The 2024 Six Nations gets underway this weekend and holders Ireland will have a new look at fly-half with Jack Crowley named at No. 10 to fill the void of the Johnny Sexton, who retired after the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Sexton retired with a 119 caps after Ireland’s heartbreaking semifinal defeat to New Zealand, and Crowley will be thrown in at the deep end with Ireland scheduled to open the tournament against France on Friday night.
Meanwhile, England are facing an injury crisis after Marcus Smith was ruled out with a calf issue, and Wales must begin their future without NFL-bound winger Louis Rees-Zammit against Scotland on Saturday.
Here’s all the team news and everything you need to know heading into the weekend.
France vs. Ireland, Friday 8pm GMT, Stade Vélodrome, Marseille
Antoine Dupont will be missing at scrum-half as he skips this year’s tournament to prepare for the Paris Olympics with the country’s sevens side, forcing head coach Fabien Galthie to name Maxime Lucu in his place for the much-anticipated opener.
Les Bleus and Ireland will play in Marseille on Friday for their first Test since both were knocked out by South Africa and New Zealand respectively in the World Cup quarterfinals last year.
Lucu deputised for Dupont at the World Cup when the captain missed time after sustaining a fractured cheekbone. He will pair up with Matthieu Jalibert as fly-half Romain Ntamack is still recovering from a serious knee injury he suffered before the World Cup.
“It’s good for Antoine that he gets out of the frame a little bit. It gives other players some opportunities. Maxime Lucu has always been good, even very good. Now it’s up to him to take up the responsibilities,” head coach Fabien Galthie told a news conference.
He added: “Even without [retired] Johnny Sexton, we’re not worried about their [Ireland’s] capacity to perform. We also want to pay tribute to the fantastic player he was.
Meanwhile, Peter O’Mahony will captain Ireland, although centre Garry Ringrose has been ruled out of the tournament opener with a shoulder injury. Ireland hope Ringrose will be available for their second game against Italy on Feb. 11. His absence means Robbie Henshaw will partner Bundee Aki in the midfield.
France: Thomas Ramos, Damian Penaud, Gael Fickou, Jonathan Danty, Yoram Moefana, Matthieu Jalibert, Maxime Lucu, Gregory Alldritt (captain), Charles Ollivon, Francois Cros, Paul Willemse, Paul Gabrillagues, Uini Atonio, Peato Mauvaka, Cyril Baille.
Replacements: Julien Marchand, Reda Wardi, Dorian Aldegheri, Romain Taofifenua, Cameron Woki, Paul Boudehent, Nolann Le Garrec, Louis Bielle-Biarrey.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Calvin Nash, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, James Lowe, Jack Crowley, Jamison Gibson-Park, Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony, Tadhg Beirne, Joe McCarthy, Tadhg Furlong, Dan Sheehan, Andrew Porter .
Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, James Ryan, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Ciaran Frawley.
Italy vs. England, Saturday 2.15pm GMT, Stadio Olimpico, Rome
England are suffering from early selection issues after Marcus Smith was ruled out, with Owen Farrell unavailable due to a “health break” and George Ford returning from a knee injury.
Smith limped out of England training on Monday with a calf injury and was later reported to be using crutches, and defensive coach Kevin Sinfield confirmed on Tuesday that he will miss the opening game.
It means Borthwick could be forced to turn to uncapped Fin Smith at fly-half in his team selection on Thursday.
Smith is the latest addition to England’s injury list, with centres Ollie Lawrence and Oscar Beard and hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie already ruled out.
Wales vs. Scotland, Saturday 4.45pm GMT, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff