Rugby’s Greatest Championship certainly lived up to its moniker last weekend with two incredibly close contests and one impressive display from the number one ranked team in the world.
Ireland were in no mood to be accused of ‘peaking too early’ in the Rugby World Cup cycle as they dismantled Wales in Cardiff in Warren Gatland’s first game back in charge. Steve Borthwick didn’t get his reign as England head coach off to the start he would have hoped for either as Scotland retained the Calcutta Cup for the third consecutive year with a gutsy performance at Twickenham. Then, in what came as something of an early surprise, Italy pushed France all the way to the final kick of the ball in Rome as the reigning Grand Slam champions were given a scare by the plucky underdogs. Here are six key points we learned from round one of the 2023 Six Nations:
Gatland has work cut out as Wales look way off the pace of world’s best
Warren Gatland will go down as one of the greatest head coaches in international rugby’s history - winning three Grand Slams with Wales over the course of his first spell in charge between 2007 and 2019. The problem is there seems to have been a serious lack of forward planning and the New Zealander has now returned to nearly the same group of players that were so successful before except a good bit older. Meanwhile, the lack of game time for the younger group of players in competitive test matches seems to be glaringly obvious.
Dragons winger Rio Dyer had more than one big chance in the match with Ireland and wasn’t able to convert. In a match where Wales are going to have more ball and territory those chances will come more often but against a side like Ireland they will be finite and a world class finisher is required. Wales’ problems obviously extend far beyond just one winger and it seems like the smart thing to do now would be to use the rest of this tournament to get the younger section of the squad as much game time in the big matches as possible ahead of the World Cup.
Ireland shutdown ‘peak too early’ talk with dominant display
The Irish players and staff must have been sick to the back teeth of hearing all the talk of previous Ireland teams peaking too early in a World Cup cycle. Andy Farrell and his players have worked so hard to become the number one ranked nation in the world and will want to keep that title going into the showpiece tournament in France later this year. They can make that a certainty by winning the Grand Slam in the Six Nations and who would back against them after round one?
They certainly don’t look like they’ve peaked too early, they continue to perform with a fighting consistency that will be alarming to every other country in both the Six Nations and on the other side of the globe. Very few chinks have appeared in Ireland’s armour over the past two to three years and a dominant display in Cardiff to kick off 2023 sends a very clear message - this Ireland team have their sights set on imortality.
Smith and Farrell the new Lampard and Gerrard as English stars just can’t get it right
It was former Scotland captain John Barclay who made the comparison of Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith to former England footballers Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard - two world class players who could never seem to get the best out of each other when playing together. The ball may be a different shape but the comparison is a good one - Farell and Smith just aren’t clicking.
Smith, the bright young prospect, has all the talent to be one of the best 10s in English rugby’s history but he still lacks in one of the biggest areas - his decision making is not at the level of a top international standoff. That is supposed to be where Farrell comes in, the elder statesmen of the two who provides the experience at 12 but he certainly didn’t show that against the Scots on Saturday with his targeting of Finn Russell only serving to create opportunities for the rest of the Scotland backs. Steve Borthwick has a lot to sort out over the next few weeks and there is no challenge bigger than what to do with the frustrating partnership.
Scotland need ‘next job’ mentality or Calcutta Cup win will count for little
It might be easy to forget that England had a firm grasp on the Calcutta Cup for the best part of a decade not so long ago, retaining the trophy between 2009 and 2017 before the Scots finally got their hands back on it. Saturday’s win at Twickenham made it four wins from the last six meetings and one memorable draw for Gregor Townsend’s side and they certainly won’t be taking their success for granted - but there does seem to be a mentality shift from recent years.
This Scotland side is packed full of supremely talented individuals and it will be nothing short of criminal if they go their entire international careers without at least mounting a serious challenge on the Six Nations title. They’ve been here before and last year’s defeat in Cardiff in round two was a crushing one after another brilliant Calcutta Cup win in round one. This year, the celebrations seem slightly more muted than in previous years, it looks like they finally realise that although winning the famous old trophy is an achievement to be proud of - it’s not quite enough on its own.
Close contests is what improvement looks like for Italy
Winning at least one match would be cause for celebration for the Italians and beating this incredible France side in round one certainly would have taken the roof of the Stadio Olimpico. Despite coming so close and falling just short, this is what improvement looks like for the Azzurri. After going so long without winning it was good to get that monkey off their back in Cardiff last year but this tournament should really be about the performances rather than the results.
Pushing the reigning Grand Slam champions all the way is an achievement in itself considering where Italy have come from and this new generation of hungry, talented young players could make a real statement by doing the same thing again four more times. They don’t even need to win, just prove that they can. Try to think of at least one Six Nations where they weren’t convincingly beaten by a heavy score in at least one game, if they could be competitive in all their matches this year then that will be a monumental shift in the overall outlook of Rugby’s Greatest Championship going forward.
Rome scare might serve to resolve French mindsets
It’s impossible to deny the talent and ability of this current crop of French players and they fulfilled the first part of their apparent destiny last year by winning the Grand Slam. Doing back-to-back Slams would be unprecedented but that is a possibility this year and they will want to enter their home World Cup as the unquestioned favourites - so starting the tournament off by nearly letting the whole thing slip in Rome is far from the ideal start.
What matters now is the reaction. In past years many might have tipped Les Bleus to crumble under the weight of expectation but that opening result might only serve to have given them the kick up the backside they may have needed. Had they played Ireland away in round one instead of round two then that performance would certainly have seen the Irish batter them. A small taste of humility at the hands of the Italians could be just the thing to focus French minds ahead of the big one at the Aviva Stadium this weekend.