Rugby’s Six Nations Championship returns this weekend for the 2023 tournament, with some faces old and new leading the teams.
Steve Borthwick faces his first match in charge of England following Eddie Jones’ departure after the Autumn Nations Cup last year, with Scotland the visitors to Twickenham for this year’s Calcutta Cup match on Saturday.
Warren Gatland returns as Wales head coach after a poor run of results for Wayne Pivac saw his tenure ended last autumn. Gatland signed off his previous stint in charge with a Grand Slam, but Wales face a tough test against Ireland in the opening match of the tournament on Saturday.
On Sunday, reigning champions France begin their title defence against Italy, who may have finished bottom of the table once again last year but did at least end a winless run that stretched all the way back to 2015 when they defeated Wales in their last Six Nations match last year.
Wales vs. Ireland, Saturday, 2.15pm GMT, Principality Stadium, Cardiff
Wales have had to make a change to their starting XV for the Six Nations opener against Ireland in Cardiff on Saturday after fullback Leigh Halfpenny suffered a back spasm on Thursday.
He will be replaced by the experienced Liam Williams, who was not in the original matchday 23 named by coach Warren Gatland on Tuesday as he too works his way back to fitness having played only 180 minutes this season due to injury.
It is another setback for Halfpenny and his Rugby World Cup chances after he was also named to start against New Zealand and Australia in the autumn internationals late last year, but had to withdraw on each occasion.
It is now 19 months since his last start following a knee injury sustained against Canada in July 2021.
“Unfortunately, Leigh had a back spasm this morning and Liam will be playing,” Wales forward coach Jonathan Humphreys told reporters on Thursday.
“I think it’s more disappointing for him as a person. He’s had a couple of these recently. He’s an unbelievable professional and an unbelievable person.
“He’s got to pick himself up again. You feel for him that he’s got to pull out at this late stage again.”
Wales: Liam Williams, Josh Adams, George North, Joe Hawkins, Rio Dyer, Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams, Gareth Thomas, Ken Owens (capt), Tomas Francis, Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones, Jac Morgan, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Scott Baldwin, Rhys Carre, Dillon Lewis, Dafydd Jenkins, Tommy Reffell, Rhys Webb, Owen Williams, Alex Cuthbert.
Johnny Sexton has recovered from a facial injury and will captain Ireland from fly-half but prop Tadhg Furlong has been ruled out of their Six Nations opener against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday.
Furlong has not played since December after ankle, hamstring and calf injuries, but had hoped to be fit to return against Wales. His place in the side is taken by Finlay Bealham, who gets the nod ahead of Tom O’Toole.
“Finlay deserves it,” Ireland coach Andy Farrell said on Thursday. “He’s playing very well, last time out he scored a hat trick [of tries for Connacht against Newcastle Falcons in the Challenge Cup].”
Furlong is expected to return for Ireland’s crucial second clash against France in Dublin on Feb. 11.
Sexton has recovered from surgery to his cheekbone and starts alongside scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park. Stuart McCloskey and Garry Ringrose continue their partnership in the midfield. Hugo Keenan is at fullback, and Mack Hansen and James Lowe on the wings.
Bealham will pack down in the front row of the scrum with fellow prop Andrew Porter, with hooker Dan Sheehan between them.
Tadhg Beirne and James Ryan are the lock pairing, while Caelan Doris is at number eight, and Josh van der Flier and Peter O’Mahony on either flank.
Farrell confirmed the roof at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff will be closed for the match.
“We wanted it closed to sample the atmosphere and keep progressing on our journey. When the roof is closed there is no atmosphere like it. It’s a fantastic stadium,” he said.
The coach also dismissed opposite number Warren Gatland’s notion that this was a “free shot” for Wales as they were heavy underdogs against the number one ranked Irish.
“There’s no free shot in test rugby. Maybe I’ll buy him a free shot after the game,” Farrell said.
Ireland have won five of their last six tests against Wales, but did lose 21-16 on their last visit to Cardiff in 2021.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen, Garry Ringros, Stuart McCloskey, James Lowe, Johnny Sexton (Captain), Jamison Gibson Park, Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Finlay Bealham, Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris
Replacements: Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Tom O’Toole, Iain Henderson, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Ross Byrne, Bundee Aki
England vs. Scotland, Saturday, 4.45pm GMT, Twickenham Stadium, London
Owen Farrell and Joe Marchant will fill England’s midfield with Marcus Smith at flyhalf in their Six Nations opener against Scotland on Saturday as Manu Tuilagi was omitted from the matchday squad announced by Steve Borthwick on Thursday.
When fit, Tuilagi has been one of the first names on the team sheet since his debut in 2011 but he has struggled to show his usual impact at Sale this season, opening the door for the return of Marchant.
The centre is due to leave Harlequins to join Stade Francais next season and so will not be eligible for England after the World Cup but new coach Borthwick’s hand was forced somewhat by injuries to Henry Slade, Elliot Daly and Dan Kelly.
The only time Smith, Farrell and Marchant have played together for England was in the 30-28 defeat to Australia in the first of a three-test series in Perth in July 2022 — after which Marchant was dropped and subsequently overlooked by former coach Eddie Jones.
Max Malins, another player recalled by Borthwick after being discarded by Jones despite topping the Premiership try-scoring charts last season, starts on the right wing.
London Irish’s Ollie Hassell-Collins will make his international debut on the left. Freddie Steward is at fullback, with Jack van Poortvliet starting at scrumhalf ahead of Leicester team mate Ben Youngs.
In the back row Ben Curry will make his first England start, after a replacement appearance in 2021, and Lewis Ludlam will play at number six with Alex Dombrandt at number eight.
Ollie Chessum will partner Maro Itoje at lock with Nick Isiekwe on the bench. Meanwhile prop Dan Cole, whose last appearance was in the 2019 World Cup final defeat to South Africa, is also on the bench.
“Marcus and Owen is the right combination for this game and Joe Marchant at 13 works really well with Marcus,” Borthwick told reporters. “You see how those two connect, both will ball in hand and the great attacking kicks that Marcus has and the way Joe finds those.
“Some of England’s best performances have been with Owen in the 12 shirt and he has talked to me in the past about how he enjoys playing with other ball players.
“Ollie Lawrence has played tremendously well this season and we are excited about seeing him out there again because he is a player who has not been in the international environment for a year or two. He has power, speed and athleticism,” he added.
England have lost three and drawn one of the last five Calcutta Cup meetings against their oldest rivals but are strong favourites to get their campaign off to a winning start at Twickenham.
England: Freddie Steward, Max Malins, Joe Marchant, Owen Farrell, Ollie Hassell-Collins, Marcus Smith, Jack van Poortvliet, Ellis Genge, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Ollie Chessum, Lewis Ludlam, Ben Curry, Alex Dombrandt.
Replacements: Jack Walker, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, Nick Isiekwe, Ben Early, Ben Youngs, Ollie Lawrence, Anthony Watson.
Veteran fullback Stuart Hogg has recovered from injury to take his place in Scotland’s backline for Saturday’s Six Nations opener against England at Twickenham.
Hogg, who had a heel injury, will win his 97th cap despite having missed matches at club level over the last weeks in an experienced line-up named by coach Gregor Townsend on Thursday as Scotland bid to retain the Calcutta Cup.
Blindside flanker Jamie Ritchie leads the team in the Six Nations for the first time, having replaced Hogg as captain last year, and is joined at openside by Luke Crosbie, whose excellent recent form is rewarded with a second start for Scotland.
Pierre Schoeman starts at loose-head prop for a 17th consecutive international since his 2021 debut, but the rest of the front row is changed from the side that beat Argentina 52-29 at Murrayfield in November in Scotland’s last test, with WP Nel returning at tight-head and George Turner at hooker.
Ben White has been chosen ahead of Ali Price to partner stand-off Finn Russell while Huw Jones takes Chris Harris’ place at centre. Kyle Steyn is in for Darcy Graham on the wing.
Townsend has selected a bench with a 5-3 split between forwards and backs.
“We’ve gone for players who are in really good form,” Townsend told a news conference from their training camp in Spain.
“I believe we’ll also see a positive reaction from those left out.”
Townsend said leaving Price out had been a difficult decision while Jones gets a nod ahead of Harris because of his form over the past two months.
“There is also an element of cohesion there with Sione Tuipulotu and their form together at Glasgow Warriors,” He said.
Scotland Team: Stuart Hogg, Kyle Steyn, Huw Jones, Sione Tuipulotu, Duhan van der Merwe, Finn Russell, Ben White, Matt Fagerson, Luke Crosbie, Jamie Ritchie (Captain), Grant Gilchrist, Richie Gray, WP Nel, George Turner, Pierre Schoeman
Replacements: Fraser Brown, Jamie Bhatti, Simon Berghan, Jonny Gray, Jack Dempsey, George Horne, Blair Kinghorn, Chris Harris
Italy vs. France, Sunday, 3pm GMT, Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Tommaso Allan has been named at flyhalf for Italy in their Six Nations opener against France in Rome on Sunday as coach Kieran Crowley’s side look to build on a successful autumn international series.
Harlequins pivot Allan will be partnered by Gloucester scrumhalf Stephen Varney, with Luca Morisi and Juan Ignacio Brex making up the midfield. Livewire fullback Ange Capuozzo is part of a back three that also includes wings Pierre Bruno and Tommaso Menoncello.
The latter is one of nine players from the Benetton club in the starting XV, including seven from the forward pack.
The odd one out is London Irish prop Danilo Fischetti, who will pack down with Simone Ferrari and hooker Giacomo Nicotera. The second row comprises Niccolo Cannone and Federico Ruzza.
Lorenzo Cannone is at number eight and will be behind flankers Sebastian Negri and captain Michele Lamaro.
“We have worked well in these two weeks in camp,” Crowley said in a media release on Friday. “We will face the team that won the last Six Nations. We are trying to build on the work we have done to create our own identity and the way we play by focusing on our performance with the goal of showing the best version of ourselves.”
Italy claimed a first Six Nations win in seven years when they defeated Wales 22-21 in Cardiff in their final fixture last season, ending a 36-game losing streak in the competition.
They followed that up with a historic first victory over Australia in the autumn internationals.
Italy: Capuozzo; Bruno, Brex, Morisi, Menoncello; Allan, Varney; Fischetti, Nicotera, Ferrari, Cannone, Ruzza, Negri, Lamaro (capt), Cannone.
Replacements: Bigi, Zani, Ceccarelli, Iachizzi, Pettinelli, Zuliani, Fusco, Padovani.
Lyon winger Ethan Dumortier will celebrate his first cap for France as the defending champions start their Six Nations campaign with a trip to Italy on Sunday.
As Les Bleus continue their journey towards the World Cup held in France later this year, Dumortier stands in for Gabin Villiere, who was ruled out of the whole championship with a fibula fracture.
Thomas Ramos was named at fullback by head coach Fabien Galthie on Thursday at the expense of Melvyn Jaminet, who does not even feature in the 23-man squad.
Gael Fickou and Yoram Moefana will pair up at centre.
“We finished second twice in a row before winning it with a Grand Slam (last year) but our journey is not finished,” Galthie told a news conference.
“We are going to get better because our team has not yet reached the age of maturity,” he added, looking ahead to the Sept. 8-Oct. 28 World Cup, after the team welcomed the disgraced Bernard Laporte at their training camp.
“Our mission is a purely sporting one. Last night we invited Bernard, because if France organise the World Cup, it’s thanks to him,” general manager Raphael Ibanez said.
“And that’s where the deep motivation of our players comes from. The staff, it’s him, too.”
Laporte resigned as president of the French rugby federation (FFR) last Friday after being convicted of influence peddling and illegally acquiring assets last December.
France: Thomas Ramos, Damian Penaud, Gael Fickou, Yoram Moefana, Ethan Dumortier, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont (capt); Gregory Alldritt, Charles Ollivon, Anthony Jelonch, Paul Willemse, Thibaud Flament, Uini Atonio, Julien Marchand, Cyril Baille
Replacements: Gaetan Barlot, Reda Wardi, Sipili Falatea, Romain Taofifenua, Thomas Lavault, Sekou Macalou, Nolan Le Garrec, Matthieu Jalibert