Rugby’s oldest champion kicks off February 4th with Ireland traveling to Wales. While the annual competition always has intrigue, the 2023 edition might truly be the most riveting since the expansion from the Five Nations format. We’ll breakdown the key story-lines for each side in reverse order of their 2022 table finish.
Despite finishing at the bottom of the ladder, Italy has something to finally be excited about. Defeating Wales in the 2022 final round gave them their first Six Nations victory since 2015. The loss of Paolo Garbisi to injury is a tough blow, but the young Italians are growing otherwise.
For Italy, its all about pushing on from their four points on the 2022 table. The fixture schedule provides an unusual opportunity. Home to France, away to England, and home to Ireland is a brutal run for any side, but finishing against Wales and away to Scotland leaves the Azzurri with a chance to grow into the competition. There’s no belief they’ll be challenging for a title, but this is a side that has justifiable belief.
The sense around Italy is a wild dream for the Welsh.
Wales made the shock decision to sack head coach Wayne Pivac after a rough year, opting to bring back former coach Warren Gatland after his run with the British and Irish Lions. Gatland seems unlikely to see out his full five-year deal, but he’ll certainly be leading the nation into November’s World Cup.
Will Gatland be able to tune this squad to his style? Wales has elite kickers that Pivac didn’t like to utilize. Defense and kicking as attack, especially with Reece-Zammit on the wing, provide a path to contention. However, Gatland is starting with an old side for his first match. They could also be a side that looks better in Round 5 than Round 1.
All of that is on the field, but off the field issues cannot, and should not, be ignored. While covering the WRU in-depth is well outside our scope, its important to look at these issues and see the work rugby needs to do as a global game.
Has any side gotten less press than the Scottish? Gregor Townsend’s run coaching the side is likely approaching its end. The team isn’t a wooden spoon candidate, but it isn’t a realistic champion contender either.
Real questions exist about Scotland’s depth, especially in the front row. Even more urgently, who man’s the 10 spot. Finn Russell is set to take the shirt in Round 1, but he and Townsend have butted heads recently. Kingshorn lacks the brilliance of Russell, but he also offers fewer mistakes.
Don’t write the Scottish off. They’ll snag a big win. But fourth looks like a likely finish once again.
If Wales sacking Pivac was a surprise, please sit before continuing.
England made the stunning move to sack Eddie Jones. Heir-apparent Steve Borthwick comes in from Leicester. And Eddie has already taken work in Australia when the Wallabies made an almost equally stunning move to sack Dave Rennie.
Comments out of the England camp after Jones’s removal showed a side that had lost faith in their leader. While postmortem reports always deserve a heaping spoon of salt, Borthwick clearly has the place bouncing. If he uses Leicester as his blueprint for the national job, it’ll be a dramatically different set of tactics than what was seen in the Eddie era. Expect a more physical pack, more emphasis on the lineout, and a use of tactical kicking. This team will use an older style of play but with a modern level of finesse. It could be instant, or it could take time. either way, it’ll be worth watching.
Unpopular opinion: no team has more weight on its shoulders than Ireland. After several quarter-final exits in the World Cup, the Irish want to prove that they’ve bucked the trend of peaking the year before the big show. After 2022, even a slight dip should scare any side.
Jonny Sexton remains one of the best in the world going into his final year. Andy Farrell has his side rolling. If Ireland can win the first two against Wales and France, the championship will be theirs to lose.
If any side has nothing to prove, its this French side. Will we see them at their best?
France is prepping to host the World cup this fall. They just came off a perfect year. The thing they might need the most is a loss.
It’s hard to keep a team focused when everything rolls so perfectly. This team is a genuine World Cup contender. While you expect they’ll want to win the Six Nations, an eye on September isn’t off the table. They may need a loss or a big challenge to tailor the focus for the fall and get the tension out of their system.
Or Dupont could go out and just light up all of Europe.
But this side needs to have its few vulnerabilities exposed early in the year so they have time to adapt and regather before the biggest show of them all.