The Six Nations kicks off the road to the Rugby World Cup this weekend with two new masterminds adding extra spice to this year’s northern hemisphere showpiece, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Title favourites Ireland have a tricky tournament-opening tie against Wales in Cardiff while the Calcutta Cup will be on the line in Saturday’s other fixture when England welcome Scotland to Twickenham.
For their part, France start the defence of their crown on the road as they take on Italy in Rome on Sunday.
Wales v Ireland
Saturday, 4 February – 16:15
Having lost out on the Six Nations title to Les Bleus last year, Ireland are determined to go one better in 2023 and are favoured to do so at 2.35. Given that they have home-ground advantage against France and England, you could say it’s their championship to lose.
Ireland have won five of the last six fixtures in this rivalry, including a comprehensive 29-7 victory last year. Therefore, rugby lovers have grown expectant that the Irish run roughshod against the men in red. The Warren Gatland factor should make punters question that instinct.
Wales won four Six Nations titles, including three Grand Slams, and reached two World Cup semi-finals during Gatland’s first spell in charge from 2008 to 2019 and there’s no bigger way for the New Zealander to return than to mastermind a victory over the number one ranked team in the world.
It’s the fresh ideas of Gatland, along with new attack coach Alex King, against the settled and sublimely-structured juggernaut that is Ireland under Andy Farrell. Gatland’s sure to elevate Wales from the struggles of the Wayne Pivac tenure, but he’s had little time with his squad, too little to get off to a winning start this weekend.
Instead, expect Ireland to get the job done and Wales, who’re fourth outright at 13.00, to get better as the championship rolls on.
England v Scotland
Saturday, 4 February – 18:45
New England coach Steve Borthwick takes centre stage at Twickenham, where the next chapter in rugby’s oldest rivalry will be written. Scotland (fifth outright at 21.00) have held the Calcutta Cup since 2021 and are eyeing a third straight win over England (third outright at 5.00) for the first time since 1972.
Unlike Gatland’s challenge with Wales, Borthwick has adopted a strong squad. His primary job is to give them the direction they lacked under Eddie Jones and eliminate the sideshows that came with the outspoken Australian. Having said that, he goes into his first Test without the services of injured stars Courtney Lawes, Henry Slade, Elliot Daly, and George McGuigan.
The glue of the team, talismanic captain Owen Farrell, is available, though, having served his lenient four-week suspension for a high tackle. With the presence and experience of the centurion and England expected to put an emphasis on basics like physicality and forward play, Borthwick should enjoy a winning start.
Italy v France
Sunday, 5 February – 17:00
Italy are once again no-hopers at 501.00 outright. Realistically, their goal is never to win the championship but rather to pull off more than one upset if possible.
They ended a seven-year losing streak in the northern hemisphere showpiece in thrilling fashion with a historic campaign-closing 22-21 win over Wales last year and haven’t entered the Six Nations with as much momentum as they currently have in years having won five of their last seven Tests.
Last year’s hunters France are now the hunted. Their Grand Slam triumph kick-started an unbeaten 2022 season and an opening assignment in Rome is a suitable way for them to set a marker for a 2023 season that culminates with the World Cup on home soil.
That’s the mindset I expect Les Bleus, second in the world and second outright at 2.75, to enter this match with, to send a message to trophy hunters in the north and the south, so I see them covering the spread.