Preview: Six Nations 2023

A Sports Feature by Steve Carey

The Six Nations is an annual feast for northern hemisphere rugby fans, something to look forward with keen anticipation in the dark and the wet after Christmas – this year even more so, since it’s World Cup year.

Tinteán’s rugby correspondent Steve Carey brings us this preview.

As if it needed any further spice, this year’s Six Nations is even tastier than usual, given the location of this year’s World Cup, in France (September-October), offering a reliable form guide to how the teams are faring and presenting them with their last real, full-blooded challenge.

But that’s to downplay the tournament: the Six Nations needs no justification, World Cup-related or otherwise. After all, the World Cup is only every four years, so opportunities are rare, whereas a player with longevity like Ireland all-time great Brian O’Driscoll has played in 15 Six Nations championships. Going by memory, Wales’s indestructible Alan Wyn Jones has played in 493.

So what does this year’s Six Nations hold? (For those not familiar, the tournament begins on the first weekend in February and ends on the second or third Saturday in March. Each team plays every other, with home ground advantage alternating annually.) As I write the first round is already over, so some questions are already answered and others have emerged. Ireland, Scotland and France have all got off to winning starts, leaving Wales and England to come up with the usual cliches of ‘not good enough,’ ‘unacceptable’ and ‘we’ll do better next time.’ And although they lost, Italy will take great heart from giving France the almightiest of scares. 

Let’s look at the six nations, in the order I’ve predicted they’ll finish in this year’s Six Nations. Note: this prediction will self-destruct within the week. That’s why we watch.

IRELAND

There’s no more obvious place to start than with the world’s number one team, featuring 2022’s World Rugby Player of the Year Josh van der Flier, who plays for Leinster, which forms the backbone and close to the majority of the Ireland team.

You know the old movie cliché: ‘It’s quiet in here… too quiet’? Well, that’s the go with Ireland right now, as it has been for some long time. Quietly and without fuss they go about their business, ticking off victories against all (in just the past year New Zealand – twice, away; Australia, England and South Africa) and sundry (everyone else). In last November’s Autumn international series, they won three from three. Of course they did. Trying to play against them is like being expertly beaten up: there’s no fuss, no effort is wasted and before it even starts you know it’s going to hurt like hell. Their vision and decision-making are exemplary, and they wield the bludgeon and the scalpel with equal force and precision.  Not surprisingly, being coached by rugby league miser Andy Farrell, their defence is second to none. Rugby fans will know the exquisite pleasure of withstanding 20 phases within your own 22 metres and then securing a turnover. Well, Ireland fans do, anyway.

Except… the one team Ireland haven’t beaten is France – since 2019, anyway – whom they face in Round Two. They could very well have done, a year ago at the Stade de France, scoring three tries and ending up narrowly on the wrong end of 30-24. This year in round one the ominous efficiency continued, with Wales comprehensively dismantled on their home turf 34-10. Crucially, Ireland scored four tries and collected a bonus point, which may be the deciding margin by the end of the tournament.

Expect: Business as usual. Nothing to see here. Job done, end of chat. Can we just move on please?

Six Nations fixtures to come (dates in Australia): France home (12 Feb); Italy away (26 Feb); Scotland away (13 Mar); England home (19 Mar)

Six Nations prediction: Grand Slam winners (meaning they not only win, but beat everyone)

World Cup prospects: Is this the year? Ireland have never got beyond the Quarter Final, and if they don’t do it now, it’s hard to see when they might

FRANCE

France, hosts of this year’s World Cup, are rated second in the world currently, behind Ireland, and look world class. Traditionally they are known for two things: the ability to pull an extraordinary game, or half a game, out of nowhere; and an even greater ability to fight amongst themselves and pluck defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s as if they’re determined to live up to their own stereotype of gallic nonchalant shruggery. And yet now, somehow, they’ve united under coach Fabien Galthié and you wouldn’t bet against them going all the way at home.

But for the Six Nations, they’re not at home in their match against Ireland. Since they alternate hosting, the rematch of last year’s cracker is back in Dublin, in Round Two (12 February). And though one needs no further reason than this to be glued to the TV at blue o’clock in the morning, it is a match worthy of a World Cup final. Sadly, it’s a final we won’t see, at least not this time: Ireland are in the same half of the draw as hosts France, reigning world champions South Africa and New Zealand. Gulp. 

Expect: Gallic flair as usual, but with a laser focus on home World Cup glory by year end

Six Nations prediction: Second

Six Nations fixtures to come: Ireland away (12 Feb); Scotland away (27 Feb); England away (12 Mar); Wales home (19 Mar) 

World Cup prospects: No Northern hemisphere team, apart from England, have ever won it: three teams have won it at home. It would surprise no-one, except perhaps the French themselves, if this is their time

SCOTLAND

There’s something about Scotland this year. But then again, they said that last year, after they beat England in round one, only to go and get done over by Wales in round two and end up in their traditional spot; and the year before, when the same thing happened. Even so, there’s a sense that coach Gregor Townsend and his players know they can’t keep promising so much and delivering so little – or rather, promising so much, delivering so much and then delivering so little. A highly impressive win over England at Twickenham in Round One sets up a cracking opportunity at home to Wales in Round Two to really build momentum… then they’re away to France, and the whole edifice comes crashing down. Probably.

Expect: All the roar of an approaching Celtic tiger… and all the fading away of a Celtic twilight

Six Nations prediction: Third

Six Nations fixtures to come: Wales home (12 Feb); France away (27 Feb); Ireland home (13 Mar); Italy home (18 Mar)

World Cup prospects: With Ireland and South Africa in the same pool, just getting to the knockout phase looks beyond them

ENGLAND

If Ireland are providing the ominous sound of approaching thunder, England give an uncanny impression of a drunk slipping on a banana skin, which he himself placed there with exquisite care not ten minutes ago. 

You’d have to be an absolute idiot to be sacked within a year of the World Cup, something the English coach Eddie Jones achieved in some chaotic style in December last year. Telling the Twickenham rah-rah crowd that rugby union in England is a game for privileged public schoolboys is one thing; telling everyone you’re ‘rebuilding’ three years on from the last World Cup Final is another. Worst of all is losing, while playing without any sense of identity, while blowing raspberries at the crowd: that’s the trifecta that gets coaches shown the door. He burnt players, assistant coaches and eventually his own platform, banking on his track record of turning on the results for the World Cup every four years. But if the World Cup is fine champagne, rugby fans won’t put up with rounds of flat Six Nations lager for three years out of four. The mystery is why the blazers at HQ left it so late that they made it perilously difficult for the new man, Steve Borthwick, who had all of a fortnight to prepare for round one. (It’s since emerged that Jones has been talking to the Australians about coming home since mid-last year, at least.)

That England lost at home to Scotland is not a complete shock, but the alarming holes in defence suggest that Borthwick is the boy with the wheelbarrow: he has his job in front of him. In a sense he’s on whatever is the opposite of a hiding to nothing, because he’s been presented with a terrible hand. 

Expect: Bitter recriminations. No heads at HQ to roll, and they’ve already sacked the coach

Six Nations prediction: Fourth

Six Nations fixtures to come: Italy away (13 Feb); Wales away (26 Feb); France home (12 Mar); Ireland home (19 Mar) 

World Cup prospects: Anything less than a quarter final would be a disaster, which is entirely possible

WALES

As surprising as was the downfall of the Australian coach of England Eddie Jones, the resurrection of Warren Gatland as coach of Wales the same week perhaps even topped it. Gatland is a coaching genius, who arguably resurrected both Wales and the British Lions, and indeed coached Ireland (1998-2001). But even he couldn’t manage to hold back the green tide, and from here any success will be massively welcome. It’s no surprise the Welsh do such a good line in melancholy.

Expect: It’ll end in tears

Six Nations prediction: Fifth

Six Nations fixtures to come: Scotland away (13 Feb); England home (26 Feb); Italy away (12 Mar); France away (19 Mar) 

World Cup prospects: Favoured with a relatively comfortable group, Wales expect to face either England or Argentina in the quarter final; victory over either would be a major achievement

ITALY

It’s impossible not to love Italy’s spirit, and their glorious last minute victory away over Wales in the last round of the Six Nations last year, their first victory since Moses played full back for Jerusalem, would have thrilled all but the boyos themselves. A single victory this season would be a major achievement, and again only their opponent would be disappointed. They came mighty close against France. In addition, consider this: they did so with no fewer than nine players in the starting line up having played fewer than ten caps. The Italians are coming!

Expect: Frights for the big rugby nations… maybe even a scalp? Wales won’t be looking forward to the reunion, for sure

Six Nations prediction: Sadly, the sixth spot belongs to them

Six Nations fixtures to come: England away (13 Feb); Ireland home (26 Feb); Wales home (12 Mar); Scotland away (18 Mar) 

World Cup prospects: With New Zealand and France in the same group, Italy will surely go home having beaten Uruguay and Namibia for third

PREVIOUSLY IN THE SIX NATIONS…

If this has whetted your appetite, here’s a very brief introduction. The Six Nations, the oldest international rugby tournament in the world, started in 1883 as the Home Nations (Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales), was joined by France in 1910 to become the Five Nations and then by Italy in 2000 to assume its current incarnation. It begins on the first weekend of February, with each team playing the other five, home ground advantage alternating annually. In Australia it’s available to watch on Stan Sport; in Ireland, on the RTÉ Player. The time difference is brutal, but there are replays and highlights.

And if all that leaves you wanting more, the Women’s Six Nations kicks off at the end of March, with the final round match between England and France taking place for the first time at Twickenham. 

Steve Carey

Steve is the Producer and Treasurer of Bloomsday in Melbourne, loves his rugby union and says he can sleep when he’s dead.