CASTRES, FRANCE – If 2014 was a watershed year for women’s rugby, then 2015 should be the one which sees this exciting sport really take off – and what better springboard than the most exciting rugby competition in the northern hemisphere?
The French, English, Irish, Welsh, Italian and Scottish squads have just hours to wait before the Women’s Six Nations gets under way, and while there’s a lot to look forward to, there’s just as much to be slightly wary of, too.
Every side is fielding a fresh crop of new faces, and it’s this mix of experience and untested talent that will make this year’s Six Nations one of the most interesting for years.
French captain Gaelle Mignot will lead a team boasting no fewer than eight previously uncapped players, but she’s eager to prove it’s business as usual for the 2014 Six Nations champions. She said: “It feels a bit like a fresh start after the World Cup and that is very exciting. We are really looking forward to getting out there and defending our title.”
Women’s rugby is on the rise in France, and Mignot is quick to point out its popularity, saying: ”We will be playing in front of full stadia, and the French public cannot wait to see us pull on the shirt again and play.”
As for who she thinks will be tough competition, the answer’s easy: “England as world champions will be the obvious target but I think the Irish girls in the second week will be very tough to beat.”
France’s first match is against Scotland at home, and the visitors – led by stalwart captain Tracy Balmer – will be pulling out all the stops to avoid ending up at the bottom of the table again. They, alongside Wales and Italy, will be keen to put on a good show, not just for their growing army of fans, but also to qualify for the 2017 World Cup – and only two places are up for grabs.
Head coach Jules Maxton has revamped the Scottish back line, with wingers Jenny Maxwell and Abi Evans teaming up with midfield pair Chloe Rollie and Nuala Deans, creating what Maxton hopes will be a winning formula.
Three players have made their way up the ranks from the under-20s programme and, if they gel, it could mean the future is looking bright for the women’s Scottish national side. Maxton said: “We’ve just completed a really productive training weekend with the full squad which gave the players a last chance to put their hat in the ring for this opening fixture.
“We’re all really looking forward to getting the Six Nations competition under way now.”
There’s a new look to the Irish squad too, and captain Niamh Briggs, who came to rugby via Irish sports Camogie and Gaelic football, believes her side is capable of handling the pressure a Six Nations competition can bring.
“The Six Nations campaign will be a test of our character but we’ll relish that and we’re looking forward to getting started against Italy and doing something we really love,” she said.
“We want everyone to stand up and take responsibility. We train incredibly hard and have a number of new girls who have fitted in really well. We have a good base of really strong leaders in the squad and that is needed because we have lost five or six senior girls who have been excellent leaders.”
There may not be much information doing the rounds about the Italian side, but they, along with Wales, are in with just as much of a shout of a solid campaign this time around, and their opening clash against Wales ought to be a corker.
That’s because the women in red have managed to hang on to more of their players, with five new caps and only two or three familiar faces missing from the 2014 World Cup line-up. Whether that gives them more stability than the other nations remains to be seen, but you’d be a fool to bet against them.
Head coach Rhys Edwards is confident his will be the side to watch this time around. He said: “The preparation has been going well and we’ve got our new staff in too. It’s the best preparation we’ve had to be honest.”
He’s sanguine about facing the 2014 world champions, saying: “England will be a different team from the one which won the World Cup. They’ll have a completely different side and have just lost their coach.
“It’s a home game for us and it’s one where we need to make things count and take advantage.”
So, England then. Captained by Tamara Taylor and with Nicky Ponsford at the helm after coach Gary Street’s sudden decision to step down, can the women in white continue to be the dominant force they were last summer?
According to new cap Sydney Gregson, the answer is yes. The 19-year-old said: “We have definitely got the talent to go on and win. The ambition is to keep up the success of the England women’s team” and “to keep up the momentum of how they have done in the summer.”
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