The next stop on the road to the 2023 World Cup is the Six Nations, with this year’s edition shaping up to be one of the most intriguing championships in recent memory.
Ireland lead the betting after a strong summer and autumn, ahead of defending Grand Slam champions France. England and Wales are next as they look to put recent issues behind them under new coaching regimes, with Scotland and Italy rated as tournament outsiders but capable of springing a surprise.
Ireland narrowly missed out on a first Six Nations title since 2018 last year as they finished runner-up to France, a defeat in Paris in round two proving decisive.
Despite not claiming the top prize, there were still plenty of positives for Andy Farrell’s men to take as they won at Twickenham en route to a first Triple Crown in four years.
Ireland have since gone on to win a first-ever Test series in New Zealand and defeated Australia and South Africa in the autumn internationals in Dublin, extending their winning run at the Aviva Stadium to 12 matches in the process.
With three home games to come this Six Nations, coupled with trips to Wales and Italy, Ireland are in a strong position, and Farrell has an experienced squad at his disposal, naming a party featuring just one uncapped player.
Recent strong displays by Leinster, Munster and Ulster in the Champions Cup further back up the belief Ireland are the team to beat this year.
France snapped a 12-year wait for a Six Nations title in 2022, ending their drought in style as they completed an impressive Grand Slam.
Back-to-back championships for the first time since the class of 2006/07 is the next goal as Les Bleus seek to maintain their momentum heading into hosting the World Cup later in the year.
France ride a 13-game unbeaten run into this year’s tournament, showing amazing grit and determination in the autumn to see off South Africa and Australia at home in epic showdowns.
Head coach Fabien Galthie has been able to select a squad containing plenty of star power, including the likes of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Gregory Alldritt. However, it’s perhaps not as strong a squad as Galthie would like with several key forwards and powerful centre Jonathan Danty missing out through injury.
With a crop of key players also out of form and dates in Dublin and London to come on the road to defending their crown, France’s mettle will be seriously tested this year.
A new era for English rugby begins with the Six Nations as Steve Borthwick takes charge of the national side for the first time following his appointment in December.
Borthwick succeeds Eddie Jones, the Australian having been given his marching orders following an up and down 2022 that included a third-place finish in the Six Nations, a series win in Australia and an underwhelming autumn.
Borthwick has vowed to restore England’s identity and has picked an experienced squad to do the job for the Six Nations, recalling the likes of Dan Cole and Max Mallins, alongside five uncapped players.
Borthwick was quick to make Leicester a force to be reckoned with in domestic rugby, guiding them to the Premiership title last year, and will hope to do the same for an England side playing three of its five matches at Twickenham.
With Welsh rugby in crisis, Warren Gatland, Wales’ greatest ever head coach, has been parachuted in to get the national team back on track in the run up to the World Cup.
Previous coach Wayne Pivac was dismissed after a dreadful 2022 Six Nations which contained a first-ever home loss to Italy, followed by three defeats out of four in the autumn, including a maiden loss to Georgia.
The Wales squad is in need of a major overhaul but, with the young talent not coming through, Gatland has a big job on his hands.
Gatland has largely stuck with the familiar faces for the Six Nations, selecting just four uncapped players, while Ken Owens has been handed the captaincy.
Little is expected of Wales but Gatland’s track record - he guided Wales to four Six Nations titles in his previous stint - and the improvement of a Welsh-heavy Ospreys side has at least given a bit of cause for optimism.
Big things were expected of Scotland in the last Six Nations and, although their campaign started with a bang by retaining the Calcutta Cup with a win over England, it quickly tailed off as Gregor Townsend’s men came home fourth.
A summer Test series defeat to Argentina and a mixed bag of results in the autumn internationals have heaped the pressure on Townsend, who does at least appear to have patched up his differences with inspirational fly-half Finn Russell.
Russell, who was initially axed from the autumn squad, has been named in a squad that also features former England wing Ruaridh McConnochie.
Injuries elsewhere have denied Townsend of a few key players but Scotland will be hopeful they have enough talent in the ranks to improve on last year’s efforts, particularly with three games to come at Murrayfield.
After years of being the whipping boys, Italy ended their 36-match losing run with a deserved win over Wales in the final round of the 2022 Six Nations.
The Azzurri followed that historic Cardiff success by beating the lesser likes of European rugby in the summer before an autumn that contained impressive wins over Samoa and Australia.
They ended the year with a 61-23 thrashing by South Africa, proving they are far from being ready to compete against world rugby’s elite sides just yet, but there’s certainly a belief that Italy are moving in the right direction.
Head coach Kieran Crowley has named a youthful squad with an average age of 25 and although they are missing fly-half Paolo Garbisi for the start of the tournament, an exciting bunch of backs gives hope to them being more competitive than in previous editions.