It is just 172 days until the 2023 Rugby World Cup starts and it’s Ireland who are in the driving seat after winning the Six Nations Grand Slam thanks to their 29-16 victory over England. They cemented their spot as the No. 1 side in the world but know full well the perils of peaking early.
France finished on a high against Wales with their 41-28 win in Paris, but their home support will expect nothing less than victory when they kick off the tournament against New Zealand on Sept. 8.
Scotland finished the championship with a hard-fought 26-14 triumph over Italy and ended up third in this year’s Six Nations standings while there are rebuilding jobs for Steve Borthwick at England and Warren Gatland with Wales.
For Italy, it’s been a case of two steps forward, but familiar frustrations as they came away from the championship with reputation enhanced, but still with the wooden spoon.
Attention in the northern hemisphere now switches to the World Cup. Most teams have at least three warm-up matches before the start of the tournament, but with men’s rugby’s biggest tournament just under six months away, here’s what each team have to focus on.
Ireland have put down their marker ahead of the World Cup as they claimed their fourth ever Six Nations Grand Slam, but Andy Farrell’s chief job will be to continue this team’s upward elevation rather than this momentous few weeks later being regarded as the moment Ireland peaked.
As Farrell said post-match: “I have just been saying to Johnny [Sexton] there is bigger fish to fry than this [Six Nations], so we are onto the World Cup.”
We have been here before with Ireland — they were Six Nations champions in 2015 but then fell out of the World Cup at the quarterfinal stage later that year. In 2019 they had a mixed Six Nations, but the previous November had knocked over the All Blacks. Much was expected from them in Japan, but they fell to New Zealand in the quarters as they suffered a 46-14 reality check.
But there’s something different about this group. They managed any and every bit of adversity thrown at them in the tournament, like having Cian Healy at hooker against Scotland and Josh van der Flier throwing in at the lineout. They’ve had untimely injuries, yet through it all, they’ve stayed calm.
They look far more measured and balanced than the Ireland teams of yesteryear and that should be ominous for the rest of the watching rugby world.
The farcical nature of the World Cup draw (back in 2020) means they have to get through a tricky pool with South Africa and Scotland, and will then likely face the All Blacks or France in the quarterfinals. But trust in Andy Farrell and he’s backing his Ireland team to be even better come September. Take notice.
“We are a good side that has nowhere reached its potential,” Farrell said post-match on Saturday. “You know, everyone is going to get better in the summer when we get to spend a lot more time together, so we expect our side when we get to the first game of the World Cup to be a lot better than what we are now and that is the reality.”
It’s all about pressure. Apart from Ireland, the only team who should be able to beat France come the World Cup are France themselves.
We’ve seen the best of Les Bleus over the past six weeks, as they claimed a record win against England and played some astonishing rugby to dispatch Scotland, Italy and Wales. The only hiccup came in Dublin and they have to learn from that.
Their World Cup draw is far from straightforward, with the All Blacks first up on Sept. 8 and Italy also for company. So, they need to keep the momentum of the partisan crowd behind them by starting well and beating New Zealand.
“I think we’re starting to reach a maturity which means we manage to deal with pressure. The enthusiasm will help us be better than the previous World Cup, for example,” Thomas Ramos said post-match on Saturday.
And to do that, they need to ignore the outside noise, the pressure and keep the spine of their team fit. Wrap Antoine Dupont in cotton wool.
While they have proven they can cope with high-profile absentees — they had both tight-heads suspended for the England match and put together a championship without Cameron Woki and Gabin Villiere.
There are some players who are irreplaceable, with Dupont top of the list. Galthie needs to find the middle ground between instilling his team with confidence and wary humility. So far, he seems to have gone on the front foot rather than deflecting expectations.
“I hope that teams are scared of us now,” Galthie said after their win over Wales on Saturday. “We’re certainly the team to beat. “We do have an impressive victory ratio. We’ve only lost once here [in Paris], against Scotland.”
As mentioned above, the fact the World Cup draw was done back in 2020 means Scotland are in a brutal pool given their huge improvement since then. So Gregor Townsend’s job between now and then is to figure out how he can get his Scotland team across the line against Ireland or South Africa.
It’s not a simple task, but there are short and long-term things they need to tick off. So top of the Scottish Rugby Union’s to-do list should be tying down Townsend on a longer contract.
His deal is up at the end of 2023 and he will sit down with the SRU in the next couple of weeks to discuss whether he extends beyond the World Cup this year. He straight batted the questions thrown his way on Saturday but did admit he wants to stay. For the interests of everyone in Scottish rugby, it makes sense for him to continue this project.
“Conversations have started and will start up again after some time off. We’ll see how they develop,” Townsend said. “Honestly, I have tried to put this to the side. Your brain only has so much capacity. Whatever happens over the next week or so, I’ll think about it nearer the time. I am delighted with this bunch of players.”
Once that’s sorted, there are little elements of their game they need to iron out, like maintaining momentum in a match and eliminating silly errors. Far too often they’d lose their way as they’d concede a turnover or drop a restart. Then there’s getting a bit more fire in the forwards, and a disruptor to get into the opposition a little — they allowed Ireland to hit their first man in all five of Josh van der Flier’s lineouts when the flanker was throwing in. These little bits can be ironed out ahead of the start of the World Cup.
They also need to find a way to get these narrow matches swinging back in their favour. They’ll look back on a Six Nations where they could’ve beaten France and ran Ireland close — all this off the back of impressive wins over England and Wales and then edging the arm-wrestle with Italy. That’s a question of mindset.
But how things have changed since just a year ago — back then they had star players mired in disciplinary issues and they’d won two of their five matches. Fast-forward to the present day and the bounce is back in Scotland’s step, and they’ll be hoping for a Japan-type miracle when they face South Africa in their World Cup opener on Sept. 10.
Steve Borthwick will sit down with his coaching team on Wednesday and pick apart the Six Nations. They’ll look at the bad parts: the final 20 minutes against Scotland, the entirety of the France match and some aspects of how they let promising positions slip against Ireland.
But they’ll also look at moments to be proud of. The wins over Italy and Wales, and where Borthwick feels his team have grown. But top of his to-do list is maximising the time the group have before the World Cup.
He is putting a lot of weight on their pre-World Cup training camp but he has challenged his players to improve their fitness by that point, rather than using that time together to make them sweat.
“We don’t want use that camp to get fit, we want to use the World Cup camp to get better,” Borthwick said post-match on Saturday.
That’s easier said than done given the lack of control Borthwick has over the players now they’re back at their clubs, but he’ll still pass on his hopes and expectations to all parties in the game over the next couple of weeks.
The England boss will look to confirm the final make-up of his backroom staff with Richard Cockerill departing. Aled Walters and Richard Wigglesworth both joining at the end of the season means there’s still a gap for a scrum coach, and we’re waiting to see if Nick Evans gets the backs jobs full-time. Borthwick is aware of the uphill battle.
“We have got to learn faster than anybody else,” he said, adding the players need to learn “a lot” from the France match.
He’s looked at the understanding Ireland and France both have, benefiting from Leinster and Toulouse DNA respectively and that can’t be manufactured overnight. There’s a chance he may revert to his Leicester charges.
Borthwick wants to “accelerate […] development and learning.” He added: “That’s going to be down to me as head coach to see how I see how I can find ways to accelerate it.”
When he watched his England team capitulate against France last week, his memory drifted back to England’s painful 36-0 defeat to South Africa in the 2007 group stages. He was on the bench that day in Paris, and it proved to be the catalyst they needed to sort themselves out as they went on to reach the final. Borthwick will hope England’s nadir came against France ahead of the World Cup.
“What we’ve got to do is make sure we’re able, we’re fit enough, we train enough, we understand each other enough to have that intensity for the full 80,” he said.
It’s been a brutal Six Nations for Gatland’s side. Just as Borthwick found out with England, taking charge of a team nine months out from a World Cup is far from straightforward.
Confidence is low, results have been poor and there’s an urgency to fast-forward processes to get a team ready for the global gathering.
But then add in the rest of what it means to be a Wales player in 2023. They were just hours away from going on strike earlier in the tournament ahead of their match against England as the players’ patience eventually ran out with the state of the game’s management in Wales.
This line in the sand came after back-to-back defeats to Ireland and then Scotland. So it is to their credit that they avoided the wooden spoon with their win in Rome, but Gatland faces a rebuilding job both in the short and long-term.
First on his to-do list ahead of the World Cup is improving their fitness. That’s been one of his constant misgivings about the Wales team he’s inherited — he believes they are not fit enough to cope with the best.
They also need to work on their midfield defence. Gael Fickou took full advantage Saturday, and how to slow down opposition ball.
They mixed and matched their back-row throughout the Six Nations but haven’t yet found the right cocktail. Gatland will have a first choice XV in mind after seeing their past five matches, and there’ll be some tough decisions ahead — nostalgia and sentimentality will have to be parked, but we could end up seeing something like the team he fielded against France as his preferred line up heading forward.
But if there’s anyone who can get Wales firing again, and a threat in the World Cup, then it’s Gatland. The players will be in for a brutal pre-World Cup camp.
“I am really confident by the time we get together preparing for the World Cup we will be in good shape and a lot better than we are at the moment,” Gatland said on Saturday. “I think we will give a lot of teams a few surprises come World Cup time.
“There have been some good improvements and we will continue to get better. I have said to the players, if we go and do the work that’s required I am confident we will have a really positive World Cup.”
No wins from five. The wooden spoon. Same old Italy? Well, not quite.
This is a developing team, far more robust and exciting than the Azzurri we’ve seen in recent years and a side who can still spring a surprise in the World Cup.
They’ll have to do it the near-impossible way, given they share a pool with New Zealand and France. But in Kieran Crowley, they have a coach who can continue evolving this group of players and turning them into a team capable of multiple victories in a Six Nations campaign.
They’re not far away, but they must find a way to turn territory and attacking potential into tries. Time and time again in this championship they had the opposition scrambling in defence, with overlaps and opportunity, but it’d be one poor pass or a frustrating knock-on which would halt their progress. Composure needs to be found and harnessed before the World Cup.
“We keep turning up at the office though and hopefully a bounce will go our way one day,” Crowley said post-match. “It’s not for lack of effort. We’re playing an up-tempo game — we have to keep putting our players under that pressure in training and learn to execute a little bit better.”
They also need to keep the spine of this team fit. They looked far less potent without the wondrous Ange Capuozzo at fullback (injured in their round three defeat to Ireland), but they have a great batch of players coming through, like No. 8 Lorenzo Cannone and their front-row is again formidable like the old pack of yesteryear when Andrea Lo Cicero, Martin Castrogiovanni and Lorenzo Ghiraldini packed a punch.
So Crowley’s mission is about belief. It’s about getting this team to find a way to wrestle their way over the line and build on that historic victory in Wales last year. They haven’t yet got the strength in depth to manage star absentees but they’re on the right track.