By Barry McNerney
Six Nations 2023 Preview
The Six Nations is here again and its World Cup year. This year however, throws up far more questions than in previous years. We have 2 teams with newish coaches and beset with problems and time not on their side, 2 with an eye on the bigger prize later in the year, one team that flatters to deceive year on year and another who’s future in the competition looks less and less certain year after year.
England is probably the hardest to predict. Steve Borthwick returns to the England coaching set up this time as the head coach. His stint as forwards coach under his predecessor Eddie Jones, reminds me somewhat of a computer reboot. Borthwick knows the set up and he already knows the players he has to work with and by all reports he’s already a popular figure in the dressing room and if Borthwick can get them back to the levels or at least put them back on the path that got them to final of the World cup in 2019.
Prediction; England 4th
England can be a huge threat to Ireland and France and if not, I still think worst case scenario is 4th. They have enough for them to defeat Scotland and Italy in their opening 2 fixtures in Twickenham and it isn’t outrageous to say that they can’t France there also, but the odds are not in their favour. Which means their placing will be determined by the 3rd round fixture vs Wales in Cardiff and while I am big believer in momentum, I am also sure that Warren Gatland will be ready for them.
Key Player; Owen Farrell
Regardless of if he has either 10 or 12 shirt on his back or regardless of whether he or not he captains the side if Borthwick does what I think he’s going to do and revert back to a brutally simple game plan and do what England do best. Bully teams up front and kick their goals and they need Farrell at his best to implement that game plan.
Last year’s Grand Slam was a huge success for Les Bleus, but as I mentioned before it’s World Cup year, on their own soil no less and they are favourites….for now. The pressure on them to perform has been increased significantly. That being said Fabien Galthie and company have been bloody brilliant the last 2 years. The only question is can they keep it up and the only thing I can see stopping them is personnel. They have a wealth of options from which to call upon, which funnily enough could be a weakness. Galthie needs to pick the most settled side he can and stick with it. If Galthie lets his 15 starters and broader 32-man squad that they are his men, they might be able to maintain and quite possibly raise their performance levels and peak in time for the World Cup…..a terrifying prospect.
Prediction; France 2nd
While I believe France are favourites for the World Cup, they are not favourites for the Six Nations. The Ireland fixture last year went down to the wire and the result tilted in the French’s favour for same reason as to why I think they are favourites for the World Cup and not the Six Nations, home advantage. Ireland holds that advantage for this year’s edition, otherwise I can see France sweeping all else before them.
Key Player; Antoine Dupont
Gregory Aldritt may have been player of the tournament last year and the return of the year before that’s player of the tournament Charles Ollivon from injury, whom I was tempted to name as key player, but it must be Dupont because it’s Dupont. The French captain is to France what Jonathan Sexton is to Ireland. He makes them tick and does something breath taking every game coupled with phenomenal basics and game management, he’s the key to the rest of the French squad’s box of tricks.
The funny thing about Ireland and France, although they are the 2 front runners to win the competition, they both would gladly throw it away for success in the World Cup. The question for Ireland is the same it has been for the last three World Cups. ‘Have we peaked too soon’? The honest answer is I don’t know. No one does and we won’t know until we see what kind of team takes the field in the Wales with their eye on the ball and follow it up in the France game which will arguably tell us if the trophy goes to Dublin or Paris on St.Patricks weekend. Ireland aren’t the finished article but they are close. Andy Farrell’s men have been lucky in some fixtures. The game vs the Springboks in the Autumn series chief among them. But this Six Nations is Ireland’s last roll of the dice to solve the Jonathan Sexton problem. If I was Farrell, I’d back Ross Byrne and Jack Crowley in all the away fixtures vs Wales, Scotland and Italy, to give them exposure in big games and if Ireland end up throwing the Six Nations for the sake of the World cup further down the line, then so be it.
Prediction; Ireland 1st
My prediction comes back to what I said about France. Home advantage between the top 2 sides is the difference between them and Ireland should always have enough to dispatch Scotland and Italy and shouldn’t be losing to a struggling Wales and England.
Key Player; Jonathan Sexton/Josh van der Flier
We all know Ireland’s key man is Sexton and we are a totally different prospect without him, but I couldn’t leave out van der Flier who is the reigning world player of the year, so I cheated and put in two players. Van der Flier has proven himself almost as vital to Ireland in the no.7 shirt as Sexton has. That being said, Ireland aren’t as stuck for options at openside as we are at 10, but if I was to pick player that I desperately wouldn’t want to be injured after Sexton, it’s him. He’s been outstanding for us the last few years and he finally got the recognition he deserved last year.
Italy by all accounts had a very good 2022. They claimed meaningful scalps in Wales and Australia and a convincing victory vs Samoa in November and apart from their capitulation in Dublin, due to the ridiculous rules in place by World Rugby, were competitive in all their other fixtures. The pressure is still huge on them to perform. The talks of South Africa joining the Six Nations is not going away and Georgia are still banging on the door for inclusion and there are no prizes for guessing which team would be on the chopping block should that come to pass. There is an opportunity there this year for the Azzurri. Wales, England and Scotland are all vulnerable and they won’t be going into any of them games as favourites, but they have already shown in 2022 that they can catch you out if your Is and Ts aren’t dotted and crossed.
Prediction; Italy 6th
It’s more promising for Italy than it has been in a long time, but as I said they will not be going into any of their fixtures as favourites. They may be targeting Wales at home and quite possibly a first ever victory in Twickenham.
Key Player; Tommaso Allan
Another year and another half back crisis for head coach Kieran Crowley. With Paolo Garbisi sidelined for the tournament Allan will need to step up and steer the ship. Allan himself is recovering from a knock and will need to be managed if Italy want to build on the positive results of last year.
Scotland look strong. Really strong. The squad is filled with British and Irish Lions and look really close to title contention. But we have been saying this for a few years now. Andy Townsends up and down relationship with star man Finn Russell is very strange and clearly undermines the Head Coach’s authority but when he steps onto the pitch, he’s phenomenal. The question is will it all come back to haunt them and blow up in their face before the World Cup. One of the big headlines going into this Six Nations is Scotland poaching Munster’s Ben Healy, who qualifies for Scotland through his grandparents. Townsend might be preparing for the worst should things go wrong with his fragile relationship with Russell. If Scotland can pull together, they can do damage both here in the Six Nations and go onto rip up the script in the World Cup later this year.
Prediction; Scotland 3rd
I am backing Scotland slightly here with the way the fixtures fall. They open with the Currie Cup against England in Twickenham which is a huge task, given that we don’t know what England will look like under Borthwick. If Scotland unite and don’t succumb to the pressure, they have enough to cause an upset vs England and follow that up with victories against Wales and Italy, but they’ll come unstuck against Ireland and France.
Key Player; Hamish Watson
I would’ve said Finn Russell, but I have a sneaky feeling that Townsend is going to back Ben Healy for the 10 shirt. For that reason, I’ve gone for Hamish Watson. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him have a poor game for Scotland. He brings such a high standard into everything he does and continues to be a menace for the opposition at the breakdown.
He’s back. Warren Gatland has returned and the parallels between their situation and England is very similar. They are going back to the man where it worked for Wales last. But unlike England, Wales doesn’t have a huge pool of players from which to select. In fact, much of the playing personnel that were in place when Gatland left in 2019 are still there and too many of them are the wrong side of 30, with no obvious replacements of international quality in place. Their underage teams are massively underperforming also. Former Welsh Captain Sam Warburton said it himself “The game in Wales needs the biggest reform in its history”.
Prediction; Wales 5th
Gatland has a huge job on his hands, but if anyone can pull them back it’s Gatland. However, I believe it’s a bridge too far for even him. The open their campaign against Ireland in Dublin which will yield little joy for them followed by a tough trip to Edinburgh. Funnily enough I fancy them to do a job on England in Cardiff, but they’ll find Italy tougher than they think in Rome. They finally round off with France in Paris. My gut feeling says England will pip them to 4th on points difference and bonus points, but it remains to be seen how Gatland himself will approach this year’s Six Nations and whether he will bring on the next generation in time for the World Cup.
Key Player; Taulupe Faletau
Wales back line on paper looks quite strong, but that’s not the problem. Their forwards are struggling in the physical battles to produce quick ball for their backs from which to attack. If Wales are going to have any hope against the bigger, stronger and younger forwards they need Faletau at his absolute best.