Six Nations preview: superpowers, fatal flaws and some bold predictions

Iain Morrison reckons Ireland are the team to beat while a top half finish for Scotland will be a struggle

The Six Nations kicks-off this weekend. Image: Six Nations Rugby
The Six Nations kicks-off this weekend. Image: Six Nations Rugby

IAIN MORRISON runs the rule over all the combatants in the 2023 Six Nations …

ENGLAND

Coach: Steve Borthwick

Captain: Owen Farrell

Recent Championship history: 5th, 2nd, 1st, 5th, 3rd

Our best guess: 2nd

Superpower: England’s superpower is, err, power. In a game that is slowly morphing into American Footy, the England squad is peppered with power players … Earl, Sinckler, Genge, Itoje, Stewart, Tuilagi, Ludlum, Dombrandt et al. Cast your mind back to that RWC ‘19 semi-final when England bossed the All Blacks as though the Kiwis were a pub team who had just met in the carpark. England’s forwards were relentless in the pressure they applied, both with and without the ball. Six of those starting forwards are in Steve Borthwick’s squad and four of the backs. The ‘Red Roses’ boast both strength and depth in most positions and power across the board. They desperately need clarity from their coach but, if Borthwick provides it, they will be there or thereabouts this year.

Achilles heel: In recent years England’s performances have added up to less than the sum of their individual parts, and they were embarrassingly bad last time out against South Africa, but it’s tricky to explain exactly why? They usually get the rough end of most refereeing calls but that can’t explain two fifth places in the last five years from a country with huge rugby resources. Eddie Jones’ contrarian approach to selection certainly didn’t help matters. England is now viewed as vulnerable. Someone, somewhere (possibly Planet Rugby?) suggested Italy could beat England … this season … at Twickenham! They (almost certainly) won’t but that tells you how far they have fallen. Moreover, England are at their bully-boy best playing physical, direct, set-piece rugby so you wonder if they can accommodate Marcus Smith, a fly-half of rare invention and imagination. Austin Healy recently suggested that Smith and Farrell should not play in the same team and he has a point, no? Farrell to start, Smith off the bench when the game breaks up with a gain-line specialist at twelve to get the fat lads on the front foot. Let’s see if Borthwick agrees?

Key players: Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell both bring plenty of competitive chops.

Missing: Eddie Jones’ endless excuses, we won’t miss. Big Billy V is overlooked, two and a half hookers, at the last count, are injured along with Courtney Lawes, Sam Underhill and Henry Slade. In other words, enough talent to pique Scotland’s interest.

Welcome back: Old Dan Cole, a not-so-merry old soul because he hasn’t played for England since the RWC’19 Final. His six-year-old twins, Ralph and Henry, reportedly can’t recall dad’s Test playing days but they may yet witness the old man in action.

New kid on the block: Quins’ Jack Walker could win that elusive cap … if only because he is the last hooker still standing.

Don’t say: Come back Eddie, all is forgiven.

Do say: The contrasting personalities of Steve Bothwick (details) and Kevin Sinfield (inspiration) dovetail seamlessly as a coaching team.


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ITALY

Coach: The taciturn Kiwi Kieran Crowley

Captain: Michele Lamaro

Recent Championship history: 6th, 6th, 6th, 6th, 6th

Our best guess: 6th … unsurprisingly!

Superpower: You might offer the diminutive winger/full-back Ange Capuozzo and I might counter with head coach Crowley, who has performed minor miracles, but Italy’s real superpower was, to borrow from Winston Churchill, their determination “to keep on buggering on” during those six long years of losses in the Championship from 2016-2021. The rest of the Six Nations was muttering, sotto voce, about cancelling Italy’s invitation to the annual ball … with the possible exception of Scotland who needed the “W” more than most.

Achilles heel: Such are the numbers in Italy that this squad is only ever one injury away from a full blown crisis. With Paolo Garbisi out, the next ‘fly-half’ off the rank should Tommy Allan get hurt is probably Edoardo Padovani, a wing/fullback by training and inclination. With Ivan Nemer banned for idiocy (he was the ‘banana man’), Italy cannot afford loose-head Danilo Frichetti to suffer any mishap. Gianmarco Lucchesi got the MOM award against Australia in the Autumn but the hooker is also injured. And so it goes. Only in the back-row and maybe the centres does Crowley have genuine choices.

Key players: Lamaro is a leader of real substance and Capuozzo is an exceptional finisher but the key to Italy’s success is fly-half Paolo Garbisi, still just 22 years old, who could yet appear alongside his brother, scrum-half Alessandro, later in the tournament.

Missing: As stated, Paolo Garbisi will miss the start of the tourney while Montanna “Monty” Ioane has returned home to Australia, joined the Melbourne Rebels and made himself unavailable for Italy. The rumours behind the winger’s move are not pretty.

Welcome back: Gloucester flanker Jake Polledri, although it will be a miracle just to see him play at Test level again given the ugly nature of his knee injury.

New kids on the block: Zebre’s loose-head Luca Rizzoli could earn his first cap at the age of 20 and look out for the talented No 8 Lorenzo Cannone who won his first three caps in the autumn and will surely make his Six Nations debut.

Don’t say: Didn’t Georgia beat you fellas last Summer?!

Do say: Didn’t you fellas beat the Wallabies last Autumn?!

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SCOTLAND

Coach: Gregor Townsend

Captain: Jamie Richie

Recent Championship history: 3rd, 5th, 4th, 4th, 4th.

Our best guess: 4th … again

Superpower: This Scotland squad has the superpower to beat England almost at will which is miraculous. Having managed three wins against England in the 27 years from 1991 to 2017, Scotland have now beaten them three times in the last five years! When you include that harum-scarum draw in 2019, England have won just once in that same five year period, a 13-6 victory at Murrayfield in 2020. Our sincere thanks go to Eddie Jones who must shoulder a goodly chunk of the blame for his sabotage. I suspect Steve Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield will not be quite so obliging but Twickenham is far less foreboding to this generation of Scots and it promises to be a humdinger on the day.

Achilles heel: Scotland are likely to go with two hard runners/tacklers at 12/13 so are overly reliant on Russell’s box of tricks, they have no obvious alternative to Zander Fagerson (who is apparently in the shape of his life but hasn’t played for two months due to a hamstring injury) at tighthead and this squad lacks heft in the third-row of the scrum where skipper Jamie Richie is a seven for anyone else and may end up playing there for Scotland. The squad lacks an international quality breakaway basher although you fancy Luke Crosbie could yet fill that gap. But Scotland’s real issue revolves around identity … they don’t have one. After Townsend abandoned the “fastest rugby” malarkey post RWC’19 he has struggled to find a style that Scotland can call their own and this is important. If Scotland just mimics everyone else, which is pretty much what is happening, other nations with more players can usually do it better. Also, Townsend’s comments regarding his nemesis/saviour (delete as you see fit) Russell were utterly bizarre; hailing him as “one of the most skilful players ever” exactly 3 months after dropping him from the national squad. Russell can be one thing, one of the best ever or fourth choice for Scotland, he can’t be both.

Key players:  Duhan and Darcy (when/if fit), the Ying and Yang of Test wingers, offer a potent little and large threat in the wider channels, but Finn Russell is the creative force in the back-line and so remains crucial to Scotland’s success … however much that may grate with his coach.

Missing: Darcy misses Twickenham and we will miss Darcy mistaking an English player for a lounge chair. Zander may still be absent depending on his hamstring and, if so, it’s a big loss given the importance England will attach to the set-piece.

Welcome back: Winger Sean Maitland and centre Huw Jones who remains Scotland’s best attacking midfielder although he hasn’t played a Test for two years.

New kids on the block: Munster’s Ben Healey, one time England winger Ruaridh McConnochie, Cameron Henderson of the Tigers and Stafford McDowell of Glasgow Warriors all have a shot, some longer than others.

Don’t say: 4th, 4th, 4th … Scotland seems to have found their level.

Do say: We know this squad can compete, now they have to perform, five times please.

 

IRELAND

Coach: Andy Farrell

Captain: Johnny Sexton (if the Sellotape and Blu Tack holds up)

Recent Championship history: 1st, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 2nd

Our best guess: 1st.

Superpower: According to our mole across the water, the Irish camp is blossoming on Andy Farrell’s watch. Gone is the stress of working under Joe “Schmidtler” and the players now sport a spring in their steps and a smile on their faces. How important this cooperative spirit really is when push comes to shove is an open question but it may be worth noting that Ireland welcomes both France and England to Dublin this year. If they can get a result in Cardiff on the opening weekend, and Ireland are the team that ‘Gats’ loves to hate (possibly because they sacked him), who would bet against them for the title?

Achilles heel: Were you watching last year’s match against France!? Les Blues targeted the Irish forwards and blew them clean off the pitch. Ireland boast big men, Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter are both foursquare and none too shy either, but France supersize their forwards the way McDonalds does their drinks and that inevitably has consequences in the final quarter of a match. Something similar happened, albeit to a lesser degree, when La Rochelle beat Leinster in the Champions Cup Final. This Ireland squad struggles to contain the most powerful opposition packs, they know it and so too do their most powerful opponents.

Key players: Everyone understands the importance of Sexton to Irish success so I’ll opt for two players who both failed to make the last Lions tour but would be in the Test XV if the composite side was playing this afternoon …Josh van der Flier and Garry Ringrose. Both men took that selectorial slap in the face as a wake-up call and both men have been on fire ever since. Especially the flanker because van der Flier (Irish born of Dutch heritage) won World Rugby’s Player of the Year award for 2022.

Missing: Robbie Henshaw has been posted injured for a little longer than anyone is comfortable with … especially Henshaw. In addition, Joey Carbery was once the next big thing but Ross Byrne’s calculated performances behind Leinster’s mighty forward pack has seen him leapfrog the Munsterman who is overlooked altogether.

Welcome back: Ulster winger Jacob Stockdale returns to the squad having last played for Ireland back in the summer of 2021.

New kid on the block: If Andy Farrell is sanguine about Henshaw’s absence it is only because Leinster’s Jamie Osborne looks the part, although Bundee Aki is still likely to start at 12, despite being overlooked by Connacht in recent weeks.

Don’t say: Number one in the world but no better than second in Europe last season!

Do say: If you can win a Test series in New Zealand you can win any competition anywhere.

 

WALES

Coach: Warren Gatland

Captain: Ken Owens

Recent Championship history: 2nd, 1st, 5th, 1st, 5th

Our best guess: 5th

Superpower: Probably coming good when they absolutely, positively need to win. Don’t write Wales off with their backs to the wall, especially if they get something out of Ireland, the number one side in the rankings, on that opening weekend. The return of Warren Gatland will make all the players walk that little bit taller because the coach commands respect like few others. They will play for him and fight for him and, like as not, win at Murrayfield for him because ‘Gats’ has never lost to Scotland while coaching Wales and won’t want to start now.

Achilles heel: An unhealthy number of Welsh players are, to be blunt, nearing the knackers yard and, with RWC’23 just around the corner, Gatland has made some big calls keeping faith with AWJ (37), skipper Ken Owens (36), Leigh Halfpenny (34) and Rhys Webb (34) while jettisoning Jonathan Davies (34), Gareth Davies (32) and Rhys Priestland (36). A host of other big names like Josh Navidi, Samson Lee, Will Rowlands and Dan Lydiate are all injured.

Key players:  We could talk about Dan Biggar, Leicester’s workhorse Tommy Reffell or Ospreys’ Jac Morgan but we need to focus on a coach who is the main story even in absentia. Much of Gatland’s previous success with Wales was down to having Shaun Edwards riding shotgun. Much of Wales’ season will pivot on how well Mike Forshaw (another Rugby League import who has been working with Sale Sharks) can fill Edwards’ boots as defence guru. Both men hail from Wigan, although that won’t be enough to get the job done, but Sale have conceded the fewest points and the fewest tries in England’s Premiership thus far so the omens are good.

Missing: Shaun Edwards and the midfielder Jamie Roberts were both central to Gats’ success last time out.

Welcome back: Scrummy Rhys Webb has enjoyed an eventful career and it has at least one more chapter by the looks of things.

New kids on the block: Four uncapped players: Teddy Williams and Mason Grady of Cardiff and the Ospreys pair, Rhys Davies and Keiran Williams. None are in the match-day squad to face Ireland, while starting centre Joe Hawkins and replacement second-row Dafydd Jenkins have one cap each.

Don’t say: Anything about “Warrenball” … so last decade.

Do say:  Gatland is not a naughty boy, he’s the messiah!

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FRANCE

Coach: Fabien Galthié

Captain: Antoine Dupont

Recent Championship history: 4th, 4th, 2nd, 2nd, 1st….progress!

Our best guess: 3rd

Superpower: At their best La France have an apparent God given ability to play full-court, Barbarian-style, running rugby where forwards and backs interlink seamlessly and become a force of nature that is all but unstoppable. This adaptability is personified in the speedy Sekou Macalou who is equally happy at flanker or on the wing. Opponents don’t know whether to stand back and applaud this spectacle or risk becoming roadkill when trying to halt the whirlwind in its tracks. It is awesome stuff, aided by France’s diverse gene pool and the huge sums of money swilling around the domestic game.

Achilles heel: You must have heard of the old acting motto: “A bad dress rehearsal leads to a good opening night” and France may be thinking something similar if only at the back of their minds. The most important game is the next one but La France, three times losing finalists, can be forgiven for having one eye on the looming RWC which starts in September in their own backyard. They are missing a few key players for the Six Nations and a setback in this tournament might just concentrate the minds a little, flush out any complacency and allow the coaching staff to tighten up a few nuts and bolts. France has difficult looking ties in London and Dublin, and a loss on the road may not be the worst thing to befall a squad with their eyes on the bigger prize.

Key players: Antoine Dupont, obviously, but does the little scrummy really need the burden of captaincy on top of everything else? Anthony Jelonch is a better bet … and he is besties with Dupont; both started out together at Auch, both now play for Stade Toulousain and both helped France to last year’s Championship.

Missing: Centre Jonathan Danty, try machine Gabin Villiere and flanker Cameron Woki are all long term injuries. Incidentally, did Murrayfield miss a trick here because he certainly sounds Scottish?

Welcome back: The giant enforcer Paul Willemse who was injured throughout the Autumn series.

New kids on the block: Galthié has named eight uncapped players in a 42 strong squad … in a World Cup year … really? Look out for Racing’s 20-year-old scrummy Nolann Le Garrec who has a better chance than most.

Don’t say: How long before Galthié’s trademark glasses have their own Instagram account?

Do say: With 13 wins on the bounce Les Blues are on a roll.


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About Iain Morrison 151 Articles
Iain was capped 15 times for Scotland at openside flanker between his debut against Ireland during the 1993 Six Nations and his final match against New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He was twice a Cambridge ‘Blue’ and played his entire club career with London Scottish (being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016). Iain is a lifelong member of Linlithgow Rugby Club. After hanging up his boots, he became rugby correspondent for The Sunday Herald, before moving to The Scotland on Sunday for 16 years, and he has also guest written for various other publications.

13 Comments

  1. very difficult to judge how England will fare.
    I had thought getting rid of Jones was good for them (still do) as it would allow a new coach coming in at this juncture to simplify things, only time to address basic structure, and that Borthwick to do that would revert to a huge pack and play to traditional English strengths. Well its not exactly a small pack but it is a very mobile one. He has dropped the big out of form and possibly done at this level bosher (Billy V) and introduced a good carrier who runs much smarter lines.
    so a dead cat bounce for a new coach is quite possible
    Then again there is also a high chance we play against 14 men after Farrell is red carded for ahigh no arms shoulder charge into Tuipolotu

  2. It is the PERFECT STORM for Ireland! First game will galvanise and prepare them for France, Wales have picked a team to old to last 80 mins! France will learn nothing from Italy and then cross the water to face a brutal encounter,..they will not be ready! 2 weeks rest then Italy to blood some good players coming through and rest a few Stars….Scotland away with a fresh well oiled machine,…Then England at home to GRAND SLAM! POETRY!

  3. The key to Scotland’s Six Nations chances of a title is beating England at Twickenham. If we do that, we’ll have the confidence and momentum to win the rest of our home games. Wales and Italy shouldn’t be a problem and the Irish are totally beatable (more on that later). The biggest stumbling block if we do all that would be the French in Paris, who we are unlikely to beat. It would leave us in a dogfight with them and the Irish to win the title on points difference. Speaking of the Irish, I think they are completely overhyped and totally beatable as far as Scotland are concerned. If you discount the two games last year that were handed to them via red cards (England and NZ away, which also handed them the no.1 ranking), then the only impressive win they had was the third test against NZ, which could well have been due to the NZ pack’s exhaustion from the previous week, trying to keep up with 15 men for 40 minutes. Yes, they had narrow victories at home against South Africa and OZ, but neither of those teams have great away records and Australia was hardly setting the world alight last year. If Townsend bothers to pick his full strength side, particularly Jones at out centre, and we beat England first up, I think we can be confident of at least the triple crown and hopefully if other results go our way, the Six Nations title.

    • I agree with a lot of this re Ireland.

      Problem is that, despite their less than convincing performances in the Autumn, they are packed full of players who just keep winning with either their pro-club or country. That habit is hard to break.

      I do not think Ireland have the creativity in the backs that Scotland does but they recycle the ball so quickly, it is impossible for defences to keep reorganising to stop the most basic (but admittedly well executed) of backs moves.

      I think the key to beating them is to disrupt the ruck and pass from the base. I have no expertise in the matter but it seems to me that counter-rucking rather than jackaling might be more effective over the piece.

      We must beat Ireland this year to sow even the slightest doubt in their mind that they will not just steamroller us in RWC23.

    • ‘They’re’ is the correct abbreviation for ‘They are’. ‘Their’ is possessive (e.g. their ball).

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  4. Well my first thought is having read the three previous contributions is that you could ‘cut and paste’ from each as all make relevant points.
    I certainly consider that AngryGala2 makes a good point about the new coaching set up, will it follow the EJ Years or will Borthwick enhance what is likely to be a better than half decent XV and Bench no matter what the state of EPL or injuries.
    The essential in the England game at Twickenham is not to start like ‘headless’ chickens and running everything from the get go, that’s not to say don’t take an opportunity that arises it just means don’t force it, if you get the point I attempt to make. Solid defense & decisions, NO penalties giving an easy route to the Whitewash have to be the first priorities. As AG2 suggests there will be an element of ‘confusion’ with potentially new tactics and regime lets just hope they don’t raise their game.
    You can see the point Addiemeister makes regarding the French however I don’t think a ‘freakish’ performance would be required if the French, as is their habit of not turning up at times offers up a miracle in Paris. Speaking of miracles: Third behind England! If I thought that would happen I’d take my Boots just in case they needed an Alickadoo to step in for Darcy Graham as miracles like that just don’t happen.
    Sonsie is correct albeit with the obvious ‘the first game is an imperative win’ and that isn’t meant to be critical of the comment, it’s more in line with the fact I think that he identifies that there isn’t a great deal between the sides going into the Six Nations this year, all the Nations sides are vulnerable.
    With Gatland back with Wales, how will that turn out? Will he stick to the old guard, his default position? Will Italy, who I think have improved be the dark horse, I thought so, for a moment until I recalled two of their home games are against France and Ireland, there is improvement but both those as home game wins for Italy are as unlikely as England finishing ahead of France, but you never know.

  5. The Calcutta Cup game is key and will shape the entire campaign for both teams. Whoever wins will likely finish in the bronze medal position behind Ireland and France, although the victor will dare to dream of an even higher placing than that. A win at Twickenham is far from unthinkable and with three home matches to follow we should be aiming at better than fourth for goodness sake. The Achilles heel two years ago was lack of concentration against our fellow Gaelic sides. Imagine beating England and France away, but still only finishing fourth. As Les Dennis might say, ‘Come and see what you could have won’. Greater focus is needed on each and every game this time, for they all count equally in the final shake-up.

  6. From a Scotland perspective we simply MUST beat Wales in round 2 and Italy in round 5, both at home. This is absolute baseline minimum requirement to not send us into a downward spiral. Winning 3 matches would be achievable and preferable but with Ireland and France as strong as they are, that looks like it will need to be this weekend at Twickenham. France away is a game ive pretty much written off, it would take a freakishly good Scotland performance to win there and perhaps a France off day. Ireland are a team we seem to rarely ever turn up against, we surely surely surely are due a proper performance against Ireland- if we do play to our best we have a chance, but so often they bring the absolute worst out in us- is this the year to set the record straight against the Irish? Hopefully.

    0 wins or 1 win is unthinkable and if that indeed happens, Townsend’s reign will end ona really miserable note as his tenure will appear to have taken us on a rollercoaster journey with a decent enough win % and a few big highs, only to take us right back where we were 10 years ago- wooden spoon fodder.

  7. I think it’s mental to suggest England will finish 2nd, based on what?

    Their clubs sides are doing poorly in Europe, they have a host of injuries and a new unproven coach at international level who has little time to establish his game plan.

    Leicester were not doing well this season under Borthwick after losing a few keys players from the previous year.

    I also wonder how much of Leicesters success was a flash in the pan, similar to Connacht in 2016.

    Their is an argument for third but i suspect England will finish 4th or 5th. Too much overhyping by the media as usual.

    My prediction:

    France – 1st
    Ireland – 2nd
    Scotland – 3rd
    Wales – 4th
    England – 5th
    Italy – 6th

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