This year’s Men’s Six Nations will be missing several household names.
Alun-Wyn Jones and Stuart Hogg have retired, Antoine Dupont is taking a break from rugby union as he turns his focus towards Sevens and the Paris Olympics, while Louis Rees-Zammit sensationally quit rugby for the NFL on the eve of the Welsh squad announcement.
Dupont has temporarily left rugby union to work with France Sevens ahead of the Olympics.
However, it is the flyhalf role which is set to be overhauled in this Six Nations, as the flyhalf ‘Big Three’ have each bowed out for various reasons.
Dan Biggar and Johnny Sexton hung up their boots following the recent World Cup, while Owen Farrell has taken a step back from international rugby to focus on his mental wellbeing.
All three have been linchpins of Welsh, Irish and English rugby for the past decade and more, combining masterful game management with gritty performances to excel at the heights of Test rugby for such a prolonged period.
Farrell has reportedly signed a two-year contract with Racing 92, which means that he won’t be in an England shirt until summer 2026 at earliest. The Saracens skipper has been the recipient of heavy criticism in recent years, and so his decision to prioritise his own and his family’s mental health can’t have been an easy one to make.
Biggar and Sexton bow out in France
Meanwhile, on arguably one of the best weekends of international rugby in its short professionalised history, two stellar careers came to a premature end.
Biggar and Sexton signed off from international duty in rather underwhelming circumstances. In a matter of hours, their hopes of leading their respective nations to World Cup semi-finals were shattered at the hands of Argentine and Kiwi success.
As Ireland entered their 37th phase against the All Blacks in the last-play of the game, there were undeniable flashbacks to Sexton’s 45m drop-goal in 2018, which clinched a memorable Six Nations victory against Les Bleus.
Same pitch. Same situation. Only this time, Sexton couldn’t influence a comeback that would’ve sparked an endless encore of the Cranberries ringing around the Stade de France.
While the ‘Biggarena’ was endlessly mocked by Welsh and rival fans alike, Biggar’s accuracy off the tee was no laughing matter. His penalty from the halfway line to knock England out of their home World Cup in 2015 will live long in the memory.
In an era where flashy flyhalves are becoming the norm, Biggar and Sexton provided stable cores to both Welsh and Irish rugby.
Between them, the pair secured seven Six Nations titles, three Grand Slams and racked up more than a century of caps each for their countries.
Their fiery on-field nature and never-say-die attitude was integral to their captaincy roles during the latter years of their careers too.
So, with the ‘Big Three’ era having ended abruptly, who will carry the flyhalf torch in this year’s Six Nations and beyond?
Sam Costelow (Age: 23, Caps: 8)
The talented Scarlets flyhalf made his first start for Wales during last summer’s World Cup warm-up match against England, and has long been tipped to succeed Biggar in the flyhalf position.
Costelow is set to make the jersey his own in this Six Nations, adding to a long lineage of great flyhalves produced on Welsh soil.
Following the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina, Biggar told reporters that Costelow will become an integral component of the Welsh attack in the build-up to the next World Cup.
He said: “I sat Sam down and told him to make this team his own going forward. I told him ‘my time is over – this is your time, so make it count’.
“I am sure he will because he is a huge talent with a bit of genuine X-factor about him.”
Jack Crowley (Age: 24, Caps: 10)
Munster flyhalf Jack Crowley has been handed the unforgiving task of replacing Sexton.
Sexton played in 60 Six Nations games spanning over 14 years for Ireland, starting in all but four of those, and finishing as the highest individual points scorer in Six Nations history (566).
As for Crowley’s Six Nations experience? Three singular minutes off the bench in Rome last season.
However, the 24-year-old is a young thoroughbred hoping to emulate the pedigree of Sexton and Ronan O’Gara, who had offered Crowley a contract to join him at La Rochelle in 2020.
O’Gara vented his frustration at being unable to lure Crowley to south-west France, who declined the offer to remain at Munster and lifted the United Rugby Championship trophy last season.
“Am I disappointed? Bloody right I am. This boy is a talent,” O’Gara told the Irish Examiner.
Fin Smith (Age 21, Caps: 0)
Smith is the form flyhalf in the Premiership this season for Northampton Saints, and has earned himself a spot on the bench for this weekend’s encounter with Italy.
The 21-year-old has been at the core of a swaggering Saints attack at Franklin’s Gardens this season, establishing a formidable half-back pairing with scrum-half Alex Mitchell.
English supporters will be drooling at the prospect of a Smith double act in the years to come, with both Marcus and Fin set to bring an enterprising dynamic to the England backline.
With Marcus Smith at least sidelined for this weekend, Fin will be waiting in the wings and ready to put a strut his stuff in the Stadio Olimpico.