Rugby’s greatest championship is over for another year, and yet again it lived up to the pre-tournament hype.
Every time it comes around, it provides drama, intrigue, and emotional moments at every turn. The genuine quality of entertainment it offered in 2023 was captivating throughout.
From Duhan Van Der Merwe’s mesmeric gliding run across the Twickenham turf in round one to Jack Conan’s impression of a prime Sonny Bill Williams in the assist for the try that won the Grand Slam, the Guinness Six Nations once again showed the best of what this sport has to offer.
Each team went into the tournament with different aims, from Italy’s of building on a promising 2022 to France who were looking for a second consecutive Grand Slam. There has also been so much to learn about each of them as they hurtle towards a Rugby World Cup in just six months’ time.
Here, we are going to give a rating to each team as well as highlight their stars and breakthrough stars.
Championship place – 1
Keenan has fully announced himself as one of the best rugby players on the planet this year. Having cemented himself as the first name on the teamsheet for Andy Farrell, his influence continues to increase in Ireland’s ever-growing attacking game – whilst also being one of the safest pairs of hands in defence in international rugby.
Okay. I may have cheated massively here, but given that Ireland have the most settled squad in World Rugby, it was always going to be a challenge to select anyone in this category. Therefore, I’ve bent the rules, and the intention is to say that Doris has broken away from all others to become the best number eight in the world, bar none.
At 24, that’s quite an accolade, but given his clear influence in every part of Ireland’s game, it is not hyperbole. The most impressive thing about Doris is his feet. Wherever he is on the pitch, he will steal metres he has no right to as a result of footwork just before contact. This gets his team on the front foot and keeps them there eternally.
Is this Ireland peaking before the start of a World Cup campaign yet again? Will they finally make it into the final four of the tournament?
Those are the two questions that Andy Farrell and Ireland still need to answer, but this time feels different. They feel battle-hardened and look unbeatable. Their biggest test came from the French in Dublin, but even after the setback of Damien Penaud’s all-time great try in the first half, they stuck to their process and found a way through to victory.
This would have been a pristine tournament for Ireland had a couple of offloads stuck in the game at Murrayfield, and that shows their dominance. No one else got close in truth.
Championship place – 2
It would have been boring to wax lyrical about Antoine Dupont any further, so instead I am going to focus on his Toulouse teammate, who was quietly just as effective.
Coming into this tournament, Ntamack was facing questions over his place in the team, with the maverick Matthieu Jalibert pressing hard for a place in the out-half shirt. Now there can be no question, even considering the cruel injury that befell Jalibert.
Ntamack has long been a superb kicker, finding and executing kicks to press teams back and force errors for the genius inside him to capitalise on. Of course, we have known for a long time about the magic he can create in attack - he was the joint top try assister with four - but in this tournament, there were signs of the fly-half developing his game further, with more reliance on his decision-making and game management. He’s special, and he’s only just getting started.
At just 23 years old, he has the opportunity to make himself an all-time great.
The Lyon winger is yet another jewel in the crown of the French. With the injury troubles that have meant that Gabin Villiere has only made two appearances this season, it was unclear who was going to take the spot opposite Damien Penaud in the French side.
Dumortier came into the team and looked like a breath of fresh air. He is raw and does make errors, with his defence of the backfield an area that is of concern in Test rugby. However, his benefits far outweigh the negatives and his ability to stay on his feet and evade tackles is rare, with his finishing superb too. With 13 tries in 15 appearances this season, his form has come at the perfect time and it would be a surprise if Villiere or anyone else could reclaim that 11 shirt anytime soon.
France had a good tournament. Clearly, losing out on the title to Ireland will have hurt, but they have learned plenty about themselves as a team and their focus was always on giving themselves a better chance of winning the war at home in the autumn, rather than a battle in Dublin in the spring.
Four wins out of five is not to be sniffed at, given the quality of opposition, with the obvious highlight being the mauling at Twickenham that announced a superiority over L’Anglais that has rarely been felt.
The worry for France is that they are more reliant than ever on key individuals, with the mercurial Antoine Dupont clearly at the top of the list. France now have no more competitive games before New Zealand in Paris on September 8th, and backup nine Maxime Lucu has barely played international rugby. In fact, he has played just 287 minutes for his country in two years. Of course, it would be a crying shame if Dupont were to miss any portion of the tournament, but I feel France will regret not getting their backups in certain positions up-to-speed if the worst were to happen.
Championship place – 3
Lomu-like. Is there any higher praise for the Scottish winger? Van Der Merwe is unplayable right now. He is too fast, too strong and too intelligent to stop. Whatever space he gets, he makes metres and turns the average ball into quick-ball that Scotland can attack from.
He, ‘Huwipulotu’ and Finn Russell make a backline that will scare any defender in World Rugby and could carry Scotland much further than many are giving them a chance in the World Cup.
You can rarely say a winger is integral to the game plan of any side, with them often being the ‘add-ons’ with some stardust to offer. Scotland though, are so intelligent with the way they use the 27-year-old, at times utilising him as an extra forward, who carries in and around the ruck to gain momentum with him then appearing at the end of the move with a piece of magic like the one at Murrayfield against Italy.
Ben White has been through a lot in his career. Two years ago, he was fifth choice scrum half at Leicester Tigers and was ultimately deemed surplus to requirements. Now, he is the undisputed first pick for both club and country. Not only that, but he was better than every other scrum-half whose name wasn't Antoine Dupont.
His passing speed and support lines are superb, and Finn Russell would not be able to create half of the magic that he does without the sharp thinking of White inside him. The scrum-half is integral to how the Scots play.
The Scots are slowly building, yet still somewhat going under the radar. They pushed Ireland – the best team in the world – as close as anyone, and if they had taken some more of their opportunities then they could have made it very close towards the end of the game.
The nagging doubt about Scotland has always been consistency though, with brilliant performances followed by lacklustre ones.
At times it seemed that they had turned a corner to fight at the top table, but in context, their wins came against generationally bad England and Wales sides, as well as a scrappy win over the Azzurri. One thing is for certain though, with the form of Russell, Van Der Merwe and co, they can truly contend with anyone on their day and will be pushing to challenge in the tournament next year.
Championship place – 4
In truth, over the entirety of the tournament, there weren’t many options for this category for England. Almost all of their forwards were bullied throughout, and of what ball they did get, the backs did very little with it.
Jack Willis is one who can hold his head high after his showing in the white shirt, though. After a difficult season with the demise of Wasps, a move across the channel - and then a change of leadership with England - Willis has adapted seamlessly to the new style of rugby that Steve Borthwick craves. He is almost a carbon copy of Tommy Reffell, who Borthwick loved in his time at Leicester Tigers due to his never-ending work rate alongside crucial turnovers and jackal threat.
As soon as Steve Borthwick was named as the next head coach of England, there must have been few happier men than Ollie Chessum.
??It was great to write this piece, particularly as Ollie’s former club Kesteven is my local team!— Imogen Ainsworth (@I_Ainsworth01) February 8, 2023
??What a weekend it was for the Chessum brothers, both wearing number five for England against Scotland
Check it out ?? https://t.co/ylgeTBUWVD
The giant lock has been nurtured by Borthwick ever since he spotted him at Nottingham in the Championship three years ago and is now absolutely flourishing. It was telling that despite naming specialised locks on the bench in every game, Chessum and Maro Itoje were never removed.
They have developed into the clear first choices, and there was a significant drop-off in the performance of David Ribbans in Dublin. It was therefore a massive shame for player, club, and country when Chessum suffered a serious ankle injury in training last week. The timeframe given by England for his comeback was five to six months, which puts his World Cup in doubt.
It is so hard to grade the performance of a team (and management structure) that has been together for a short period, but the harsh reality is that they have not improved since the autumn internationals and have had a disappointing campaign.
It would be better to judge the Borthwick era after a year, but the choice the RFU made gave the ex-Leicester boss five competitive games before a World Cup, and after those matches, we are no closer to knowing the best team or squad heading into the tournament.
There were bright sparks in the performances of Ollie Chessum, Jack Willis, Freddie Steward, and Lewis Ludlam, but in the main, players who have been on top of the world in past years are not quite at that level right now, and that is harming England’s chances of winning games.
Championship position – 5
There was a reason that Ken Owens was named as the captain of Wales moving forward. He is the consistent bedrock of that team and remains a class above their other hookers. A new side will be built by Gatland, but Owens should be at the heart of it.
At times when Wales were outclassed during this tournament, it was only Owens’ heart, desire and sheer bloody-mindedness that kept his team from taking some real hammerings.
Joe Hawkins headlines a long list of talented Welsh youngsters who seem ready for a changing of the guard under Warren Gatland.
How, and when, he manages that will define his second tenure as the head coach of Wales. Hawkins is undoubtedly the future in the centre, but he will not have the opportunity to thrive if there continues to be mediocrity in the pack.
In defence and attack, he has shown glimpses but because of Wales’ inferiority throughout most of the tournament, he has had much more time defending, where he has impressed with four dominant hits and turnovers won in the tackle in three games.
Much of the same could be said about Wales as England just above, yet if anything the situation is even bleaker. The shadow that has hung over their entire campaign remains, as players still do not know where they will be playing next season, and the fact that an international rugby team almost had to resort to strike action is laughable.
On the field is not much brighter. They have never been worse defensively, conceding 11 more tries compared to this time last year, and Warren Gatland has been erratic with his selection, with Alun Wyn Jones and Dan Biggar amongst others coming in and out of the squad while there has been a lack of consistent partnerships.
Still, there will always be hope for Wales because of their spirit, which was shown perfectly in the massively entertaining final game in Paris, as Wales offered the least Gatland performance possible in the first 30 minutes, before succumbing to the pressure of the French.
There were enough sparks, from Christ Tshiunza amongst others, to see that there is a bright future in Welsh rugby if off-the-field issues can be sorted out.
Championship position – 6
Everything about the resurgence of Italy as a team comes from their captain, Michele Lamaro. The passion that has always defined Italian rugby now comes through him, but he is so much more than that. He is world-class.
Whilst he is superb at all of the basics of a backrower, Lamaro also offers possibly the best spatial awareness beyond a fly-half in world rugby. Wherever he is on the field, he is aware of all that is around him, and never takes an easy option of a ‘bash-up’ carry when there is a better opportunity for a teammate. Keeping him fit is essential if the Italians are to carry on their upward trajectory.
Possibly the most pleasing aspect of international rugby over the past decade has been the spreading of hugely talented players away from the traditional superpowers, but also to those teams at the lower end of tier one as well as tier two nations.
Brex is the perfect example of this. A silky footballer, he is also an accomplished defender that has given Italy the third-best midfield in the championship after Ireland and France. Wherever they are on the field, Brex, along with Luca Morisi work perfectly in tandem to create space out wide for their attacking game.
That grade may seem harsh, given that Italy were in every game until late on, and weren’t truly blown away once, unlike in previous years.
6 Nations 2023 ???? Proud of this Team. Lots of Positives to build on. Thank you everyone for all the support over the last few weeks????— Sebastian Negri (@slnegri04) March 20, 2023
// Orgoglioso di questa squadra. Tanti aspetti positivi su cui costruire. Grazie a tutti per il supporto in queste settimane ?? @Federugby pic.twitter.com/8AJXXYwiVI
Italy are a serious threat in each game now, and so I’m treating them as a country that expects to win matches because that’s the situation they’re in. They weren’t far off being victorious in this tournament, with minor decisions – such as the knock-on at the end of their game at Murrayfield – costing them in a big way.
If Italy want to become a team that will win games, and eventually championships, they must develop a killer instinct to finish off games that are there for the taking.
As a result of Italy becoming a much more competitive side over the past two years, the chat about a relegation play-off has died down, however, there still needs to be a pathway for other nations to join the ‘big-time’ in the way that the Azzurri did. Georgia have now won six consecutive Rugby Europe Championships and deserve a route to improve.