Ahead of the first women's Six Nations were every single team is officially professional, Ali Donnelly and John Birch take a look at how each side is shaping up.
With all teams now featuring contracted players, in theory this Six Nations should be a step up in quality, with the vast majority of players benefitting from the same training time, rest and recovery.
Though England have failed to win the Championship in the immediate year following the last two World Cups, they still start the competition as favourites.
With a coaching team that will be dismantled at the end of the competition, and injuries and absences to key players, this Six Nations will also be a fascinating period to observe how England both bounce back from disappointment and cope during a period of flux.
That they have the best strength in depth to deal with any setbacks is undoubted, and the fact that they play their toughest game against France at home in front of what should be a world record crowd, means they are still the team to beat.
England were criticised in New Zealand for perhaps over relying on their power up front – but with a lineout as good as theirs and the same coaches at the helm, whether they will look to change that style will be just one aspect of interest.
The other might be how Simon Middleton seeks to replace Zoe Harrison at fly half, with the most likely candidate Saracens' Holly Aitchison with Amber Reed supporting her at inside centre. That will at least immediately force England to change how they approach their attack with Natasha Hunt - arguably the best player in this year's Premier 15s so far - also surely being given another chance at scrumhalf.
Other injuries rule out Emily Scarratt, Hannah Botterman and Vickii Cornborough but there is excitement about the opportunities for game time for new faces like Hannah Sims and Ellie Rugman while Sadia Kabeya and Maud Muir are among the rising stars.
With Sarah Hunter retiring after the first game, expect Alex Matthews to continue her blistering form in the backrow from the World Cup and expect most teams to struggle against the English juggernaut.
Odd-numbered years have never been good for the French, and coming on the back of a World Cup that saw the final appearances of a slew of legendary players, including Laure Sansus, Céline Ferer, Marjorie Mayans and Safi N’Diaye, as well as injury to Madoussou Fall, this could be a tough year.
In addition, fly-half Caroline Drouin and wing Joanna Grisez will likely miss the tournament due to sevens duties, though Audrey Forlani, Cyrielle Banet and Caroline Boujard – who all missed selection for the World Cup – all return, with Forlani handed the captaincy.
That World Cup itself was arguably France’s best ever performance as they came within a single kick of reaching the final, so, despite this being the start of a rebuilding phase, there remains optimisim in French rugby circles about where the team is going.
The tournament opens though with France’s great banana-skin match – Italy away - where the French have not won since 2017.
In short, don’t assume that France will sail unbeaten into a titanic tournament decider at Twickenham at the end of April - there is a lot to play for in what will inevitably be an untried team.
There is also a new coaching partnership after Thomas Darracq left due to family reasons, with former captain Gaëlle Mignot joined by David Ortiz.
"This is the first selection of a new partnership with David, it's an important moment and we have worked hard over the last two months to build this squad and staff,” Mignot said this week.
“The objective for this tournament is to lay solid foundations for our game and to grow together over the course of the matches. And we will have to be in the best possible conditions when it comes to the last game against England at Twickenham.”
If Scotland do anything in this Six Nations it must be to not just break a losing run, but break a run of losing narrowly.
Scotland have lost their last nine tests since their win against Colombia in February last year, and astonishingly – six of those nine defeats have been by seven points or fewer, including five in a run between their 20-13 loss to Italy in the Six Nations and their 14-12 loss to Australia in the World Cup.
To lose the occasional game by a single score is not unusual – it’s sport - but when a team just fails to get over the line five times in five consecutive games against five different opponents it suggests there is more at play with the team’s mindset.
Scotland captain Rachel Malcolm recognised this at the Six Nations launch when she said that the team had been ‘crying out for’ phycological support, something that is now happening as her team try and stop their losing habit.
And with Wales, Italy and Ireland all at home this could not be a better year for Scotland to turn the corner and turn the narrow defeats into victories.
A big step towards that is that this is now a professional team with 28 players having been given contracts, with three more taking contracts with the GB Sevens squad who may also be available during the campaign. The contracts began in December so after barely four months it may be early days before the results of the investment become obvious, but one thing is certain – this will be the best prepared Scotland team to enter a Six Nations.
More good news came with The Thistles – Scotland’s Celtic Challenge Development XV. They and the WRU Development XV both lost to the all-conquering Irish Combined Provinces, but after a typically Scottish 27-29 defeat against the WRU in their opening game the Thistles recovered to beat the Welsh 21-7 in their second meeting. This will have brought both confidence and helped build strength in depth.
They are not without injuries though with Jade Konkel and Sarah Bonar among those missing this weekend while brilliant centre Hannah Smith has retired.
Problems off the field for the WRU have not provided a helpful background for Wales’ preparations for this year’s Six Nations, but on it there are some real positives.
Wales stole a lead over rivals Scotland, Wales and Italy last year when the announced 12 professional contracts, later expanded to 29 for the World Cup. And at the start of this month 25 new contracts were awarded for the next 12 months.
It was said at the time that the new contracts came too close to the start of the 2022 Six Nations to have an impact, though Wales performed well with wins against Scotland and Ireland, and suffered a defeat to Italy by just two points. They went on to have a creditable World Cup, despite a tough draw that saw them meet New Zealand twice, reaching the quarter-finals and coming close to beating Australia in their final pool game.
With a core of players with a year of professional rugby under their belts, Wales will be looking to perform at least as well again, sufficient to confirm a place in WXV2 later in the year, with a chance of WXV1.
However, the calendar makes that ambition a tougher ask than last year (and next), with only England and Ireland at home. Wales have not won more than one away game in a Six Nations since 2013.
Ioan Cunningham, Wales Women's Senior Head Coach remains careful in again emphasising that he sees the development of the Welsh team as a long term project:
"Our aim this year will be to continue to build on the improvements we made in 2022. We've made progress but we are very aware that all the other nations are also developing with contracts and full-time programmes so it's vital to keep moving forward.
"However, we also have one eye on developing the next wave of players ahead of the next Rugby World Cup in 2025. It is a very exciting time for women's rugby in Wales."
"We want to put everything in place to create a world class international programme for women in Wales.
Alisha Butchers is still injured, while Siwan Lillicrap has retired but there are some up and coming players to look out for in this Welsh squad, including the exciting Lleucu George who has a fantastic boot and who has been going very well with Gloucester-Hartpury
Earlier this week, the IRFU celebrated the ten-year anniversary of the Grand Slam won by their women’s team in 2013.
It was a milestone worth recognising, but inadvertently also a sharp reminder ahead of this year’s Six Nations of how much has changed in a decade, and how unlikely it is that feat will be repeated any time soon by players in green shirts.
These are indeed curious times for Irish women’s rugby.
On the one hand there has been real progression in the form of contracts, a first Autumn overseas tour and the introduction of the Celtic Challenge competition, which the Irish team won.
But on the other, there was surprise that several of Ireland’s highest profile players declined deals with the IRFU and chose instead to play their rugby outside of the country, while there are ongoing murmurs of discontent from those involved in the domestic game about the general pace of change.
Ireland’s shallow playing pool will be tested this year again, as they have, probably rightly, discounted their sevens players from their 15s squad as the former seek to focus on Olympic qualification.
That means some of Ireland’s best and most exciting players will be absent throughout this Six Nations, but this is something that Greg McWilliams will have expected and prepared for and indeed did as much on last year’s historic tour of Japan, which started well and ended in disappointment.
It means though that there will be much more focus though on Ireland’s relatively new look back line with players like Dannah O’Brien seeking to establish themselves at the start of this new and shortened World Cup cycle.
Ireland were the only side in this competition not to feature at the World Cup so there is an argument that they will come into the competition as one of the more optimistic teams – fresh and generally fit and healthy as a squad and with knowledge that their two toughest games are at home.
On the field, McWilliams will be relying on the experience of those who have been there and done it.
Neve Jones was outstanding last year, while several of Ireland’s key players have been starting week in week out in England’s Premier 15s, despite the IRFU’s desire for their players to be based in Dublin, including the captain Nichola Fryday. The Celtic Challenge Competition gave much needed game time to several promising players and if the Irish can go and win in Wales, they will feel much more confident welcoming France to Cork in round two.
Italy head into the Championship under a new coach, Giovanni Raineri, who replaced the brilliant and well-liked Andrea Di Giandomenico after his impressive 13-year reign ended after the World Cup.
Italy have also lost the experienced Manuela Furlan and Melissa Betoni, who have retired, though veteran scrumhalf Sara Barattin will continue to play and her experience will be absolutely key
The Italians had a mixed World Cup results wise, rarely rotating their squad, but showing signs of strong attacking promise with Beatrice Rigoni a crowd favourite and a standout player consistently – her midfield partnership with Michela Silari remains the cornerstone of the team.
A young team, Raineri will be hoping to get off to a good start against a French team they have tended to do well against at home and then build on some of the positives from the World Cup – which included a pair of excellent wins over the USA and France and some brilliant performances from players like Veroncia Madia and Maria Magatti.
Italy’s challenge has long been living with the big teams for 80 minutes – they are often still in games against England for example after an hour only to fall away badly. Fulltime training is helping to change that and having finished second in this competition in recent years, anything is possible if Raineri can make sure his team moves can hit the ground running this weekend.
Italy are another team benefitting from player contracts this year, with 25 having been awarded at the end of last year's Six Nations. This helped at the World Cup but should be even more of a benefit not almost a year in, with prop Silvia Turani saying as much last week.
“Italy is finally really investing in the women’s game and giving us all the opportunities we can wish for in terms of camps, warm-up games, financial support and nutrition,” she said:
“We are all aware that we don’t have the same means of England and France, but we are moving in the right direction.
“Rugby is a minor sport in Italy, but the male team now are performing really well and that is helping rugby to get interest from people that weren’t rugby fans before.
“I think this will help us as well to get more attention. I really like it when men and women are moving together in the right direction and can help each other."