England's setback in 'blank canvas' Six Nations

England’s setback in ‘blank canvas’ Six Nations

Marcus Smith’s hopes of stepping out of Owen Farrell’s shadow in the Six Nations have gotten off to a frustrating start, with the exciting England flyhalf ruled out of the team’s opening match of the tournament because of injury.

Smith sustained a calf injury at the squad’s training camp in Girona and will miss Sunday’s (AEDT) match against Italy in Rome.

England is waiting for a second opinion on the scan before confirming a return date, raising the possibility that Smith could miss additional matches.

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The 24-year-old Smith was the favourite to start the match at flyhalf.

Now that honour will go to George Ford or the uncapped Fin Smith.

Farrell, the first choice No.10 at last year’s Rugby World Cup, ruled himself out of the entire Six Nations for mental wellbeing reasons, opening the door for Smith.

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“He’s not fit for this weekend,” assistant coach Kevin Sinfield said.

“It just happened in training, the early part of the session. Just one of those things. The boys have had two days off for recovery and Marcus, being the bundle of energy that he is, was doing his thing.

“Unfortunately these things happen. We are gutted for him because he’s been amazing to work with and we hope it will not be too long.”

The absence of Farrell and Smith adds to a tournament that is missing several familiar names.

Wales winger Louis Rees-Zammit is trying to make it to the NFL.

France captain Antoine Dupont is preparing for the Olympic Games and a few more are either no longer playing international rugby or have quit the game completely.

It all kicks off on Saturday (AEDT) with a blockbuster in Marseille between France and Ireland, Europe’s top two nations in the world rankings – at No.4 and No.2 respectively – and coming off the disappointment of failing to reach the World Cup final three months ago.

Ireland again didn’t advance beyond the quarter-finals, losing to New Zealand, while host France was beaten in the quarters by eventual champion South Africa.

When the teams run out at Stade Velodrome, there will be some noticeable absentees.

Like Dupont, the France scrumhalf and for many the best player in the world.

He is sitting out the Six Nations because he feels he needs time to adapt to the sevens format ahead of playing at the Olympics in Paris.

As for defending champion Ireland, it’s the start of a new era without Jonathan Sexton, the team’s long time captain and record point scorer who retired after the World Cup.

The team will be led by Peter O’Mahony – one of five newly appointed captains in this Six Nations – but will no doubt miss the excellence of Sexton, the master conductor.

A day later, England – with confidence restored perhaps after defying grisly pre-World Cup predictions by reaching the semi-finals – will open its campaign against Italy without captain Farrell, its most high profile and scrutinised player.

Farrell chose to take a break from the national team to “prioritise his and his family’s mental wellbeing,” a decision that highlighted the trauma that some players, coaches and even referees face in the glare of international rugby.

Later on Sunday (AEDT), Wales hosts Scotland without its most explosive back, Rees-Zammit, who shocked his rugby mad country by announcing hours before the Welsh announced their squad that he was quitting the sport to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL.

With 14 tries in 31 internationals, the winger was one of the players Warren Gatland hoped to build his new look team around.

Not anymore.

The start of a new World Cup cycle can often throw up these storylines, with teams may be resetting under a new coach – as is the case with Italy, now led by Gonzalo Quesada – or a new captain or a much changed set of players.

It makes picking a potential tournament winner that bit harder, though it may be hard to stop the victor in the France-Ireland curtain raiser from going all the way.

The Irish have three home matches after that, with the only other road game coming against England in round four.

It’s a mixed schedule for the team coached by Andy Farrell – Owen’s father – whose recent hiring as the British and Irish Lions coach for the 2025 tour of Australia means he won’t be involved in next year’s Six Nations.

The French also have three home games, welcoming Italy in round three and England in round five, and it remains to be seen if playing its home matches away from the Stade de France in Paris – the venue is out of bounds while undergoing modifications for the Olympics – has any effect.

Scotland’s boys in blue are dangerous outsiders once again, having surprised in finishing third last year – only to fail to get out of its admittedly tough World Cup pool that contained Ireland and the Springboks.

Who knows what to expect of the Welsh, not only shorn of Rees-Zammit but also without a slew of long time stars such as Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny – all of whom have quit international rugby since the last Six Nations.

And England supporters will be demanding more after placing fifth, third and fourth in the last three Six Nations, a paltry return for the world’s richest union.

It feels like there’s a blank canvas this time round. It makes what’s about to unfold all the more interesting.

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