With a World Cup later this year, England, Scotland and France will be hoping to give their campaigns a boost with a grand-slam triumph, while Wales have something to prove after coming last in 2005 HAVING botched three attempts at winning the grand slam, England's men clinched it in 2003, getting their World Cup year off to the start it needed. In view of this, it is easy to understand that Geoff Richards, the England women's coach, considers this season's Six Nations in a wider context.
"We're hoping to win the grand slam. In World Cup year that's an important goal because if you're not going to win the Six Nations, it diminishes your chances of winning the World Cup."
The World Cup takes place in Edmonton, Canada, this summer and it has given incentive to the teams in the Six Nations to perform well. Running parallel to the men's tournament, the women follow the same fixture list, the difference being the inclusion of Spain rather than Italy.
The competition is vital for the development of the women's game, and for the Scots to play their home match against England at Murrayfield straight after the male counterparts have finished their battle should help to bring it to a bigger audience. Gil Stevenson, the Scotland coach, said: "It's always a thrill for them (the players) to play at the national stadium. What we hope is that they can continue to raise the profile of the game."
That England are playing their home matches in the more humble surroundings of Old Albanians RFC does not worry Richards unduly: "We have played at Twickenham in recent years, and it's wonderful (for the players) to play for their country at the home of rugby. But sometimes it doesn't help our grassroots supporters, because they don't have access to Six Nations tickets."
Venues aside, there are some intriguing sub-plots to some of the fixtures. Spain are in the same group as Scotland in the World Cup, so the result of that tie on the last weekend of the tournament will have resonance. The Scots are probably the third strongest team in the competition, and rather than playing any matches in the autumn, were saving themselves for a warm-up match against the United States last month, which they lost 13-6. Hardly the best preparation for playing France next. In Donna Kennedy, the No 8, they boast the most-capped female XVs player in the world, and the most-capped Scotland player, her 84 caps surpassing Gregor Townsend's tally.
It is always tight between Wales, Ireland and Spain. Wales, who finished bottom last year, have a new coaching team in Fielies Coetsee and Jason Lewis, but are still smarting from their failure to qualify for the World Cup, so will be out to prove a point.
Last year, France were crowned queens of Europe, their three-point win over England being the crucial result. Losing their two matches against New Zealand in October has made England all the more determined to better their second place of last year.
Richards points out that there are some world-class players in the side, among them Jo Yapp, the captain and scrum half, as well as young players blooded recently, such as Alice Richardson, the fly half, who give the squad strength in depth.
Winning is vital, but Richards has an additional hope: "I just wish more people would come and watch women's rugby. I think for the time and effort and quality rugby they produce, it's a great spectacle, and I think people would be pleasantly surprised if they came and watched."
Donna Kennedy is the most experienced woman player in the world with 84 caps
The Times (London, England) (Feb 4, 2006): p41