The Six Nations brings up a quarter of a century this year as 2024 marks the 25th staging of the tournament and Graham Woods has provided his best ante-post tips.
Over the last 25 years various teams have risen and fallen, and right now France and Ireland, Grand Slam winners in the last two years, are seen as the two who will fight it out for glory again.
But it’s been a time of upheaval following the World Cup last autumn, when both Ireland and France fell at the quarter-final stage, and the title rivals have no time to bed in to the tournament as they go head-to-head in a potential decider on the opening night.
Odds displayed were correct at the time of writing and subject to fluctuation.
The title odds say that there’s a nearly 90% chance that one of France and Ireland will win the Six Nations and those teams meet in the very first fixture on Friday night in Marseille.
Ireland were Grand Slam winners last year when the teams met in Dublin but were beaten the year before in Paris as Les Bleus recorded a clean sweep.
With home advantage again this year, France are the narrowest of favourites but both teams have question marks about their line-ups and it’s hard to be confident in either at short odds.
Player retirement and unavailability has been a key factor after the World Cup and looks set to be significant in this year’s Six Nations.
France have transitioned from the flakey, mercurial side of the past to a real rugby power under coach Fabien Galthie, but that improvement has also coincided with the emergence of top-notch half-back pairing Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack.
Ntamack is sidelined with the same injury that ruled him out of the World Cup while Dupont is not in the squad as he focuses on his country’s Sevens side ahead of this summer’s Paris Olympics.
Similarly Ireland are without the retired Johnny Sexton, who made the number 10 shirt his own over the last decade, and his main back-up last year Ross Byrne is injured.
Losing so much experience in the crucial half-back pairing can have a huge impact in a tournament where one error or missed opportunity can be decisive.
England have also lost their first-choice fly-half as Owen Farrell has decided to take a breather, but coach Steve Borthwick has not one but two exceptional players to call on in George Ford, who has 91 caps to his name, and the exciting Marcus Smith, already a seasoned international at 24 with 30 England caps and a Lions call-up under his belt.
While France and Ireland face that seismic clash on the opening night, England ease their way in with a trip to Italy on Saturday and a home clash with Wales in round two.
They also have a home clash against Ireland, who triumphed on their last trip to Twickenham in 2022 but have won only one of the previous eight there.
France away in Lyon rounds off England’s schedule, which could prove to be a title decider, but an all-or-nothing clash in the final match is preferable to one in the very first.
Tournament favourites France and Ireland are missing key players and will face off in the opening match of this year’s Six Nations, meaning one of the big hitters will be playing catchup early.
With a relatively favourable schedule and strength-and-depth in key areas, England could be the team to rise to the top if the two favourites fail to deliver.
While there looks to be some mileage in taking on the favourites in the title betting, France winger Damian Penaud heads the betting to finish the tournament with most tries and it’s hard to pick any holes in his claim.
Penaud scored the most tries in the 2023 Six Nations, the joint-most in 2022, and led the way for his country at the Rugby World Cup with six, behind only New Zealand’s Will Jordan.
Having switched clubs in the summer from Clermont - where he scored 56 tries in 120 appearances - to Bordeaux, Penaud is already blazing a trail in his new surroundings.
Seven tries in six matches puts him at the summit of the Top 14 charts, while he is also the joint leading scorer in European competition with four.
France and Ireland have been the leading tryscorers in the Six Nations by some distance in the last two tournaments and outscored their European rivals at the World Cup.
Ireland, though, share their tries around more and don’t have the kind of focus to their attack that Penaud gives France.
James Lowe has been their main man in the last two tournaments but scored only twice at the World Cup.
Penaud led the scoring charts in last year’s Six Nations and he is strongly fancied to repeat the trick this year given his form for both France and Bordeaux.
The focal point of the French attack, the 27-year-old will take some stopping.
Wales have been equally hard hit by retirements, including fly-half Dan Biggar, and although Gareth Anscombe has cancelled a planned move to Japan, he won’t be fit to don the number 10 shirt just yet.
Sam Costelow, with nine caps to his name, is likely to start and pull the strings for a young and inexperienced line-up.
Last year’s Six Nations was a tough grind for Wales, as they claimed just one win over Italy, and although they take on the Azzurri in Cardiff this year, they may be hard pushed to improve on that record.
Wales face Scotland at home first up, a fixture they have enjoyed a great deal of success in, but they suffered their heaviest defeat to the Scots last year in Edinburgh, and in contrast to the other teams, Scotland have one of the most settled squads and are favourites to open with a win.
It gets tougher for Wales with trips to Twickenham and Dublin, and it would not be a surprise if they and Italy were scrapping it out for the Wooden Spoon in the final round.
Wales have won just two matches across the last two Six Nations and things are unlikely to get any better for Warren Gatland’s side this year. Avoiding the Wooden Spoon may be as good as it gets.
This article was written by a partner sports writer via Spotlight Sports Group. All odds displayed on this page were correct at the time of writing and are subject to withdrawal or change at any time.