In this second article in the lead up to this season's 6 Nations rugby, Chronicle.lu will take a quick look at each of the teams:
- France: France won all their matches in last year's 6 Nations, including Ireland in Paris. This time, they must travel to Dublin for that game, with just Scotland and Wales at home. In the past, France have been labelled as poor travellers, but that is not really the case any more. Nevertheless, they will have to be at the top of their game at every minute of this year's tournament to retain their crown. They host the RWC in the autumn, drawn alongside New Zealand in Pool A. Their supporters will demand success, and this starts now, in this tournament. In the autumn internationals, France defeated Argentina, South Africa and Japan, the first two by small margins. It will be interesting to see if Antoine Gastoy will get much game time - he is the starting out-half at La Rochelle and has helped them to win all their games in the Heineken Champions Cup, and he also played for the Barbarians this season, leading them to victory over New Zealand.
- Ireland: Under coach Andy Farrell, who has stamped his exciting style of play over the team following the successful tenure of Joe Schmidt, Ireland have risen to #1 in the world rankings. In last year's 6 Nations, they were denied the title when they lost to France in Paris by just six points. This year, they play both England and France at home, and travel to play Wales, Scotland and Italy. The key match in this year's tournament could very well be on the second weekend when Ireland host France. In the autumn internationals, Ireland defeated both South Africa and Australia, as well as Fiji. And in their summer tour, Ireland won a series in New Zealand for the first time ever. The major concern now for Ireland - apart from last year's wingers Mack Hansen and James Lowe short on game time - is whether talisman 37-year-old Jonny Sexton can stay injury-free for the tournament. Joey Carbery may have been overlooked and Robbie Henshaw is injured, but Jacob Stockdale is now back in the squad after an injury-ravaged couple of years. But Ireland also have World Rugby's Player of the Year for 2022, Josh van der Flier.
- England: The English won at home to Wales and away to Italy last year; in the autumn internationals, they defeated Japan, drew with New Zealand and lost to Argentina and South Africa. Since then, they sacked coach Eddie Jones who had guided them to the RWC 2019 final (they topped their pool, then defeated both Australia and New Zealand before falling to South Africa in the final). But the hierarchy and fans had had enough underperformance since, and replaced Jones (who has since been appointed coach of Australia) with Steve Borthwick who had guided the Leicester Tigers to the Premiership title last season. In this year's 6 Nations, the have Scotland, Italy and France at home, with both Ireland and Wales away. Will Ollie Hassel-Collins start for England? He was rumoured to have been signed by Steve Borthwick when he was still coach at the Leicester Tigers, showing he is a fan of the electric winger.
- Scotland: In last year's 6 Nations, Scotland won just twice, at home to England and away to Italy; this time round, they host Wales, Ireland and Italy. The Scots have been improving over the past couple of years under coach Gregor Townsend, but the question is: have they peaked? In the World Cup in the autumn, they have been drawn in Pool B alongside both South Africa and Ireland; while the Scots traditionally play very well in RWCs, they will have their work cup out this year and progression beyond the pool looks unlikely (yet not impossible). In the autumn internationals, they defeated Argentina and Fiji but fell short against both Australia and New Zealand. Scotland's pool of players is small: they just have two teams playing in the United Rugby Championship and the European Rugby Champions Cup, and they have started to cast their net wider, taking advantage of eligibility rules. For the 6 Nations, they have included four uncapped players including both Ruaridh McConnochie, a former England wing, and Ben Healy, who has represented Ireland at U20 level but will join Edinburgh this summer (from Munster). Then there is the "issue" surrounding mercurial out-half Finn Russell who currently plays for Racing 92 in France and can become de-motivated during games; on the other hand, he has the skills and wizardry to almost single-handedly win games: he and Gregor Townsend have not seen eye-to-eye for a while and it will be interesting to see how that relationship progresses, as do the team's fortunes on the pitch.
- Wales: The Welsh won just one match in last season's 6 Nations when they overcame Scotland at home, and lost the other four. Then, in the 2022 autumn internationals, they lost to New Zealand, Australia and Georgia, but beat just Argentina. They have since dispensed with the services of Wayne Pivac as coach and have turned back to Warren Gatland who brought them much success in the past. In the RWC 2023 in the autumn they have been drawn in Pool B alongside Australia, Fiji, Georgia and Portugal, arguably the easiest pool on paper, so the 6 Nations should see Gatland work with his players up close to choose this World Cup squad. With Ireland and England at home in the 6 Nations, they have to travel three times. Their season could well be defined by the result of, and performance in, their first match, at home to Ireland. One player to keep an eye on here is Tommy Reffel, a "turnover machine" who had a brilliant series in Australia under Wayne Pivac and has continued his good form with his club side - could he be Wales' answer to the now-retired Sam Warburton?
- Italy: From time to time, the Italians deliver world-class players, including the recently-retired Sergio Parisse. Breaking through into the national side during the 2022 6 Nations tournament was 23 year-old Ange Capuozzo who plays at full-back for Toulouse in France. His dazzling breaks seem to galvanise his team-mates who defeated Wales in Cardiff last year. In the 2022 autumn internationals, they beat both Australia and Samoa, but lost heavily to South Africa. In the RWC 2023 they have been drawn in Pool A alongside both France and New Zealand, so arguably their best chance of doing well this year will be in the 6 Nations where they host France, Ireland and Wales, and travel to England and Scotland.
The 6 Nations rugby tournament kicks off this coming weekend (Wales host Ireland for the opening match on Saturday 4 February), with the five rounds of matches concluding on Saturday 18 March when Ireland host England.