With this year’s Six Nations taking place in the same year as a Rugby World Cup, there are bound to be several players who feature in rugby’s greatest championship for the final time.
In 2019, it was the likes of Rory Best, Guilhem Guirado, Louis Picamoles and Greig Laidlaw playing in their final tournament before bringing their careers to a close at the World Cup in Japan.
Planet Rugby runs down the 12 players who could feature in their final Six Nations before retiring from Test rugby.
Dan Cole may well have thought that his final tournament would have been in 2019 after failing to crack the England squad since the 2019 Rugby World Cup. At age 35, 2023 will likely be Cole’s final year in the Red Rose jersey, ergo, his last Six Nations. The veteran tighthead prop will also reach the milestone of 100 England caps if he does feature in all five Tests.
Centre Manu Tuilagi has regularly been linked with a move abroad and could finally take up that opportunity after the World Cup, which would make him ineligible for the 2024 Six Nations. The 31-year-old has had more than his fair share of injuries over his career and wouldn’t be blamed for cashing in before his retirement. The lure of making the 2025 British & Irish Lions series could keep him in the Premiership.
England’s most capped men’s international, Ben Youngs, will feature in his 13th, and likely final, Six Nations tournament. The 33-year-old could still play Test rugby post-2023, but several young players are pressing him for his jersey, and head coach Steve Borthwick may look to the long-term future after the World Cup.
While Best was the only big retiree for Ireland in 2019, they are likely to bid farewell to several stalwarts this year.
35-year-old back Keith Earls needs two more caps to bring up 100 Test appearances for Ireland and is likely in his final year of international rugby. Earls may continue his playing career with his beloved Munster but could get pushed out of the Test set-up next year if he doesn’t make the call himself.
Conor Murray made his 100th appearance for Ireland against South Africa last November, and at 33, the veteran tactician is in the twilight of his career. His long-time half-back partner Johnny Sexton is proof that he could extend his career well past his 34th birthday, but Murray has stiff young competition in youngsters Craig Casey and Nathan Doak, who Andy Farrell could turn to after the World Cup.
35-year-old prop Cian Healy is another Ireland legend who may well be playing his final Six Nations tournament. The seasoned front-rower has played over 100 Test matches and will likely call time on his international career after the World Cup.
It would generally be safe to assume that a 37-year-old fly-half would be in his final year of rugby, never mind Test rugby, but Johnny Sexton is not your average player and could be the exception to the rule yet again. The Ireland captain could return in 2024 to press on for the 2025 British & Irish Lions series, but surely this has to be his final Six Nations, right?
Scotland prop WP Nel showed last weekend for Edinburgh that he is more than capable of performing at the highest level despite being 36 years old, as he played a full 80 minutes against Saracens in the Champions Cup. However, Scotland are likely to have a new head coach at the helm in 2024, who could be looking to the long-term future of the role.
Sean Maitland is in a similar boat to Ireland’s Earls, with the 34-year-old probably able to continue to play Test rugby next year but could be pushed out of the squad or make the call himself. Still a classy operator on the wing, the 53 Test cap veteran can play a big role in any success Scotland have this year.
Hooker Ken Owens recently celebrated his 36th birthday at the start of the year and may well be captaining his country in his final Six Nations.
Seasoned full-back Leigh Halfpenny could celebrate 100 Tests for Wales this Six Nations, having represented his country 97 times before the start of the tournament. The 34-year-old will question his Test ambitions after the World Cup, particularly considering his recent injury record.
Last but finally not least, Wales legend Alun Wyn Jones could be featuring in his final Six Nations this year. The most capped player of all time will celebrate his 38th birthday later this year and may hang up his Test boots after the World Cup. Like Sexton, Jones might prove us wrong, but this will likely be his last hurrah.