6 Nations: France, Ireland set for duel under Netflix glare

Jan 26, 2023, 6:34 PM | Updated: Jan 27, 2023, 8:36 am
FILE - Ireland head coach Andy Farrell watches his players warm-up ahead of the rugby international...

FILE - Ireland head coach Andy Farrell watches his players warm-up ahead of the rugby international between the All Blacks and Ireland at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, Saturday, July 2, 2022. The 2023 Six Nations will start on Feb. 4. (Andrew Cornaga/Photosport via AP, File)

(Andrew Cornaga/Photosport via AP, File)

              FILE - The new England Rugby Union coach Steve Borthwick poses for the photographers during a photocall at Twickenham Stadium in London, Monday, Dec. 19, 2022. The 2023 Six Nations starts on Feb. 4. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File)
            
              FILE - Wales coach Warren Gatland, walks on the field prior to the Rugby World Cup bronze final game at Tokyo Stadium between New Zealand and Wales in Tokyo, Japan, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. The 2023 Six Nations starts on Feb. 4. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila, File)
            
              FILE - Ireland head coach Andy Farrell watches his players warm-up ahead of the rugby international between the All Blacks and Ireland at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, Saturday, July 2, 2022. The 2023 Six Nations will start on Feb. 4. (Andrew Cornaga/Photosport via AP, File)

Rugby’s oldest championship is getting a modern twist with the Netflix streaming service being given a behind-the-scenes look at the 2023 Six Nations for a docuseries released next year.

It should help to broaden the sport’s appeal, driving more interest in the United States especially ahead of the country hosting a Rugby World Cup for the first time in 2031, but what is it likely to tell us?

Probably that France and Ireland are the European countries in best shape for a tilt at the World Cup title later this year.

That England and Wales will likely be works in progress under new coaches.

And that Italy is still lagging way behind as usual.

The Six Nations, which starts on Feb. 4, is a big deal in its own right but there’s an added dimension to it in a World Cup year. It’s inevitable that the team crowned the best in the northern hemisphere in mid-March will be burdened with extra expectation in the buildup to the global showpiece, which will start six months later in France.

It’s hard to look beyond the Irish and the French — the top two teams in the world ranking and the leading two teams with the bookmakers to win the Six Nations. They also have the last two World Rugby players of the year in France scrumhalf Antoine Dupont (2021) and Ireland flanker Josh van der Flier (2022).

France is the defending champion after its Grand Slam success last year, which ended the country’s 12-year wait to be kings of Europe. Les Tricolores are on a 13-game winning run stretching back to November 2021, a streak which includes victories over every top country from the southern and northern hemispheres.

It’s setting up the prospect of possibly the greatest ever year in French rugby — the national team has never won the World Cup — and confidence couldn’t be higher.

“Are we defending a title or going to get a title?” asked France coach Fabien Galthié, who has turned around the team’s fortunes since taking charge after the 2019 World Cup. “That is the question we will ask amongst ourselves and that will give us a collective vision.

“Because when we took on this team three years ago, we said we wanted to win matches quickly, we wanted to win titles and we wanted to become a force in world rugby again. That was three years ago, and we are still working on the structure we put in place three years ago.”

Then again, Ireland might have even better form, having won a first ever series in New Zealand — 2-1 — in July followed by victories over South Africa, Fiji and Australia in November. Andy Farrell’s team has lost just two test matches out of 19 since Feb. 27, 2021; the first test against the All Blacks last summer and 30-24 in France in last year’s Six Nations.

Ireland and France are playing three of their five games away from home in this championship. Crucially, the Irish are at home when they meet in round two and also finish the championship at Lansdowne Road when England visits.

“To prove that we can do something in the World Cup,” Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton said, “we need to go and do something in the Six Nations as well.”

Playing Wales away on the opening weekend will reveal plenty about Ireland — and also the host.

Because Warren Gatland is back in charge of the Welsh, making them a dangerous outsider once more. The Welsh were unlikely champions in 2021 under Wayne Pivac before unraveling, sparking the departure of the New Zealander in December — just 10 months out from the World Cup.

Gatland is a seasoned campaigner and a four-time winner of the Six Nations with Wales. This would be his best if he can engineer a turnaround.

Likewise, England heads into round one on the back of a change of coach, with Eddie Jones’ seven-year reign ending a day after Pivac was let go and Steve Borthwick taking over.

Borthwick doesn’t have the gravitas of Gatland but looks to have a similar, simple style of play relying on getting the basics right. Expect England to be more solid than under the final months of Jones but too far behind Ireland and France to mount a title bid.

Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has raised the prospect of this being his last Six Nations in charge, given he might leave after the World Cup. So he won’t be short of motivation heading to Twickenham in round one for rugby’s oldest fixture.

England has won only one of its last five matches against its auld enemy and might be using a new-look backline containing young and in-form players in the English Premiership such as 21-year-old center Dan Kelly and wingers Ollie Hassell-Collins (23) and Cadan Murley (22).

It’s difficult to call a winner there, unlike whenever Italy plays.

The Azzurri won its last Six Nations game, 22-21 in Cardiff, but lost 36 straight before that. An eighth consecutive wooden spoon — and an 18th in 24 editions since joining the competition in 2000 — is likely to be heading their way.

___

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6 Nations: France, Ireland set for duel under Netflix glare