By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - England go into the women's Six Nations newly-professionalised and hoping to restore their position as the dominant force in the European game.
England won seven successive Six Nations titles from 2006 and have appeared in the last five World Cup finals, losing four to New Zealand but beating Canada in 2014.
However, they then lost their way somewhat as the Rugby Football Union focused its attention, and funding, on the sevens circuit.
So while the sevens squad became professional in 2014 with an eye on the 2016 Olympics, the 15-a-side squad continued as amateurs and found themselves on the wrong side of the competition for some of the most talented players.
That did not stop them completing a Six Nations grand slam in 2017, their first title for five years, but last season they finished second to France.
This year, however, the RFU has given professional contracts to 28 players - the first union to do so in 15-a-side.
World Cup winners Natasha Hunt, Jess Breach and Emily Scarratt have returned from the sevens programme while several others who missed games in November due to work commitments are now fully on board.
The launch of the Tyrrells Premier 15s for England's female domestic teams in 2017 has also been credited with driving up standards and they go in to their opening game away to Ireland on Feb. 1 with high hopes.
"We have some real quality coming back in," said head coach Simon Middleton, adding that the main benefit he was seeing from the early days of professionalism was the rest and recovery now available to his players.
Captain Sarah Hunter said that it also helped enormously with preparation. "It gives us time to go through things that we might not normally have time to get through," she said at the Six Nations launch in London on Wednesday.
"We're very much in that period of building and gelling together – hopefully the more time we have, the more games we play, we'll get better and better, but we're itching to get out there now."
France begin the defence of their title against Wales in Montpellier on Feb. 2, while Scotland host Italy in Glasgow on Feb. 1. However, French coach Annick Hayraud said that there were no plans for his team to follow England's lead and turn professional.
"As far as I am concerned, if you want to be a successful international rugby player you need a good work-life balance," she told.
"Especially at 15s with so much travel involved and so many games. They need to have that passion but they don't need to only live and sleep rugby.
"Around 24 of our players now have a part time contract, so for those who are studying for example they don't have to get another job."
Guinness has taken over as the new title sponsor of the men's Six Nations but though the Diageo-owned brand is involved in some backing of the women's tournament, organisers have decided not to make it the title sponsor.
NatWest Bank stepped in as sponsor last year, also only of the men's tournament, after Royal Bank of Scotland ended its 14-year association with the championship in 2016.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge)