The first whistle of the 24th Six Nations Championship will blow on Saturday, 4th February, kicking off potentially the most competitive tournament in the past decade.
On the field, there’ll be big collisions, audacious skills and tactical battles, but it’s off the field where the real drama has unfolded to build the anticipation ahead of the opening weekend of action.
Here’s how each side is shaping up going into this year’s Six Nations.
Above: New Wales head coach Warren Gatland. Right: Ireland’s Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris, Andrew Porter and Tadhg Beirne.
Wales v Ireland (Saturday, 4th, 2.15PM)
The 2023 championship kicks off at the historic Principality Stadium. With Colosseum-like stands and a patriotic, hostile Welsh crowd, Ireland face a big challenge as they bid for their first title since 2018.
The Irish camp are settled. Head coach Andy Farrell has taken the national side to the highest-ranked country in the world, becoming the first Irish side in their history to win a series down in New Zealand last summer.
Not only that, back rower Josh van der Flier was named the men’s player of the year for 2022. Paired with Leinster team-mate Caelan Doris at either flanker or eight, the two set the ferocious pace and athleticism in attack and defence that’s proved hard to live with.
In the red corner, Wales have gone back to proven success, sacking the man that brought them the 2021 Six Nations title in Wayne Pivac for the man that brought them the 2019 trophy in Warren Gatland.
A bitterly disappointing fifth-place finish last year was epitomised by a last-minute loss to Italy at home. Followed up by a lacklustre Autumn, a change was needed, and with fan favourite Gatland, there’s plenty to be excited about for the Welsh faithful.
With Gatland back at the helm and young stars rising from the club game, there’s hope that the Welsh can do a job over the world no.1 side – especially with home advantage.
Despite that, we think Ireland’s vast squad depth will aid them with a tight win by seven points.
England v Scotland (Saturday, 4th, 4.45PM)
The biggest game of the weekend comes down at Twickenham, or ‘HQ’ to the long-standing English fans, where England host Scotland in the Calcutta Cup.
Like Wales, England have made radical changes ahead of this Six Nations and the World Cup later this year. Polarising across the media and fans, former head coach Eddie Jones was given his marching orders in December, with the RFU fast-tracking Leicester coach Steve Borthwick into the national role.
Bringing along the all-inspiring Kevin Sinfield and out-of-the-box attack coach Nick Evans for fresh ideas, outcasted players such as Ben Earl, Dan Cole and Cadan Murley have been added to the squad based on their scintillating form in the club game.
As for Scotland, no great drama or change has caused a stir in the media, except for former England and current Bath winger Ruaridh McConnochie, who’s made the switch in nations to enter Gregor Townsend’s squad.
Full-back Stuart Hogg is four caps away from hitting the century milestone, while the mercurial Finn Russell is back in favour to run the show at fly-half. The pair made the headlines in the final game of last year’s tournament, when several players were omitted from the matchday squad following an unauthorised night out.
A new-look England squad and coaching staff will have work to do if they’re to execute their brand-new game plan against the old enemy. Tempers could rise as Scotland know how to get under the Red Rose’s skin, but we think England may have the edge with a win by four.
Ange Capuozzo of Italy and France’s Antoine Dupont
Italy v France (Sunday, 5th, 3.00PM)
Rounding up the weekend, Italy welcome the current champions to the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
Rooted to the foot of the table in the last six championships, the start of the 2022 campaign was surrounded by calls for their replacement in the competition.
Losing heavily to both France and England, the Italians then fell foul of the laws when they were forced down to 13 men against Ireland, losing by over 50 points.
Those calls grew louder but were only short lived when their blockbuster win in Cardiff silenced the media.
Beating Australia in the Autumn was another sign of growth, though when it comes to physical tests, it doesn’t get tougher than this one.
Winning all five matches last Six Nations, including a crucial win at home to Ireland, put France back on the front pages. Blessed with monstrous size in the forwards and unbelievable skill in the backs, keep an eye out for Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack pulling the strings.
And with a home World Cup several months away, Les Blues will need to back up last year’s showing with an emphatic start to this campaign.
Italy’s progress has been vast in the past 12 months, but the gap will be too far to bridge to one of the strongest and most complete French sides in the 21st century. We see this only going one way, a 20+ points win for France.
JD Predicts 🏉
With four more rounds of action to come after the opening fixtures, we’re predicting it’ll be Ireland’s turn to lift the trophy this year, while the wooden spoon will head Italy’s way once more, but not without a fight.
Whether you’re a huge rugby fan or just getting into the game, rep your nation’s colours with our range of international rugby essentials here!
For more rugby news and content, make sure you’re following @jdsports across our socials!