The 2024 Guinness Men’s Six Nations Championship kicks off on Friday with France hosting champions Ireland in Marseille. The last time either team stepped onto the field was at the Stade de France for the World Cup quarter-finals last year, where both sides suffered heartbreak.
There are a lot of questions as we approach the kick-off of the 2024 Six Nations. Can Ireland become the first side to secure back-to-back Grand Slams in Six Nations history? How close will France run them? And is 2024 Italy’s year to finally show they’re a force in rugby union?
While we don’t have answers to all of those questions yet, we do have a few bold Six Nations predictions on some things we think might (or might not) happen in this year’s edition.
1. Duhan Van Der Merwe to Break His Own Record for Defenders Beaten (Again)
Duhan van der Merwe is a one-man wrecking ball. So much so that it sometimes looks like he deliberately targets defenders to run at – and inevitably ‘beat’ – rather than taking the easier, clearer route.
Back in the inaugural edition of the Six Nations in 2000 Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll burst onto the international scene by beating a remarkable 30 defenders. BOD had arrived and wasn’t going anywhere: for the next 20 years, no one got near this tally of strewn defenders, even himself.
That is until Van der Merwe arrived. In 2021 he edged past O’Driscoll’s haul by beating 31 defenders and two years later he raised the bar even higher by beating 35.
Unlike others, Van der Merwe doesn’t need a lot of deception in his running game, instead relying on hard lines combined with immense power and pace. Defenders know what he’s going to do but still can’t do anything about it.
Even if he doesn’t get his hands on the ball all that often he can still beat half a dozen would-be tacklers in one carry, as displayed in his wonder try against England in 2023 at Twickenham.
Expect him to have that record of 35 defenders firmly in his sights in 2024.
2. Damian Penaud Will Score Tries
Another banker maybe, but France’s Damian Penaud is a solid bet to finish as the top try scorer in the 2024 Six Nations. He finished as the top try scorer in last year’s edition with five scores which bodes well, as well as crossing for 13 tries in his last eight games for Les Bleus overall.
The winger has now scored 3+ tries in three successive Championships, becoming the first-ever French player to do so. Surely he’ll extend that to four successive editions if he stays injury-free.
Penaud is up there as one of the most elusive players in world rugby (we mention another one in our fifth prediction). Since the start of 2021, only Will Jordan can match his try count in international rugby, with Van der Merwe a distant third in this ranking, 10 tries behind.
There is plenty of competition for the Bordeaux man though, not least from his club-and-country teammate Louis Bielle-Biarrey.
James Lowe is another who could be a threat to Penaud topping the charts in 2024 while the likes of Josh Adams and Ange Capuozzo will surely be up there, too.
That said, we’re not sure even the Opta supercomputer expects England to produce the tournament’s top try scorer. Jamie George, anyone?
3. Tommaso Allan to Become a GOAT
Think Italian rugby legends and names like Sergio Parisse, Diego Dominguez and Martin Castrogiovanni come to mind. One name we could be adding to that list come the end of this tournament is Tommy Allan.
Born in Italy, schooled in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire and then capped at U20 level by Scotland, Allan has been around the block for a 30-year-old. Add to that a couple of stints in the TOP14 and a Provincial U19 title for Western Province in South Africa and you have the makings of a unique talent.
Ten points in this Six Nations will see him become Italy’s top scorer in Championship history, leapfrogging Dominguez (162). He scored 11 points, including a try, in his most recent Six Nations appearance, so if he does get the nod in the Azzurri’s opener he could well break the record early doors to take that burden off his shoulders.
One similarity between Allan and Parisse, at least on the kicking front, is that they’ve both scored a drop goal in the Six Nations. There was a memorable miss, too.
Allan is also currently tied with Parisse and Mirco Bergamasco on seven tries in the Six Nations, so if he does reach the points record with a try he could break both records in quick succession.
4. Wales to Win Either the Championship or the Wooden Spoon
A new, young captain leading an inexperienced Wales side under the guidance of head coach Warren Gatland, what year is it? 2012 or 2024?
In 2012, Sam Warburton became the youngest player to captain a side in the Six Nations (23y 123d). Fast forward 12 years and Dafydd Jenkins is set to break that record, aged just 21.
A youthful Wales side – still reeling from the news that superstar Louis Rees-Zammit has opted to pursue a career in the NFL – have little to lose in this Six Nations and Gatland thinks this makes them a serious threat.
“I’m excited about the youngsters we’ve got coming through and what we can potentially achieve. It has always been the case with Wales that you write us off at your peril. Do that and you could get caught with your pants down.” Gatland said to to Scrum V.
This campaign comes directly after a Rugby World Cup, as it did in 2012 when Warburton led his side to a Grand Slam. Can Jenkins follow suit, or will it end in disaster, and a first wooden spoon since 2003?
Wales have finished either first (twice) or fifth (three times) across the last five Championships, highlighting their boom-or-bust tendencies. One win in their last eight matches – away against Italy in Rome last year – in the competition doesn’t bode well for the Welsh, especially with Italy appearing as competitive as ever.
But with Gatland steering the ship anything is possible. We’re not sitting on the fence with this one, so much as straddling it.
5. Marcus Smith to Be the Hardest Player to Tackle
With Owen Farrell opting to rest body and mind for this Six Nations and subsequently swapping his domestic residence from London to Paris ahead of 2024-25, the fly-half spot for England is up for grabs. Steve Borthwick has opted for three options in this Championship. George Ford is still firmly in the mix while he also has a couple of Smiths to choose from.
Fly-half Marcus Smith is a major doubt for England’s Six Nations opener against Italy in Rome on Saturday after picking up an injury in training. With that in mind, Fin Smith could be thrust into the action early.
Ford has been one of England’s most impressive and consistent performers across the last 10 years. A playmaker with an expert boot, he can bring the best out of the players around him.
While we need to wait to see the extent of his injury, Marcus Smith is more of an untamed talent, mercurial you could say, and his full range of skill and potential remains underused by England. Broken-field play is where Smith (the elder) excels, using his deceitful running, passing and kicking game to expose weaknesses in opposition defences and find space that others just can’t.
All three options are relatively lightweight in stature (all 5-foot-10 or thereabouts) but all hold their own in defence and their elusiveness in attack means they can avoid heavy contact. Marcus Smith especially is one of the hardest players to get your hands on in Europe.
Of the 954 players to face 25+ tackles across major domestic club competitions in Europe this season, Smith has the best tackle evasion rate, dodging an amazing 76% of opposition tackles.
6. Ireland Will Win the 2024 Six Nations
2023 was meant to be the year that the northern hemisphere reclaimed some bragging rights, with Ireland and France both heavily touted to go all the way at the Rugby World Cup. Both fell at the quarter-final stage however to eventual finalists South Africa and New Zealand. Another title for the Boks and another four years for the losers to lick their wounds.
Coming into the 2024 Six Nations, Ireland and France will want to reassure their faithful fans that those losses were just bumps along the road, and that with some early momentum, they can start winning trophies again while looking ahead to the 2027 Rugby World Cup.
Not only did Ireland and France break the hearts of their fans last year at the World Cup, they also broke our hearts, after the Opta supercomputer tipped them for glory.
That doesn’t deter us though and we’re sticking our neck on the line again by predicting Ireland will win this year’s Six Nations.
Our model looks at a whole host of criteria and runs thousands of simulations to give us its predictions. Ireland are our favourites, and France are not far behind with a favourable set of home fixtures giving them a slight boost. Either way, their clash with Ireland on the opening weekend could be the most important game of the whole tournament.