Brilliant spectacle pulls in record crowds for women's rugby
To celebrate International Women’s Day, we take a look back at 2022, a year in which boundaries were constantly pushed back in the women’s game.
It is only natural that as one Rugby World Cup cycle comes to an end, teams regenerate ahead of the next one.
That is certainly the case heading into the Women’s Six Nations 2023, with each of the squads undergoing at least a degree of change since Rugby World Cup 2021 concluded in record-breaking fashion at Eden Park on 12 November.
With less than three years to go until Rugby World Cup 2025 kicks off in England, this year’s tournament is an important staging post on the road to Twickenham.
That journey will get underway in Cardiff next Saturday as Ireland take on Wales, and the hosts will be without a couple of their most familiar faces.
Alisha Butchers is continuing her recovery from a serious knee injury, while Jasmine Joyce is currently helping Great Britain’s push for Olympic qualification in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
Long-time captain Siwan Lillicrap, meanwhile, made the decision to retire from international rugby following Wales’ quarter-final exit at RWC 2021.
Centre Hannah Jones, who has skippered the team on six previous occasions, has been appointed its permanent captain ahead of the Championship.
“Siwan's been a massive trailblazer of the game,” Jones said at this week’s Women’s Six Nations launch in London.
“It's down to players like that, why the game is where it is at the moment. But yeah, she's always going to be there to support.
“She's not too far away from a phone call, so I'm grateful for that.”
Defending champions England kick-off their final tournament under coach Simon Middleton against Scotland in the second match of round one.
The Red Roses will also be without prop Shaunagh Brown, who hung up her boots at the end of December.
Brown has since taken up a short-term coaching role in the Cayman Islands and will be watching her former team-mates with interest from afar over the next six weeks.
“They’re my girls,” Brown told World Rugby last month. “I’ve got to cheer on my girls!”
Middleton has been involved with England since 2014 and flanker Alex Matthews admitted on Wednesday that it will feel “weird” should she be part of a Red Roses squad without him.
“What he's done for the game has been phenomenal,” she said. “We’ve sort of been the trailblazers of rugby and I think the last two years especially, the growth, we wouldn't have had that without him and his leadership.”
Scotland, meanwhile, will make the trip to Newcastle without Megan Gaffney and Hannah Smith, who have both retired from the international game since RWC 2021.
“It is the right time. I feel like I want to put energy into other things in my life and I would never want to wear The Thistle if I felt I couldn’t give it my all,” Gaffney said.
“I just want to leave the jersey in a good place and I feel like I have done that.”
The final match of round one, between Italy and France at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, features two teams that have undergone changes in both coaching and personnel.
Hosts Italy head into the Championship under a new coach, Giovanni Raineri, who succeeded Andrea Di Giandomenico whose near 13-year reign came to an end following RWC 2021.
Raineri has not been able to call on the experience of Manuela Furlan and Melissa Betoni, meanwhile, after both players confirmed their retirements earlier this month.
“We will miss them,” prop Silvia Turani said. “But we have some new faces that are full of energy and of course we bring this energy to the team.
“That is what we need. Also, there is the new coach, and you know, when you have something new, it's always exciting to start something different.”
Visitors France also face a new beginning as RWC 2021 Coaching Internship Programme alumni Gaëlle Mignot takes charge of Les Bleues alongside David Ortiz.
The co-coaches have had to remodel the squad as a number of players have called time on their international careers following Les Bleues’ semi-final heartbreak at Eden Park in November.
Céline Ferer, Marjorie Mayans, Safi N’Diaye and Laure Sansus have all retired since RWC 2021, while World Rugby Women’s 15s Player of the Decade Jessy Trémoulière this week announced she will do so at the end of the Women’s Six Nations.
“We will indeed miss them,” captain Audrey Forlani said. “They've had great careers, but the new players will be doing their best to move us forward as a team.”