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Six Nations 2024 talking points, from England’s wing debate to Italy’s new coach

The Six Nations returns with a lot of intrigue as teams get ready for the championship.

France are without world-class scrum-half Antoine Dupont, as he switches his focus to the sevens format ahead of this summer’s Paris Olympics.

Meanwhile England, Ireland and Wales are all reeling from the losses of veteran fly-halves with Owen Farrell, Johnny Sexton and Dan Biggar either retiring or taking a break from international duty.

Throw in a new coach for Italy in the form of Gonzalo Quesada and the 2024 edition looks set to usher in not just a raft of new faces, but a new era entirely.

England

England head in to the tournament as favourites having reached the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup last year, but also with a few problems of their own.

Jamie George wears the captain’s armband for the first time in the absence of his Saracens teammate Farrell, while England welcome new faces including Exeter duo Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and Ethan Roots.

Head coach Steve Borthwick has seen his loosehead options depleted due to injury and suspension while he is likely to be scratching his head about what to do on the wing.

However, Ellis Genge’s recovery from a hamstring injury comes as a much-needed boost following Mako Vunipola’s retirement from international rugby.

France

France’s dream of winning a World Cup on home soil may have ended in disappointment, but they will no doubt be keen to put the quarter-final defeat to South Africa behind them.

There will be no better time to action this than during their first game on 2 February against none other than Ireland, over whom they have a 58 per cent historic win rate.

In the absence of Dupont, Gregory Aldritt has big boots to fill in his new role as captain.

France head coach Fabien Galthie had time – albeit unwanted – to test combinations without Dupont after he suffered a broken cheekbone during the group stages of the World Cup.

Giving young talent a chance to find their footing – namely 20-year-old wing Louis Bielle-Biarrey – could prove a major advantage as all six sides have named uncapped players in their squads.

Ireland

The Irish story of the last 12 months is a bittersweet one.

Having lifted last year’s trophy they entered the World Cup as Grand Slam champions, only to fall victim to their quarter-final curse against New Zealand.

Despite giving the All Blacks a good run for their money, they failed to find another gear, forcing them to go home empty-handed.

Sexton’s absence is one of a series of blows head coach Andy Farrell must navigate, as Mack Hansen, Dave Kilcoyne, Jimmy O’Brien and Rob Herring are all ruled out through injury.

However, while Sexton’s departure is undoubtedly a big loss, as the saying goes, when one door closes, another door opens. For Ireland, that opportunity has presented itself to the likes of Jack Crowley, Harry Byrne and Ciaran Frawley, who have a total of 12 caps combined.

Farrell’s faith in the younger members of the squad seemingly serves as a welcoming nod to the new era of Irish rugby we might be about to witness.

Scotland

Lumbered with both Ireland and South Africa in their pool, Scotland’s World Cup run ended prematurely as they failed to make it out of the group stages.

However, while most of their rivals continue to navigate a period of transition, their stability may provide them with a unique opportunity for success this year.

Gregor Townsend has opted for a largely predictable squad, but one with experience in spades as regular starters Finn Russell and Duhan van der Merwe offer dynamism and a depth of skill.

The Bravehearts’ squad contains 15 players from Glasgow Warriors and 13 from Edinburgh, further emphasising the potential to build on established relationships in the squad.

Townsend has also included four uncapped players in his squad for the first time, including former England prop Alec Hepburn – brace yourself for the Calcutta Cup clash with England on 24 February.

Always the bridesmaid never the bride, the transition phase of many of the other teams should be something Scotland are primed and ready to take advantage of in the months ahead.

Wales

The talking point of all talking points for The Dragons follows 22-year-old Louis Rees-Zammit’s surprise departure from rugby union.

In a career about-turn, the Penarth-born flyer’s announcement that he is set to join the NFL’s International Player Pathway for National Football League hopefuls leaves a glaring absence in the Welsh squad.

With a top speed of 24mph earning him the nickname “Rees Lightning”, Wales have lost a player with both the flair and unrivalled pace to add to the try tally when it counts the most.

Losing one man in what should be a 35 player line-up three weeks before a major tournament would be enough to cause any head coach a headache.

Translate that into losing the man who started every match in Wales’ route to the World Cup quarter-finals last autumn, and Warren Gatland may very well be left wrestling with acute sleep deprivation in the run-up to their opening game against Scotland on 3 February.

Italy

Having lost five matches from five in their Six Nations run last year, Italy will look to improve on their sixth place finish with, at the very minimum, more than a single point on the board.

The Azzuris will be under new leadership this time around, with Quesada the new head coach for the national side.

This shake-up might be exactly the refresh required to put the underdogs in with a chance of disrupting the usual order of service, alongside the fresh influx of talent brought by the five uncapped players joining this year’s roster.

Among these is Exeter Chiefs’ Ross Vincent, who steps up from Italy U20s, meaning, like Wales, the average age of their squad comes in at 25. This is complemented by the much-anticipated return of back-rower Jake Polledri.

This combination of old and new offers a glimpse of the as of yet untapped potential in the Italian squad.

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