland (10) v England (2)
Ireland coach Adam Griggs has made seven changes to the starting XV that lost 37-15 to England at Twickenham in November. Laura Feely and Fiona Reidy come into the front row to pack down at prop either side of Leah Lyons, who switches from tight-head to hooker. Coming into the side behind an unchanged second row of Aoife McDermott and Nichola Fryday, are flanker Juliet Short and number eight Ciara Griffin, who takes over the captaincy from openside selection Claire Molloy. Ailsa Hughes and Nicole Fowley combine in a new-look half-back pairing but the midfield of Michelle Claffey and Sene Naoupu remains intact. The only change to the back-three comes on the left wing with a call-up for Megan Williams. There are three uncapped players named among the replacements, Linda Djougang, Anne Marie O’Hora and Kathryn Dane.
England are bolstered by the return of stars such as Jess Breach and Emily Scarratt to the 15s game from sevens, while Natasha Hunt is named among the replacements. The Red Roses will once again be led by number eight Sarah Hunter, one of two test centurions in the side with fly-half Katy Daley-Mclean being the other. Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 finalist Sarah Bern starts at tight-head prop to make her first international appearance since last year's Six Nations. Poppy Cleall starts in the second row and her twin sister and Saracens team-mate Bryony will be looking for her first international cap having been named on the bench. Also looking for her first England start from the bench is Saracens second-row Rosie Galligan.
- Ireland's last win in the fixture was in February 2015 (11-8)
- England are on a six-game winning streak against the Irish
- Ireland have lost their last four tests
- Ireland could climb three places to seventh if they win by more than 15 points (a gain of three rating points) and other results go their way
- England will lose second spot to France if they are badly beaten and Les Bleues defeat Wales at home
Scotland (11) v Italy (7)
Scotland head coach Shade Munro has made two changes to the starting XV, which last took the field against Spain in January in Madrid. Second-row, Sarah Bonar returns to the fold after injury saw her miss out on both the recent Canada and Spain November tests, while Liz Musgrove is also back. Coaching commitments in Hong Kong she missed out in November, too. Experienced scrum-half Sarah Law, who has 35 caps, is fit again and set to make her first appearance for Scotland since the defeat to Italy in last year's Six Nations. Rhona Lloyd will also be on the bench for her first match back for Scotland since the same match against Italy.
Azzurre coach Andrea Di Giandomenico has made only one change to the team that beat the Scots 38-0 in Calvisano last November. Beatrice Rigoni has recovered from injury and returns to the number 12 jersey in place of Jessica Busato. Full-back Manuela Furlan captains the side for the first time in the Six Nations, on the occasion of her 69th cap.
- Scotland have been beaten by a try or less in their last two tests: 29-24 v Spain (a) and 28-25 v Canada (h)
- Scotland's last victory on home soil was against Italy, 14-12 in March 2017
- Italy have won the last two meetings
- Italy finished last year's Championship with two wins and are looking to claim their first competition hat-trick since March 2015
- Neither side can improve their position in victory, but Italy could drop two places in defeat depending on the margin and other results
France (3) v Wales (9)
France have yet to announce their team.
For Wales, experienced fly-half Eleanor Snowsgill comes back into the matchday 23 but has to settle for a place on the bench with Robyn Wilkins continuing in the 10 jersey. Snowsgill, who has won 48 caps, played four games in last season's championship but did not feature in the three-game November series, which culminated with a defeat to Canada. Head coach Rowland Phillips has made two changes and two positional for Saturday’s clash from that test. Scarlets pair Hannah Jones and Alisha Butchers return to the side, Jones will partner Alicia McComish in the centre while Butchers returns from injury to start on the blindside flank. There is a reshuffle in the back row with Beth Lewis starting at number eight in place of the injured Sioned Harries and Manon Johnes starting on the openside.
- France are on a six-game winning run in home tests against Wales
- Les Bleues have won their last seven Championship fixtures dating back to a 13-10 defeat to Ireland at Donnybrook in February 2017
- Wales won two of their November internationals, against South Africa and Hong Kong, but lost 38-21 to Canada
- In the last decade, Wales haven't achieved a top-half finish. They were runners-up in 2009
- France will hang on to third spot no matter what the result
- Wales will jump two places to seventh in victory if Italy fail to win in Scotland
The World Rugby Women's Rankings update every Monday at 12:00 GMT.
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