The Six Nations kicks off on Saturday with its usual mix of intrigue and anticipation and Racing Post’s Graham Woods has provided his best bets for the tournament.
Hotpots Ireland and France are slugging it out for favouritism, England and Wales have new coaches, Scotland are still searching for some consistency to add to their occasional brilliance, while Italy finally ended their long winless run with a shock victory over Wales in the final round last year.
France claimed a Grand Slam in 2022 but Ireland are the top-ranked team in the world and narrow favourites given they face Les Bleus at home this year.
What sets the Six Nations apart on the international stage is its short, unforgiving format and just how close-fought so many of the battles are. For that reason punters are often wary of short-priced favourites and prefer to seek value further down the market.
England to win two matches @ 5/2
|What||Six Nations 2023|
|Where||London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Dublin, Paris and Rome|
|When||Saturday 4th February - Saturday 18th March|
|How to watch||BBC and ITV|
|Odds||Ireland 13/10, France 15/8, England 4/1, Wales 10/1, Scotland 18/1, Italy 500/1|
France were Grand Slam winners last year, Ireland took second after a narrow defeat in Paris but topped the scoring charts as well as boasting the best defence, and the top two were a considerable cut above the rest.
But both teams go off shorter than 2/1, and it’s so tough to choose between them. France have to go to Dublin but were 15-13 winners there on their last visit in 2021. One solution for anyone who can’t see beyond the big two is to back the dual forecast (France and Ireland to finish first and second in either order) at .
However, there is a danger lurking in the shape of Wales, back in the hands of coach Warren Gatland and something of an unknown quantity for first-up opponents Ireland.
Yes, 2022 was a disaster for Wales, featuring defeats to Italy and Georgia which led to the departure of Wayne Pivac. But they had a disastrous 2020 too and went on to land the Six Nations title in 2021, and one thing Gatland can be relied on is to prompt a reaction from his players.
They open up against favourites Ireland in Cardiff - where they have won and covered the handicap in five of the last six tournament meetings - and we can be sure the passionate Welsh fans will have had their fire re-ignited by Gatland’s return.
Wales are shots to repeat their title of success of two years ago but make more appeal at a bigger price to land a Triple Crown. After Ireland at home Wales go to Scotland before facing England at home and success in that run of fixtures before away games in Italy and France looks within their grasp.
England are also led by a new coach after the departure of Eddie Jones. One frequent criticism of Jones was his failure to settle on a system and core of players, especially in the backline, and it may take time for new head man Steve Borthwick to make his mark.
Although opening fixtures at home to Scotland and then Italy make for a comfortable start, the path quickly gets much steeper with trips to Cardiff and Ireland either side of a visit from France, and two wins, to match their tally of the last two years, may be the best this England side can manage.
The top tryscorer market is pretty open, and although French and Irish players feature heavily at the top, that underlines just how much firepower both teams have and they tend to share their tries around.
Ireland were the top scorers last year with 24 - bagging a try bonus point in all four wins - and winger James Lowe led the way with three tries while four others scored two. Damian Penaud and Gabin Villiere bagged three each for France while three players scored two.
There’s no Jonny May for England this year while Wales whizzkid Louis Rees-Zammit is set to miss at least the first two rounds, as is Scotland’s Darcy Graham.
Scotland used to struggle for tries in this competition for many years but have much more of an edge now with Stuart Hogg, Duhan van de Merwe and Sione Tuipulotu along with Graham all conducted by a world-class fly-half in Finn Russell.
They ended the year with 15 tries in their four autumn internationals, including eight against Argentina, and in every game they were on the board inside the first 15 minutes. Scotland landed 18 tries two years ago with the same set of fixtures and three home matches, and odds of 10/1 that they top the try charts looks too big.