Six Nations: Seven talking points ahead of the opening round including the impact of new coaches and a playmaker battle
The Six Nations finally arrives this weekend after months of build-up, and the 2023 edition starts with a blockbuster opening round of fixtures.
With so much to discuss in so little time, Planet Rugby has drawn out seven talking points ahead of the start of rugby’s greatest championship.
Can Warren Gatland revive Wales?
The state of rugby in Wales has been in a precarious spot recently, with the plethora of off-field issues within the Welsh Rugby Union among some of the major issues.
Preceding the chaos in January was the departure of Wayne Pivac as head coach at the end of last year after a poor season that included a first loss to Italy in Cardiff and first-ever loss to Georgia in the autumn.
Enter Warren Gatland. The New Zealander is no stranger to Welsh rugby, having been at the helm from 2007 to 2019.
Outside of dealing with the off-field issues in Wales, Gatland’s primary role is to get his team winning again, and his second stint could not start any more difficult with a clash against the world’s top-ranked side Ireland.
It would be nothing short of a miracle if Gatland could orchestrate a memorable win against the tournament favourites. However, Wales will improve given the coach’s superior knowledge of rugby in the country and several players in the squad he has worked with.
The tough Test will certainly give him a lot of answers as he looks to resurrect a giant in the game as quickly as possible.
This is Ireland’s time
Ireland has become infamous for peaking between World Cups and bombing out early in the global showpiece. One only has to look as far as 2019 to see the evidence.
The side came off a fantastic Grand Slam in 2018 and looked to head into the World Cup year with confidence but, in the opening round of the Six Nations, Ireland were dismantled by England 32-20 in Dublin.
They would never recover and finished third in the Championship before bowing out in the quarter-final of the World Cup against the All Blacks.
However, despite the history of it all, this group is different. This Ireland team has tremendous depth, discipline and attention to detail courtesy of a brilliant Andy Farrell at the helm.
Having beaten the All Blacks in a three-match Test series in New Zealand in July and finishing the year as world number one after overcoming Australia and the Springboks in the Autumn Nations Series, it is hard to bet against this outfit.
Under the roof
It has been confirmed that the Principality Stadium in Cardiff will have its roof closed for the opening round clash, adding further intrigue to the occasion.
The closed roof transcends the atmosphere in the ground to a different sphere, keeping the noise in and amplifying the home support – of which Wales will need every ounce.
Sides like England have tended to want it open to dampen the fervent home support, but interestingly Farrell’s men are embracing it and are using it as preparation for the global tournament, where they could face France in their home World Cup.
Another positive is the risk of bad weather being mitigated and, in turn, allows a more free-flowing style of game in what is sure to be a thrilling Test match. However, despite the roof being closed and keeping the weather out, the ball has still been known to get greasy with all the moisture in the air settling on the field.
The Wales fans will be boisterous and looking to power their side back to the levels they expect, whilst Ireland will need to hold their nerve in the face of adversity.
England’s new era
To put it bluntly, Steve Borthwick has a mammoth task on his hands. With just a few months to go until the Rugby World Cup, the former Leicester Tigers boss has to take the Red Rose from also-rans into title challengers at the global tournament.
We certainly don’t envy Borthwick, who has a number of issues to fix. His eyes will be on the set-piece, an area of expertise from the forwards guru, but the question is whether he has the personnel to do so.
The 43-year-old has opted more for guile, athleticism and skills over sheer power. He has also generally rewarded form over experience, meaning that it is a new-look side with Ollie Chessum, Lewis Ludlam, Ben Curry, Alex Dombrandt, Joe Marchant, Ollie Hassell-Collins and Max Malins all impressing at club level.
It will be fascinating to see how England go. The talent is, of course, there but it will take some effort for them to suddenly become an outstanding side again, given how poor they were throughout 2022.
Scotland’s all out attack
It is evident that Gregor Townsend thinks that England are vulnerable and will attempt to put the hosts under pressure. By partnering Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones in the midfield – thus leaving out their best defensive centre in Chris Harris – they are clearly looking to test that Red Rose defence.
Interestingly, the last time Jones started for Scotland at Twickenham, England constantly targeted his channel off first phase and they shipped over 60 points, but we can’t see history repeating itself on Saturday.
The 29-year-old has improved defensively and behind a pack which will be far more competitive, he should have a much better time of it on Saturday.
With the centre duo, Duhan van der Merwe, Kyle Steyn and Stuart Hogg in that backline, Finn Russell has so many options outside him. With their bench not looking particularly impactful, especially in the front-row, Townsend’s men will seek to build a healthy lead early on.
The battle of the maverick playmakers
We’ve already touched on Russell but his individual battle with England pivot Marcus Smith will be fascinating to watch. They both like to attack, are not afraid to try things and will constantly take the ball to the line.
It is obvious that the two players can produce moments of magic and see things others simply can’t, but it will ultimately come down to the core components of fly-half play. As we stated in the preview, the Scotsman’s option-taking is slightly better at this stage, which is unsurprising given his experience, but Smith continues to make strides in that area of the game.
The respective packs will no doubt determine who gets the easier ride but, if that forward battle is relatively even, a lot rests on the half-backs to win that kicking battle and control the middle third of the pitch. Neither player will be scared to go from deep if the opportunity presents itself, but there is no doubt that territory and possession is king in Saturday’s encounter.
Business as usual for France against Italy
The Championship’s opening round will come to a conclusion at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Sunday and judging from recent results between these countries the defending champions, France, should have little trouble in seeing off the challenge from their hosts, Italy.
In fact, if Italy manage to upset the apple cart and get the better of Les Bleus it will be a momentous result as it will be their first victory in this fixture since 2013 when they sealed a 23-18 win at the same venue in Rome.
That is unlikely to happen, however, as France have dominated this fixture since then and been on the winning side in the next 12 matches between these teams. In last year’s corresponding match at the Stade de France, Fabien Galthie’s men sealed a 37-10 win and on their previous visit to the Stadio Olimpico in 2021 they cruised to a comfortable 50-10 victory.
With world class players like captain Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Gregory Alldritt, Charles Ollivon, Damian Penaud and Gael Fickou in their ranks, it should be business as usual for France who are set to clinch their 14th successive Test victory.
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