On the whole, the northern hemisphere enjoyed a superb Autumn Nations Series giving rise to the hope that this year’s men’s Six Nations will be the most competitive yet.

Ireland and France enjoyed historic wins over New Zealand as part of a clean sweep of wins and England overturned their Rugby World Cup 2019 final defeat to South Africa and also went through the Autumn Nations Series unbeaten.

Scotland and Wales took the scalp of a resurgent Australia, while Italy will hope to build on their first win under new head coach Kieran Crowley – a 17-10 victory against Americas 1 Rugby World Cup 2023 qualifiers, Uruguay.

WHO WON IT IN 2021?

Wales were a side transformed as they put a difficult introductory period to Wayne Pivac’s reign as head coach behind them to claim their sixth title this century.

Pivac’s side profited from playing against 14-man opponents in the first two rounds as they beat Ireland 21-16 and Scotland 25-24. A 40-24 victory over England in round three was then followed by a 48-7 win over Italy in Rome, to put Wales one step away from a Grand Slam.

Wales went to Paris and took the game to France to lead by 10 points with five minutes remaining. But in a dramatic finale where both teams were reduced in numbers, France broke their hearts to win 32-30 thanks to a late Brice Dulin try in the 82nd minute.

With Wales' five matches finished, they could only sit and wait as France hosted Scotland six days later in the postponed round three fixture. Les Bleus needed a 21-point, bonus-point win to claim their first trophy since 2010 but were beaten, 27-23.

WHO WAS TOP TRY-SCORER AND TOP POINTS-SCORER?

Championship debutant Duhan van der Merwe made an immediate impact with five tries, including a brace in the final day win in Paris, to finish as top try-scorer ahead of Wales’ Louis Rees-Zammit and England’s Anthony Watson and book himself a place in the British and Irish Lions squad for the tour to South Africa.

Ireland’s Johnny Sexton started four of Ireland’s games and racked up 65 points – 15 more than his nearest rival, England’s Owen Farrell. The 36-year-old is now just four points shy of becoming the fourth player to reach 500 Championship points. Farrell is immediately above him, on exactly 500 points, with countryman Ronan O’Gara top of the pile and Jonny Wilkinson second.

ANY RECORDS/MILESTONES?

Yes, quite a few – some positive and some not so positive!

The 2021 edition of the Six Nations may have lacked fans but it produced plenty of entertaining rugby for those watching at home. A record 86 tries were scored across the 15 matches at an average of just under six per game, champions Wales contributed 20 – a new record for the team in a single Championship;

One record Italy will want to end as soon as possible is their losing run in the competition. The Azzurri have now lost 32 Championship games on the bounce, stretching back to 2015. Also, in what was a campaign to forget, Italy conceded the most points (239) and the most tries (34) by any team in Six Nations history.

A rare top-half finish may have narrowly alluded Scotland but a first victory over England at Twickenham in 38 years and a first win over France in Paris in Six Nations history were a couple of highlights from what was widely perceived to be a positive campaign.

England finished a lowly fifth for only the second time in the Six Nations and ill-discipline was at the root of their problems. England and Italy now share the record for most penalties conceded in a single Championship season having given away 67 in 2021.

Red was definitely the colour of Six Nations 2021 – and not just because Wales were crowned champions. One of the standout features of the tournament was the number of red cards issued. Ireland and Scotland each had two players sent off, while France had one. To put that in context, there had only been eight red cards previously in the history of the Six Nations.

HOW HAVE THE 2022 FIXTURES FALLEN?

The top three sides from last year – reigning champions Wales, last year’s runners-up France and Ireland – have three home games in 2022.

In Round One, Ireland begin their campaign against Wales in Dublin, England travel to Edinburgh to take on Scotland in what has been a tricky opener for them in the past, while France will be confident of getting off to a winning start when they play Italy in Paris in the Sunday fixture.

Many pundits are predicting that the Round Two encounter between France and Ireland in Paris could go a long way to deciding the destiny of the Six Nations title. That tea-time kick-off follows on from Wales against Scotland in Cardiff. Round Two concludes with Italy up against England in Rome on Sunday.

After a fallow week, the Six Nations resumes on 26 February with a rerun of last year’s final match-up: Scotland against France. Twickenham is the stage for England against Wales in the second of the Saturday games. Ireland and Italy face each other at the Aviva Stadium the following day.

Round 4 brings together Wales and France for the only Friday fixture in Six Nations 2022, on 11 March. Italy play Scotland in Rome and England entertain Ireland on Saturday.

As per tradition, all matches on the final weekend are scheduled for the same day with Wales and Italy kicking off proceedings in the first of three fixtures on 19 March. Ireland host Scotland in the second game before the latest edition of ‘Le Crunch’ should bring the Six Nations to a fittingly dramatic conclusion in Paris.

WILL FANS BE ALLOWED IN?

It was a crying shame that one of the best Six Nations Championship in living memory in 2021 was played in front of empty stands with the impact of COVID-19 meaning games had to be played behind closed doors.

Currently, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France have restrictions on spectator numbers and it remains to be seen whether those will be lifted in time for the competition’s start on 5 February.

By contrast, no similar restrictions yet apply in England, while full houses are allowed in Italy so long as fans have proof of vaccination.

A BRIEF BACKGROUND TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP

The Six Nations Championship is one of the oldest tournaments in rugby, having been played in one form or another for more than 139 years.

It was first contested between 16 December, 1882 and 3 March, 1883 by England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales under the guise of the Home Nations Championship. France competed in the tournament between 1910-31 and since 1947, while the tournament became the Six Nations in 2000, when Italy joined the fray.

WHO HAS WON THE SIX NATIONS THE MOST TIMES?

Since the Five Nations Championship became the Six Nations in 2000, England have won seven men’s titles — or a third of the tournaments played. Wales have won six, France five, while Ireland have won four. Wales have won more men’s Grand Slams (four) than any other nation in that period. England are the most successful team in the overall history of the Championship having enjoyed 29 outright successes and shared the title on a further 10 occasions since that first match in 1882. England have won 13 Grand Slams since the tournament’s inception, one more than Wales.

Read more: 2021 in numbers: Standout statistics from the year in men’s international rugby >>