In what was billed as one of the closest Six Nations campaigns in recent years, the 2023 edition of the competition has certainly lived up to the hype in the opening two game weeks. Following a barn storming two weekends of fixtures, the Six Nations title is still finely poised but only two sides are still in with a shot of clinching a Grand Slam: Scotland and Ireland.
For Scotland, they find themselves in relatively unchartered territory, having not won the Grand Slam since 1990 (when the competition was the Five Nations) and incredibly, they have never lifted the Six Nations trophy. Gregor Townsend has his side believing, following excellent wins over England and Wales but he will be all too aware of the challenge facing his side over the next month or so.
The front runners for both the Six Nations title and the Grand Slam however are very much Ireland, who look to be hitting their peak at the right time under their influential English coach Andy Farrell. Whilst the Six Nations inevitably picks up plenty of media coverage annually in the Northern Hemisphere, the fact that 2023 is a Rugby World Cup year and Ireland are currently the number one ranked side on the planet, adds to the sense of expectation surrounding this Irish side.
Impressive Irish Start
So far in the 2023 Six Nations, Ireland have shown their versatility, both in terms of their ability to control games but also to demonstrate physicality and grit when they have needed to. Opening up with a comprehensive 34-10 win over Wales in Cardiff, set the tone for what has been an impressive start for Ireland.
Perhaps their most eye-catching display so far this year though was the 32-19 win over defending Grand Slam champions France, at a raucous Aviva Stadium in Dublin. In what was viewed as a potential title decider, Ireland stood up to be counted and were able to out-muscle a famously physical French side, adding to the growing sense of belief that Ireland could clinch their first Six Nations Grand Slam since 2018.
Who next for Ireland?
Part of the ultimate challenge for any side looking to win the Six Nations, is the relentless nature of the competition. Winning 5 games in a row, against some of the toughest opponents in world rugby, is no easy task and whilst confidence is sure to be high in the Irish camp, the fact that Ireland have only ever achieved a Six Nations Grand Slam on three previous occasions, will not be lost on the current crop of players.
Whilst overcoming France in such emphatic fashion is sure to bring a huge confidence boost to the Irish camp, they still have three very tricky fixtures to overcome in the upcoming game weeks.
First up is a trip to Rome, to take on an improving Italian side. Italy have closed the gap in Six Nations terms hugely over the past few years and the success being enjoyed by Italian sides in domestic rugby, is transcending into the international sphere. It has been 10 years since Italy beat Ireland at international level, meaning this would be a huge upset but Ireland will know they will need to be on their mettle in the Italian capital.
The task does not get any easier for Ireland, who then head to a resurgent Scotland, who could also be chasing Grand Slam glory when the sides meet at Murrayfield. In recent years, Ireland have certainly had the wood over their great rivals but with so much potentially on the line, it promises to be a seismic battle between the two teams.
Should Ireland overcome the Scottish test, they will most likely have already wrapped up the Six Nations title, meaning it will be all to play for at home – against old foes England – as they chase an historic Grand Slam title. England are a side rebuilding under new coach Steve Borthwick and have already seen their chances of a Grand Slam disappear at the hands of Scotland but they are sure to provide a stern test for Andy Farrell’s side.
Clinching a Six Nations title is one thing but to take home the Grand Slam is another and with two wins from two and the nation behind them, fans and players are starting to believe that 2023 could be a historic year for Irish rugby.