Ireland Crowned 2023 Grand Slam Champions

Tinteán’s resident rugby fanatic Steve Carey wraps up a highly entertaining Six Nations Championship

In Dublin on St Patrick’s weekend, Ireland duly collected their fourth Grand Slam and their first completed at home, thanked the hated English for coming, got their coats on and went out for a drink. In the process they saw captain Johnny Sexton overtake Ronan O’Gara’s record points haul in his last home game. Then coach Andy Farrell reminded Sexton: “There are bigger fish to fry than this.” That tells you all you need to know about Ireland: no nonsense, efficient, ruthless… and with a flint-eyed focus on the World Cup in France, a competition still five months away. It’s safe to say success in the Six Nations won’t go to their heads.

When the team of the tournament was picked, Ireland players featured in no fewer than ten of the 15 places, with France supplying three and Scotland two. Ireland have consolidated their status as favourites for the Rugby World Cup in France in September/October, though Sexton’s season-ending injury is a mighty blow.

At first glance 2023 won’t be remembered as a vintage Six Nations: your correspondent previewed it here in February, one game in, and correctly predicted all six placings. But despite a dearth of shocks, there were narratives aplenty and no dud games. The quality of the rugby was high, the styles of play entertainingly contrasting, and Ireland thoroughly deserved their triumph, though had the game against France been in Paris, as it was last year, the result could well have gone in France’s favour, as it did in 2022.

A game in crisis?

Below is a report card on how each team performed. Before that, though, it’s worth acknowledging that rugby worldwide is in serious trouble. It wouldn’t be accurate to say it is in crisis, exactly… because it’s facing not one but three crises. Firstly, there are financial and commercial fires breaking out everywhere – here in the southern hemisphere the latest version of Super Rugby is dull as ditch water, South Africa and Argentina no longer participate and attendances are so poor that numbers don’t get released. North of the equator Wales’s finances are such a mess the players threatened to strike just days before their game against England. Two of England’s top flight sides, Wasps and Worcester, have gone bust, and London Irish is said to owe more than £30m. A government report in January on the state of English rugby was scathing in its criticism, calling the CEO Bill Sweeney ‘very complacent,’ unparliamentary language indeed. As long ago as 1995 England captain Will Carling was sacked for referring to the body that runs English rugby as ’57 old farts.’ Little has changed, it seems.

Worldwide the calendar is overcrowded and top players face intolerable workloads as teams and countries seek to squeeze out revenues to fund ever-expanding rosters and salaries. Which takes us directly to the second challenge: the game is turning itself inside out and upside down attempting to deal with the issue of player safety, specifically brain damage caused by collisions in the tackle. Chasing dollars while protecting safety requires a level of leadership and clear-headedness for which rugby is not renowned.

Here’s an example. In the last round, England fullback Freddie Steward was red-carded for a front-on crash against Ireland’s Hugo Keenan, who went off injured and did not reappear. Three days later the card was reviewed and downgraded to a yellow, causing the world’s best-known referee, Welshman Nigel Owens (now retired) a good deal of head scratching: either Steward was guilty as charged, or this was a ‘rugby incident,’ just one of those things in a highly physical, fast-moving sport. This confusion matters more than in soccer, because 14 players against 15 is no contest and the match is ruined. There is the very real prospect that such a debacle could mar the Rugby World Cup, perhaps even the final. In their anxiety to protect the player’s head, the governing body is losing its own. 

Finally, the rules of rugby are almost impossibly complicated and all but the most rusted on fans don’t understand half the refereeing decisions, and disagree with half of the ones they do, though they almost certainly couldn’t say why. Scrums are interminable, often reset, and too often ending with one side penalised for some infringement the referee may have just made up to put us all out of our misery. There are too many substitutions, and advantage can drag on for far too long, enabling a team to play on, risk-free, for an age and then go back to take a penalty for some barely-remembered misdemeanour. And rugby, like every other sport, is having to come to terms with the use of replays to make decisions, making all but the most straightforward of tries only provisionally exciting. There then ensues 15 inconclusive replays, after which the referee’s original decision is usually upheld because there wasn’t clear and obvious evidence to do otherwise. This is not how to win friends and converts.

But all is not doom and gloom. Reviews are being used more sparingly and are over faster, and new rules, setting time limits for kicking penalties and conversions and putting a stop to players wandering off with the ball to prevent the opposition setting up quickly, have led to increased ball-in-play time: Ireland versus France, for example, saw the ball alive for 46 minutes and 10 seconds, against a Six Nations average in 2021 of 38 minutes and three seconds. It doesn’t sound much, but the additional game time tests player stamina and opens up space for a side wanting to attack. And the southern hemisphere is trialling a provisional yellow card, during which time the third official can decide whether to upgrade it to a red.

So what have we learned about the six nations?


                        Won     Bonus points    Total points

Ireland             5          7                      27*

France              4          4                      20

Scotland           3          3                      15

England            2          2                      10

Wales               1          2                      6

Italy                 0          0                      1

* A side completing a Grand Slam is awarded an additional 3 bonus points, to ensure that they finish top

Champions, Grand Slam Winners: Ireland

Precision, power, persistence, patience – Ireland are the real deal. So accurate and well drilled are they that they simply wear down the opposition defence with phases, short passing, fast recycling, turnovers and the discipline to give away very few penalties (an average of 7.3 per game, compared with Wales’s profligate 10.5). They did not get a single card of either hue. 

Add to that list of Ps that of problem-solvers. Yes, they steadied their nerve on a St Patrick’s Day weekend at home to defeat a much improved England and secure the Grand Slam. More remarkable, however, was the way they coped away against Scotland, when they lost all three front row players, Caelan Doris, Dan Sheehan and Iain Henderson, in the first half hour, and then their replacement hooker too. This would have spelt disaster at the lineout for almost any other team – and particularly England, who give a fine impression of a rabbit caught in the headlights when faced with things they haven’t trained for, such as Italy’s clever refusal to engage in rucks a while back. Not so Ireland, for whom Josh van der Flier took over lineout throws, having made a habit of developing a skill it was almost certain he would never need. He lost the first one and then won the remaining six. All this and no fuss: it’s the Irish way.

What this means for the World Cup: Ireland are acutely aware they’ve never made it past the quarter finals of the World Cup, their 2019 campaign derailed before it even started by shock Six Nations defeats to England and Wales.

Unfortunately, with the draw for the World Cup conducted three years ago, Ireland face a mighty challenge, with a brutally tough route that will require them to face some or all of South Africa, France and New Zealand even to make the final. Much will depend on the charismatic Sexton, who’s out injured till the end of the season. If he bounces back refreshed they’ll be galvanised: if he doesn’t, they’ll be tested as never before. 

Prediction: They’ll need every ounce of their skill and power, but it would take a brave man to bet against them. I’m such a one: quarter final.

Second: France – Won 4

Other than defeat away to Ireland, for which no forgiveness is required, France had an excellent tournament and go to their home World Cup with justified optimism. Their chances will be enhanced or dented on day one, depending on how they perform in the opener against New Zealand: no-one’s won it more times (including one final versus France). France? Not once.

France have the player of the Championship in 26 year old scrum-half Antoine Dupont, his third such award in four years. Around him is a team united, something of which France have rarely been accused in the past. Their game is almost diametrically opposed to Ireland’s: for territory, France prefer to kick the leather off the ball and don’t show any special interest in turnovers or multiple, short-passing phases.

Prediction: Winners.

Third: Scotland – Won 3

Given that they have only 80 professional players, it’s a mystery how Scotland can perform so well. What’s that you say? More than half their starting side are naturalised players? Ah, that would explain it. And now that coach Gregor Townsend and mercurial five-eighths Finn Russell have kissed and made up, they are playing with glorious freedom and style. They beat England at Twickenham, as is their now traditional wont, belted the hapless Welsh and lost honourably to France and Ireland before seeing off Italy. Looking ahead to the World Cup, such is the luck of the draw that they face an almighty fight not to go home in third place in Group B behind Ireland and South Africa. 

Prediction: Group stage.

Fourth: England – Won 2

With more registered players than any other nation, England have no right to be in the bottom half of the Six Nations, though it’s largely due to World Cup-obsessed Eddie Jones, belatedly dismissed in December last year. (Jones is developing a Jose ‘Special One’ Mourinho-like habit of early success followed by a long excruciating decline. Which is why Australia’s decision to appoint him for five years is likely to come back to bite them.) New coach Steve Borthwick took the opportunity to learn about his team, discovering mainly that they’re not good at anything. Seriously, that’s what he said. And remarkably, Eddie Jones admitted the truth of it. The low point was a record defeat, a humiliating 43-point pounding at home to the hated French, not much mitigated by a decent showing in Dublin on the last day. At the World Cup England are blessed to be in whatever is the opposite of the Group of Death, with Argentina and Japan duking it out with them for the two top spots: on their day, either could trip England up. A Quarter Final against Wales or Eddie Jones’s Australia looks winnable. And then England go home.

Prediction: Semi-final.

Fifth: Wales – Won 1

Coach Warren Gatland left after the 2019 World Cup and returned with great fanfare last December, only to discover a national game in a financial shambles – so much so that three days before their game against England the players were threatening not to play. Like Jones, Gatland has a talent for preparing teams for the World Cup, and with a favourable draw giving them every chance of making it out of the Group stages anything is possible, though highly unlikely.

Prediction: Quarter-final.

Sixth: Italy – Won 0

Here’s a conundrum. How can a team not win a single game and yet still come out of the Six Nations with a growing reputation further enhanced? Well, Italy – or ‘Valiant Losers Italy’ to give them their full title – could so easily have taken down France in the first round (24-29) and pushed Ireland, Wales and, particularly, Scotland all the way. They play a madcap, run-from-your-own-line, kick-from-anywhere, have-a-go-yer-mug brand of chaos-ball: as Wellington said, I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they frighten me. To get out of the Group stages they’d need to beat either New Zealand or France. They won’t.

Prediction: Group stage.

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.