2022 Six Nations Championship: What we learned from the ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup
The 2022 Six Nations championship came to a thrilling conclusion on Saturday, as France won a famous Grand Slam with victory over England in Paris.
It was a Six Nations to savour, with France securing both the title and the Grand Slam, while Ireland claimed the Triple Crown and Italy got their first win of the competition in seven years.
There has barely been time for the dust to settle, but already questions are being asked across all nations about where the teams go from here, particularly with a World Cup fast approaching.
The answer is far more obvious to some of the unions than to others and the Six Nations has given the coaches, players and supporters plenty to mull over.
There’s still a lot of rugby to be played before France 2023, including the summer & autumn internationals this year, so let’s look at what we learned from the 2022 Six Nations and how the next 18 months could look for England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and Italy.
The first of many trophies for all conquering France?
The brilliance of the current France side was rewarded with a Grand Slam at the 2022 Six Nations, a prize which was thoroughly deserved for the team who have been the best side in world rugby over the past 12 months.
In November, they look set to face reigning world champions South Africa in Paris, in what will be the last mountain for them to conquer after securing the Slam and thumping the All Blacks last year.
The 2023 Six Nations will also present a chance for this side to claim a piece of history.
No team has ever won back-to-back Grand Slams in the Six Nations era, France were the last to achieve that incredible feat back in 1997 and 1998 when the competition was still the Five Nations.
Doing that, which they are perfectly capable of, would be the perfect piece of history to sign off on before they host the Rugby World Cup later that year.
Right now, the way they are playing and with home advantage to back them up, Le Bleus are the clear favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for the first time in their history.
Cause for concern as England massively under-perform
It was a tournament that started poorly and never really got going for England who managed just two wins out of five against Italy and Wales.
There were plenty of reasons for optimism in individual matches and performances but overall it has to go down as a disappointing campaign.
Poor discipline dogged them throughout the competition, as it did in the 2021 autumn internationals, and was a key factor in their losses to Ireland and Scotland.
France also showed in Le Crunch that they are quite simply on a different level to Eddie Jones’ side at the moment.
However, there is still plenty of time to close that gap and the biggest positive to take has been the continued excellence of Marcus Smith, who is rapidly establishing himself as one of the best stand-offs in the international game.
Jones will also have the ever reliable Owen Farrell to call upon, after the skipper missed the entire Six Nations though injury, and his experience and ability to read games could be the perfect foil for Smith to improve even further - if they can establish a strong partnership at 10 and 12.
They are due to face the All Blacks and South Africa in the autumn - those games could very well be the tests by which many judge England’s chances going into next year’s World Cup.
New leadership the first change required for Scotland
A tournament that started with such optimism for Scotland ended with the side in disarray, unsure about where they go from here.
After the high of winning the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield in week one, they came crashing down in Cardiff and never got back up.
The competition ended with a routine win for Ireland, in which Scotland barely laid a hand on a side who they are due to face in the group stages of the World Cup.
Scotland fans can see that big chances are needed, but whether the SRU will pull the trigger on any of these remains to be seen.
Gregor Townsend’s job is secure, but there are a lot of big name players who have let themselves down badly in this tournament.
A change in captain could be the first shot of electricity that this flat-lining side need and taking the burden away from Stuart Hogg could even free up the undeniably talented full-back to return to his best.
The Scots were hampered when they lost Jamie Ritchie after just one game and the Edinburgh flanker looks like a strong contender to take over as skipper, should Hogg either relinquish the duties or be stripped of them.
Scotland are at a low point right now, but time is still on their side to pick themselves up.
So close and NOT so far as Ireland show their credentials
Seven points was the margin which saw Ireland miss out on all the glory currently being lapped up by France.
Those seven points came in Paris in week two as the champions won 30-24 over the runners-up in the match that did end up being the crucial decider as many predicted.
That is testament to this Ireland side, that they were able to match France and keep the pressure on them right up until the very last round.
There will be no concern or questions in Andy Farrell’s camp, no need for any inquisitions, other than the odd tweak here or there - they are in great shape ahead of the 2023 World Cup.
The runners-up did have the odd stumble in certain matches during the tournament, but overall were able to show they are right up there at the top of their game alongside the French.
Les Bleus head to Dublin in next year’s Six Nations, which could be the biggest test that both nations will endure in the next 18 months ahead of a World Cup where both will have serious aspirations.
Certain individuals have been outstanding in this tournament - flanker Josh van der Flier being at the top of that long list, but it has been a real team effort from the Irish.
The World Cup will also be the swansong for skipper Jonny Sexton who proved in this competition that he remains the standard bearer for international fly-halfs in both hemispheres.
First big step on a long road to redemption for Italy
They might have picked up the wooden spoon, but Italy have far more reasons to be hopeful for the future than anyone else in the competition - other than France, obviously.
Finally getting that win is a huge first step for Italian rugby on what is going to be a long road to redemption but, for now, they deserve the celebrations.
The youth of key players in this squad is encouraging, as was the performance of their Under-20s side who beat England, Scotland and Wales in the corresponding tournament.
It’s a team that has the potential to get better, but it will be up to them to do that and work towards eliminating these niggling opinions from outside that say they no longer deserve their place in the Six Nations.
The next obvious step would be aiming to avoid the wooden spoon in 2023, which might be a step too far. Keep in mind though, nobody gave them much chance of winning in Cardiff.
Another real achievement would have been making it out of their group at the World Cup, but the draw has not been favourable - they are in with both France and the All Blacks.
Steady progress will be the name of the game for Italy, one step at a time and let’s see where things are after each international window.
Panic stations in Wales as big calls need to be made
All the momentum that Wales had built and improvements they had made as the 2022 Six Nations progressed came crashing down on Super Saturday.
Seven points was the difference between Ireland beating France in Paris and winning the Grand Slam, but for Wales it was four points against Scotland in week two that prevented them from taking home the wooden spoon- that has to be a huge concern.
Performances aside, and there were plenty of good ones, the results are the only narrative that matters here.
Five matches and only one win is never going to be good enough for this nation.
There are mitigating factors of course, and the massive injury list at the start of the tournament has been well documented, but they had a near full strength pool to chose from by the final game.
Changing head coaches 18 months out from a World Cup is perhaps not advisable but it will probably be seen as just enough time to bring an alternative in.
Whether the WRU will make the brave call to give Wayne Pivac the boot, and whether that is the right decision, is a tough question to answer.
Of all the nations, none have more to reflect on going forward than Wales.
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