By Jon Newcombe
With Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014 just seven months away, the RBS Women’s Six Nations will take on extra significance over the coming weeks with England, France, Ireland and Wales all hoping to make steps forward in their preparations and claim a confidence-boosting scalp or two
Ireland will certainly be determined to prove that their historic Grand Slam success last year was no fluke with captain Fiona Coghlan insisting her side is hungry for even more success in 2014.
The Irish swept all before them in 2013 to not only end England’s dominance of the Championship, but also secure their place at Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014 at the first attempt.
“It has been an absolutely brilliant year for Irish women’s rugby, everything has been so positive,” admitted Coghlan. “It makes you selfish, you want more silverware, and with the World Cup at the end of this year that’s something at the back of our minds as well.
“We’ve got England and France away in the Six Nations, and England, no doubt, will be trying to put things right at Twickenham after we beat them last year. Like all the other teams we’re just going to go out there and try and win every game like we do every year.”
Ireland have won nine of their last 10 matches and will be expected to improve on that record against Scotland, who have collected the wooden spoon for the last three Six Nations, when they meet in Ashbourne on Friday.
The Irish will be green in attire only for the Scotland match with head coach Philip Doyle selecting an experienced starting line-up with one new cap, Saracens’ wing Hannah Casey.
“We had a good win against the Scots last year (30-3) but we will need to put in a similar performance this time round to get a positive result,” added Doyle. “It is great to be starting off the campaign in Ashbourne and hopefully we can deliver a strong performance.”
His opposite number, Scotland's new coach Jules Maxton, has been tasked with ending the country's miserable run of Six Nations whitewashes with their last win in the Championship coming back in 2010 against France.
England, meanwhile, will be desperate to regain a title they had won for seven years in a row – six of them with a Grand Slam – before the removal of a number of players to focus on the RWC Sevens campaign saw them not only relinquish the crown but finish third behind Ireland and France.
The Red Roses had a good end to the year, though, with victories over Women's Rugby World Cup 2014 hosts France (40-20) and Canada, a side they will face again in the pool stages of the showpiece event in the Women’s Game, 32-3.
England will start their campaign against France, who ended the Red Roses’ perfect record at Twickenham in last year’s Championship, at the Stade des Alpes in Grenoble. The French will be without a number of players through injury, including captain Marie-Alice Yahe, although they can never be underestimated in front of their home fans.
“The autumn internationals were really important for us to get back into form and to start winning again, especially in a World Cup year,” admitted England captain Katy McLean. “We did that and now we know we need to build on those performances coming into the start of the Six Nations, it's all about hitting the ground running this year.
“Our aim is to win back the Six Nations for sure but we know that Ireland will be eager to retain their title and we have a tough opening game away to France. It doesn’t come much bigger than playing France in France. France will be desperate to overturn the result in November whilst also wanting to make a point by beating us ahead of the World Cup.”
The final match of the opening weekend sees Italy visit the Talbot Athletic Ground to take on a Wales side featuring three uncapped players in wing Laurie Harries, centre Robyn Wilkins and second row Jenny Hawkins.
Last year’s encounter between the two sides was a tight affair with Wales edging it 16-15 to secure their place at WRWC 2014, pitching Italy into a six-team qualifier from which they failed to emerge in one of the two qualification places. A defeat Italy will be hoping to avenge on Welsh soil.