The Women’s Six Nations kicks off in Colwyn Bay on Friday night with a battle between the sides that finished fourth and fifth in 2017, as Wales take on an ever-improving Scotland.
The match has the makings of being every bit as tight as last year’s affair, which Scotland nicked 15-14 having come back from 14 points down. Wales have lost senior players to retirement, notably captain Rachel Taylor, and sevens call-ups, and are in the process of rebuilding for the future while Scotland are hoping to improve on last season’s tally of two wins (they also beat Italy at home).
“We had our most successful Six Nations for a number of years in 2017 so we are keen to kick on and keep improving across the park,” said Scotland coach Shade Munro.
The following evening, France begin their campaign with a new captain as hooker Gaëlle Mignot hands over the armband to Gaëlle Hermet. Having seen Les Bleues finish third in the Six Nations and the World Cup in 2017, Hermet is eager to make that step up to the next level and push for the title.
"It was a boost to do well at the World Cup because it gave us confidence,” she said. "But it was also a frustration as we really wanted to win it. We really want to win the Six Nations this year."
Les Bleues racked up a 97-0 win against Spain before beating Women's Six Nations rivals Italy 41-21 in November, which will also give them a lift.
Ireland were runners-up last year but come off the back of a disappointing eighth place finish at the World Cup, which means they failed to qualify automatically for the next tournament in 2021.
They too have a new captain in Munster flanker Ciara Griffin, one of the survivors from that WRWC 2017 campaign, while Adam Griggs comes on board as part-time head coach.
Griffin, a primary school teacher by profession, says they are determined to put the tournament behind them and move on.
“There are a lot of new girls coming off the ranks and into the squad and that is really exciting to see,” she said. “We are looking forward to bouncing back and showing everyone what we can do.”
Saturday's match will be played at Toulouse's Stade Ernest Wallon, with France aiming for revenge for their narrow 13-10 Six Nations defeat in Dublin.
Meanwhile, reigning champions England travel to Reggio Emilia, an hour north-west of Bologna, to face Italy in the final match of the opening weekend.
The Red Roses were 29-15 winners over the Italians at the Twickenham Stoop in round three last year on their way to a Grand Slam triumph.
WALES (7) v SCOTLAND (12)
Wales name four uncapped players in an inexperienced starting line-up – second-row Natalia John, openside Beth Lewis, scrum-half Jade Knight and wing Hannah Bluck – with a further two on the bench in Teleri Davies and Lisa Neumann as coach Rowland Phillips tries out the next generation.
"We've got an average age of 24, so I expect these players to be pushing each other on for many years to come. It feels like a fresh start for Wales women and we're looking to play some good rugby against a strong Scotland side,” he said.
Liz Musgrove and Megan Kennedy will win their first Scotland caps after being named in the starting line-up. Siobhan McMillan could earn her first cap should she come off the bench into the front-row to join her sister Louise in the pack. Jodie Rettie, Siobhan Cattigan and Mags Lowish have been named as replacements and could also make their Scotland bows in the forwards. In the backline, full-time professional Lisa Thomson lines up alongside captain Lisa Martin in the centres, while Chloe Rollie starts at full-back.
- Scotland’s 15-14 win over Wales last season was their first in the current format of this tournament (since 2007), ending a run of 10 straight defeats
- Wales have prevented Scotland from scoring a single point on two of the last three occasions they have hosted them, scoring 68 in total themselves (conceding 10 points in the other)
- Wales lost both their home matches in 2017, the first time they have failed to pick up a home win in a Six Nations campaign since 2013
- Scotland have two wins in their last three games, as many as they had managed in their previous 49 matches in the competition (lost 46, drew one)
- The Scots are still hunting their first away Six Nations win (since 2007), losing 26 of their 27 matches on the road and failing to score in 11 of those games
With more than seven rating points and five places between Wales and Scotland in the World Rugby Rankings, it is impossible for the home side to improve their current position of seventh. However, Scotland will move above Samoa and into 11th place if they begin their campaign on a winning note.
FRANCE (3) v IRELAND (9)
Gaëlle Hermet leads the side from openside flanker in a back row that also includes World Rugby Women's Player of the Year 2017 nominee Romane Ménager at blindside and Marjorie Mayans at number eight. Such is the embarrassment of riches that Les Bleues’ have at their disposal in the back row that Safi N’Diaye, one of their standout players, is pushed forward into the second row.
Niamh Briggs returns to boost Ireland, albeit at fly-half not her customary full-back. Briggs has endured a long season out of the side due to injury but is named alongside Ailsa Hughes at half-back. Coach Griggs has included one new cap in the starting XV with Megan Williams, who has played for Ireland in sevens, set for her debut following a good showing in the warm-up match against Wales last month.
- France have won eight of their 11 matches against Ireland in the current format of the Women’s Six Nations, although the Irish won their last meeting in Dublin
- France have won all five of their home matches against Ireland in the competition, conceding only 11 points per game on average in that run
- Les Bleues have won each of their last 12 home games in the Six Nations, stopping their opponents scoring a single point in half of them
- In fact, in the current format, France have won 24 of their 27 home games with only England managing to win on French soil (three times)
- France have won six of their last eight opening fixtures in the Six Nations, all six victories coming when they’ve played at home in round one
Ireland will move up a place to eighth if they beat France and Italy don’t pull off a shock result against England. Seventh is also possible if the result of the Wales versus Scotland game goes their way. France cannot improve their rating as a result of the six places and 14.22 rating points between the sides, but will slip below Canada to fourth in defeat.
ITALY (8) v ENGLAND (2)
Italy will not announce their match-day squad until Saturday.
Lauren Cattell returns for the first time since 2016 as the Red Roses prepare to defend the Six Nations crown they won last year. The Saracens player has a familiar face alongside her in midfield in Rachael Burford, one of three players in the backs with 75 caps or more to their name. In the pack, Lark Davies makes her first international start at hooker, while Rochelle Clark is set to extend her record and win her 133rd cap for the Red Roses. In contrast, Charlotte Pearce could make her test debut from the bench.
- England have won all 11 of their Six Nations matches against Italy, those wins coming by an average margin of 37 points
- That average winning margin stays the same across the five matches played between the sides in Italy
- Italy have three wins in their last seven home games in the competition, picking up victories over France, Wales and Scotland in that period
- England won the Grand Slam for the sixth time (since 2007) last season, although it was their first title success since 2012, Ireland and France both picking up two wins and one Grand Slam apiece in between
- In 2017 only France (13 points) got closer to beating England than Italy did, the Azzurre losing by just 14 points at The Stoop.
With just under nine points and six places between the two nations, England are unable to improve their rating even with a comfortable away win. However, any victory for Italy will see them climb above Wales into seventh unless Ireland better their winning margin. The Red Roses cannot slip from second even with a heavy defeat as France will not gain any points for beating Ireland.
The World Rugby Women's Rankings will update at 12:00 GMT on Monday.