“The camaraderie throughout the competition is something that’s unique and special. Everyone looks forward to a big competition. There’s none better than this one.”
Ireland coach Andy Farrell’s words will resonate with fans who enjoy the annual Rugby jamboree that is the Six Nations. Six teams that have such close geographical and historical ties, who can trace their rivalries back to the earliest games of Rugby Union ever played. Fans book their weekends away in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Dublin, Paris, and Rome, months in advance, and matches are played to the soundtrack of hymns and arias. Former Ireland winger, Dennis Hickie summed up the knife-edge jeopardy of the competition, saying: “ You’re only one game in this tournament from going from a good season to a bad season.” Throw in a World Cup year, and the Northern Hemisphere’s annual championship holds even greater significance.
Since Italy was added to the tournament, in 2000, England has amassed seven Six Nations titles, closely followed by Wales and France, with six wins apiece. Ireland has lifted the trophy four times, with all those triumphs coming from 2009 onwards. For Scotland and Italy, the trophy cabinet remains bare, with Scotland yet to even register a Triple Crown in 23 attempts. The Grand Slam has been completed 12 times in 23 renewals, with France achieving that feat last year.
Off the field, it’s been all change in the coaches’ box. For the first time since November 2015, England will be coached by someone not named Eddie Jones, with his former assistant, Steve Borthwick, taking over. Wales has dispensed with the services of Wayne Pivac — just three years into his tenure as coach — replacing him with his fellow Kiwi, and predecessor, Warren Gatland, who led Wales to four titles and three Grand Slams during his first 12-year stint in charge.
For the first time ever, France enters World Cup year as the favourites to lift the William Webb Ellis Trophy — on home soil — this autumn.
But first, it’s the small matter of defending the Six Nations Championship they won twelve months ago — their first Northern Hemisphere title since 2010. For years, Les Bleus were dogged by inconsistency — the hackneyed phrase regularly trotted out by commentators was: “you never know which France is going to turn up.” In fairness, a succession of French coaches were not helped by having to overcome the attritional nature of France’s domestic Top 14 competition, with a heavier fixture list than other European domestic leagues, which meant French players often arrived in camp for the Six Nations in far less than optimum condition.
Shortly after assuming the role, and with a home World Cup in mind, French coach Fabien Galthié took a long-term view, even bringing a third-string side — who had only 68 caps between the starting XV — to face England at Twickenham in the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup. This foresight has helped France build great squad depth, a point reinforced when they won all their Autumn Internationals, despite having 16 players out through injury.
Les History Boys
In November, they squeezed past Australia 30-29, and narrowly held off South Africa 30-26, before recording a more comfortable 35-17 victory over Japan, who they’d also beaten 2-0 in their series over the summer. This rounded off a year that saw them seal the 2022 Six Nations title with a 25-13 win over England. 2022 was a perfect ten for France, as they became only the third-ever international side to complete a calendar year unbeaten, running their winning sequence to 13 in a row. Another Grand Slam would extend that winning streak to 18, equalling the record for the longest winning run in Tier 1 Men’s International Rugby Union, jointly held by New Zealand (2015-16) and England (2015-17).
Les Bleus begin their Six Nations’ defence with two away matches, starting in Rome, before facing an altogether sterner test against Ireland. After entertaining Scotland, they then travel to Twickenham, before welcoming Wales to the Stade de France.
Unusually, France’s club sides found life difficult in this season’s Champions Cup, with only three of their eight representatives qualifying for the knockout phase. But this is less significant than it would be for other nations, as France’s Top 14 has a lenient salary cap, meaning many of their domestic sides are filled with numerous foreign imports.
France has a very complete team, with a big pack of forwards, including 6-foot-5-inch tighthead prop, Uini Atonio, who weighs in at 162kg, and South African-born lock Paul Willemse. They won last year’s renewal without the services of their former captain, Charles Ollivon, at open side. Number eight Gregory Alldritt, who could have opted for Scotland, was voted to the Rugby World Dream Team of the Year. Joining him in that line-up, scrum-half Antoine Dupont, is arguably the world’s best player, and has been named Six Nations’ Player of the Championship in two of the past three years. His halfback partner, Romain Ntamack, the son of former French three-quarter, Émile, seems to be the answer to France’s troublesome puzzle at fly-half. Wing, Damian Penaud, also the son of a former French international, and Gabin Villière were two of the three joint-top tryscorers in the 2022 championship, with three tries apiece.
France will likely have to do without one of their first-choice centres, with Jonathan Danty facing a layoff with a knee injury, and athletic lock/flanker Cameron Woki is also sidelined. Otherwise, a relatively clean bill of health may mean that their exceptional depth is not tested.
Will Irish eyes be smiling?
Twelve months ago, Ireland gave France the most to think about in this tournament, and the betting market suggests that Andy Farrell’s team could go one better this year. After success in 1985, Ireland didn’t win another Five or Six Nations title until 2009. They hadn’t won a Grand Slam since 1948 but have achieved that accolade twice since 2009.
Last year, Mack Hansen’s try briefly gave Ireland hope of leaving Paris en route to another slam, but they finally succumbed 30-24. Crucially, this year’s rematch will take place at the Aviva Stadium. That loss aside, Ireland was in imperious form in last year’s renewal, comfortably beating Wales 29-7 in their opener, then bouncing back from their Parisian away day by running in nine tries in a 57-6 demolition of Italy. They rounded things off with a comfortable 32-15 win at Twickenham and a 26-5 victory over Scotland.
After being brushed aside 42-19 in their Test opener against the All Blacks, it looked like being another fruitless tour to New Zealand. But Ireland turned the tables with two stunning victories to clinch their first-ever series win against the world’s preeminent team. Those wins, followed by home victories against South Africa, Fiji, and Australia in the autumn, elevated Andy Farrell’s side to become the world’s number-one ranked team, despite France’s long winning sequence.
Ireland has only two home games in this year’s Six Nations but will enjoy home advantage against France in Round 2, and England in their final match. They open their pursuit of a fifth Six Nations title by traveling to the Principality Stadium for a meeting with Wales.
All four of Ireland’s provinces progressed in Europe. In the Champions Cup, Leinster was once more in imperious form, as one of only three teams with an unbeaten record. Munster and Ulster were less impressive but still booked their places in the last 16. Connacht also qualified for the knockout phase in the Challenge Cup.
Andy Farrell’s team had several outstanding performers last year. The Wexford Bull, tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong, second row Tadhg Beirne, open side Josh van der Flier, and evergreen (no pun intended) fly-half Johnny Sexton all earned nods for World Rugby’s Dream Team of the Year. Van der Flier joined Irish greats Keith Wood and Johnny Sexton as the only Irishmen to be named World Rugby Player Of The Year. James Ryan forms an excellent locking partnership with Beirne, and they have so many options at centre that they can leave out British and Irish Lion Robbie Henshaw, who would have been facing a battle to be fit, with Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki the two frontrunners, and Leinster’s Jamie Osbourne looking set to get some game time.
Ireland generally benefits from being able to wrap many of their star players in cotton wool, rather than overplaying them for their provinces — a situation the French could only dream of. This partly explains Ireland’s Six Nations and Autumn Internationals successes, but why they have yet to reach the semi-final of any of the nine World Cups. Despite this, Sexton’s fitness is always a topic of conversation, and once again he faces a race against time to be fit for the start of the tournament, after suffering a facial injury. Nevertheless, another fruitful foray into the Northern Hemisphere’s championship can be expected this year.
From Farrell senior to Farrell junior. Owen will be available to spearhead England’s campaign, despite initially receiving a four-game ban for a high tackle, a punishment which was reduced after he completed a World Rugby Coaching Intervention Programme.
The end of an error….I mean, era
Three years after masterminding England’s progress to the final of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, including a victory over New Zealand, coach Eddie Jones paid the price for 2022 being England’s worst year of results since 2008. The year got off to an inauspicious start, with defeat at the hands of Scotland and, though England “nilled” Italy in Rome, and held on for a narrow 23-19 win over Wales, things went downhill from there. They were comfortably beaten at home by Ireland and were unable to stop France’s Grand Slam party, succumbing 25-13, in Paris.
Like all the Northern Hemisphere sides, the summer brought a measure of success in the Southern Hemisphere, with England rebounding from losing the First Test to Australia to take the series 2-1. But their autumn matches were in many respects a microcosm of the last three years of Jones’ tenure: some bright moments but also many very disappointing efforts. They slipped to defeat, 30-29, against Argentina, before demolishing Japan 52-13. England had looked dead and buried when they trailed 25-6 with nine minutes remaining against the All Blacks before a late revival delivered an unlikely draw. As quickly as the renewed optimism arrived, it vanished, as Jones’ side was comfortably beaten 27-13 by the Springboks.
Enter Steve Borthwick, formerly Jones’ assistant with Japan and England. He will begin his tenure as coach with what used to be a home banker, as Scotland visits Twickenham. The Scots lost 17 straight times away to England between 1983 and 2017 but have managed a victory and a draw on their last two visits to headquarters. England has never lost to Italy, and it will be a major surprise if they fail to beat the Azzurri at home. But then England has trips to Cardiff and Dublin, either side of a home game with France.
It wouldn’t be an England Six Nations campaign without a rash of absentees. Flanker Tom Curry will miss the start of the tournament through injury. Luke Cowan-Dickie — who would almost certainly have been England’s starting hooker — suffered an ankle injury during his two-try performance for Exeter against Northampton in the Gallagher Premiership, while human highlight reel, Henry Arundell is also on the injury list.
There is always much talk of restoring England’s traditional strengths whenever a new coach takes charge, with a return to a strong set piece and an effective kicking game. Loosehead Ellis Genge — Borthwick’s captain at Leicester — will surely start, probably alongside Jamie George. Kyle Sinckler has been the first choice at tighthead, completing a front row that is highly effective in the loose, but less than dominant at scrum time. However, he has missed a lot of game time through injury, which could open the door for the venerable Dan Cole. Maro Itoje is a banker to start if fit, most likely in the second row, where Borthwick may partner him with Jonny Hill, in the area that the coach used to frequent in his playing days.
With Tom Curry sidelined, replacements don’t come much more naturally than his brother and fellow openside, Ben. Tom’s one-time back row running mate, Sam Underhill has been left out of the squad, along with Billy Vunipola. Courtney Lawes should return to the back five at some stage, after injury, and Jack Willis is likely to add to his seven caps, but there are question marks as to the exact makeup of the back row, with Lewis Ludlam, Ben Earl, and Alex Dombrandt in the mix.
At Leicester, Borthwick used the one-two punch of Ben Youngs as his starting scrum half and Jack van Poortvliet as an impact player off the bench, and he may be tempted to do the same for the national side. Marcus Smith looks set to bring creativity to the midfield. Farrell, Henry Slade (who’ll miss the trip to Scotland), the oft-injured Manu Tuilagi, and Joe Marchant offer options in midfield. Freddie Steward’s fine form in 2022 saw him chosen in the world team of the year but the other two spots in the back three are up in the air with the likes of Jonny May and Jack Nowell not chosen for the squad, and Arundell injured. Their loss could be uncapped Oliie Hassell-Collins’ gain.
It was a tale of two pools for England’s Champions Cup contingent. Pool A saw Exeter, Saracens, Harlequins, and Gloucester progress, while Pool B saw only Leicester survive, with Sale, London Irish, and Northampton eliminated.
Feast or famine in the valleys? It’s all about the green, green grass of home
Across the Severn Bridge, for Wales it’s been feast or famine in recent Six Nations. After winning the trophy in 2019, they fell to fifth in the table the following year. A year later they won the title again but followed that up with fifth spot once more.
2022 saw Wales complete the unenviable double of losing to both Italy and Georgia in the same year. Twelve games brought just three wins, a disappointing run that eventually sealed Pivac’s fate as coach. Even those three wins were only by a combined 11 points. In the Six Nations, after defeat in Dublin, they were a shade fortunate to beat Scotland at home, and slightly unlucky to lose away to England. An improved performance nearly conjured an unlikely win against France, but that was only the prelude to a humiliating 22-21 loss to Italy. Wales blew a 15-point half-time lead in the First Test in South Africa but rallied to take the second 13-12. But with the series on the line, they tamely succumbed 30-14 in the decider. Wales shipped 55 points in defeat against New Zealand before recording their only success during the November fixtures, a 20-13 victory over Argentina. They then became the second Tier 1 nation ever to lose to Georgia, in a humbling 13-12 reversal before ending their year with a 39-34 defeat at the hands of the Wallabies.
If the formbook offers little encouragement for Wales, perhaps the return of Gatland as coach provides cause for optimism. Re-hiring Gatland is likely to mark a return to Warrenball, Gatland’s preference for a style of play based around the crash-ball. Their front row has its limitations, but hooker Ken Owens brings leadership and experience. Those two positives couldn’t be better exemplified than by 155-test veteran and captain, the talismanic lock Alun Wyn Jones, the most capped player in Test Match history. Wales have depth alongside Jones in the second row, and plentiful options in the back row and at scrum-half, so much so that they can afford to leave out former England Under-20 World Cup winner, Ross Moriarty. His fellow British and Irish Lion, Taulupe Faletau has strong claims to start, as does Justin Tipuric. Tomos Williams may be a short head in front of the other options at nine and is likely to be partnered by Dan Biggar. Wales can call upon former Lions George North and Liam Williams in the backline, though flyer Louis Rees-Zammit will miss the start of the tournament through injury.
A very odd year
The tournament’s schedule alternates which teams have three home games and two away fixtures. Wales has won three of the past five renewals in the format adopted in odd-numbered years. They only have two home games and three on the road, but one of those away matches is against Italy. In 2019, this slate of games led Gatland to correctly forecast: “we can win it, given we have home games against England and Ireland.”
There are few clues from the performance of the Welsh provinces in the Champions Cup, with only one of the Welsh regions having qualified, but the Ospreys progressed from Pool B. For the national side, three or more wins would probably be considered a successful tournament. In Wales, Sir Graham Henry was called The Great Redeemer, after reviving Welsh fortunes at the turn of the century. Gatland has considerable credit in the bank after his first stint in charge, but whether he can lead the Dragons to redemption after their nadir in 2022, remains to be seen.
Laying ghosts to rest in the Scottish play
Wales has found itself being passed by Scotland in the latest world rankings. After many years in the doldrums, the Scots have registered some more encouraging results in recent seasons, including two years ago when they recorded a first win at Twickenham since 1983. In November, they even flattered that they might achieve a first victory against New Zealand in 117 years. Having led 14-0 early on, they still had a nine-point advantage before conceding two late tries. Scotland has finished fourth in three straight championships and, despite recent near misses against Southern Hemisphere opponents, those efforts represent an uptick in performance compared to the years between 2004 and 2015, when they ended up with the Wooden Spoon four times.
Gregor Townsend’s team found themselves on either end of 20-17 scorelines to start last year’s Guinness Six Nations, a win over England, and a defeat in Wales. On either side of a victory over Italy, Scotland will have been disappointed that they weren’t more competitive at home to France, or in Dublin. The Scots rallied from a 26-18 loss in the First Test on their tour to Argentina to win the second, before losing the decider, a loss they avenged in the autumn. Though they also beat Fiji, elsewhere it was a case of what might have been, with that missed opportunity against the All Blacks, and a 16-15 loss to Australia.
Scotland has well and truly laid the ghost of previous Twickenham visits to rest and will approach their visit to TW2 with optimism. After that, Scotland welcome Wales to Murrayfield, before the daunting task of facing France away. Gregor Townsend’s side has lost their last seven meetings with Ireland — and 11 of the last 12 encounters — but will attempt to gain a first win over their Celtic rivals since 2017, before hosting Italy.
Townsend named four uncapped players in his squad — well, four players uncapped by Scotland, but Ruaridh McConnochie has been allowed to switch allegiance after two caps for the full England side. Scotland possesses a functional pack but gone are the days when they were desperate to get teams into a low-scoring arm wrestle. Created in the image of their coach — a mercurial maverick in his playing days — Scotland relies on the flair and running Rugby of fly-half Finn Russell and full-back Stuart Hogg — who is hoping to return after an injury layoff — allied to the power of winger Duhan van der Merwe.
Like Wales, Scotland’s Champions Cup hopes rest with their sole representative, in their case, Edinburgh, who have qualified for the knockout stage.
Winners of the last-ever Five Nations Championship, Scotland is yet to repeat that feat in the competition’s expanded format. Recent improvements have given rise to hopes that they might face Italy in Round Five with more than just the Wooden Spoon at stake.
Have reports of Italy’s Rugby death been greatly exaggerated?
Italy’s Six Nations history can be broken down into three phases. In the early years after they were admitted to the tournament, Italy suffered numerous gutsy defeats but regularly covered the handicaps when getting huge head starts from the bookmakers. Between 2007 and 2015, Italy won nine championship matches, including two victories against France and their only win over Ireland. In both 2007 and in 2013 they won two games. From 2016 onwards, they have won just once in 35 Six Nations outings.
It seems Italy always begins its Six Nations campaign amid a backdrop of people questioning if they should be saying arrivederci to the tournament. Since the Six Nations was expanded to incorporate the Azzurri, Italy has ended up with the Wooden Spoon in 17 of the 23 renewals. With South Africa’s provincial sides having broken away from Super Rugby, could the Springboks also swap the Rugby Championship for the Six Nations? Even if the organisers want to keep it an all-European affair, Georgia is waiting in the wings for a place at Rugby’s top table.
Their critics were writing Italy’s obituary after the first four rounds of the 2022 event. They opened with a 37-10 defeat in Paris, before being shut out at home to England. Italy was then demolished 57-6 by Ireland and suffered a 33-22 defeat at the hands of Scotland. Heading to Wales in the final round, few expected anything other than a fifth-straight loss in 2022.
With Wales 1/25 favourites, and Italy in receipt of a 28-point handicap head start, Kieran Crowley’s men proceeded to pull off a huge shock, ending their campaign on a high with a 22-21 win. Italy spent the summer facing the top European sides from outside the Six Nations. Although they beat Portugal and Romania, they suffered a 28-19 loss in Georgia. However, after a comfortable win over Samoa, the Azzurri stunned Australia 28-27 in November. Perhaps after such a historic win, it’s not too surprising that they suffered a letdown the following week against the Springboks and were pummelled 63-21. Despite all the poor performances, Italy did manage to claim the scalps of both Australia and Wales in 2022. Nevertheless, Italy now sits 12th — below both Japan and Samoa — in the world rankings, and a Six Nations victory — any victory — would have to be considered a successful campaign.
Their best chances of another scalp probably lie in the last two weeks of the championship. In Round 4 they host Wales, followed by a trip to Murrayfield. Before then, they entertain favourites France, travel to Twickenham looking for a first-ever win over England, and entertain Ireland in Round 3.
It’s to be hoped that Bristol-born Jake Polledri can manage to play a sequence of games, after a wretched run of luck with injuries. When available, Polledri has been one of the bright spots for Italy. A few years ago, Tom Allan — who would also have qualified for Scotland — changed his name to Tommaso, as a sign of his allegiance to the Azzurri. He and Welsh-born Stephen Varney may well form the Italy’s halfback pairing. Paolo Garbisi may have recovered from injury in time to see action in their opener against France, but his lack of recent game time will likely give Allan a chance to add to his 66 caps.
Matteo Minozzi has been one of Italy’s stars when he has been available, but injuries have restricted the winger/fullback to just 24 Italian caps. Monty Ioane, who started all five of Italy’s matches in the championship last year, isn’t eligible following his move to Super Rugby team, the Melbourne Rebels. So, despite the return of Polledri and Minozzi after injury, Italy has an inexperienced squad, with several absentees. Only Allan has recorded 50 caps and the initial Six Nations squad contained 15 players with eight or fewer international appearances to their name and four who have yet to represent their country. All four of those are front-row or second-row players — areas where experience usually pays dividends.
Italy has also been denied the opportunity for their players to gain further top-level experience in the Champions Cup, as the Italian United Rugby Championship teams failed to qualify. While Italy looks to add to their 25 wins against Tier One nations, the tournament’s other sides will all have loftier ambitions.
A tournament unlike any other
The arrival of the Six Nations signals that winter is nearly over and spring can’t be far away, and this year, the Rugby World Cup is on the horizon. The Six Nations is a tournament so steeped in history. There was Scott Gibbs’ last-minute try for Wales, denying England a Grand Slam in the dying minutes at Wales’ makeshift “home”, Wembley, in 1999. Ten years later, after a Ronan O’Gara drop goal had looked to have secured their first Grand Slam in 61 years, Ireland still had to watch as Wales Stephen Jones’ injury-time penalty fell just short of the posts.
If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything
The competition is full of evocative moments, like David Sole leading Scotland out against England in 1990, at a slow, solemn march that gained a psychological advantage in the Grand Slam decider before a ball was kicked. With his team having lined up on the side reserved for Ireland’s XV, Martin Johnson famously refused to move, even forcing Irish President Mary McAleese to walk across the grass rather than the red carpet, as he and England stood their ground in the title decider of 2003. In 1972, at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales refused to travel south of the border to Dublin, amid security fears. England was a poor outfit when they were due to play at Lansdowne Road a year later. Despite all the security concerns, England elected to face Ireland, in Dublin, leading their captain, John Pullin, to say: “We might not be any good, but at least we turned up.” On taking the field, England received a standing ovation from the Lansdowne Road crowd. It showed how much things had changed across the Irish Sea when 34 years later, Croke Park, that bastion of GAA sport, and the place where British forces had massacred Irish players and spectators in 1920, would bend its own rules to host England, of all teams, in the Six Nations of 2007.
In 2003, England laid down a huge marker with a 42-6 drubbing of Ireland in the Six Nations. Eight months later, Jonny Wilkinson’s right boot sealed the Northern Hemisphere’s only World Cup triumph. Will another European side use the Six Nations as a springboard to global glory? The journey starts here.