In just two days the 2023 Guinness Six Nations kicks off with 15 huge clashes to decide a champion.
Predicting what will happen is a fool’s errand, but let us try something even more difficult, identifying who will be crowned Guinness Six Nations Player of the Championship.
In 2022, France’s Antoine Dupont scooped the title for the second time in three years after leading Les Bleus to the Grand Slam.
He won the vote ahead of fellow nominees Grégory Alldritt and Josh van der Flier, and could equal Brian O’Driscoll’s all-time record of three if he were to win it again this year.
Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg is another who could match O’Driscoll, having won the Player of the Championship award in both 2016 and 2017.
And yet, in this attempt to pick out a top candidate from each nation, neither Dupont nor Hogg have made the cut.
Here is an attempt to pick out six top candidates to succeed Dupont:
Grégory Alldritt (France)
If France make history by winning successive Grand Slams, it would not be a shock to see a Dupont hat-trick, but teammate Grégory Alldritt is another strong contender.
Outstanding in 2022 for Les Bleus, he also led La Rochelle to a maiden European title and is one of the most complete players in the game.
At club level, he has a nose for the try-line, with 34 in 82 starts for La Rochelle, but it has been three years since he last scored for France. If he can get back in try-scoring form, do not be surprised to see him challenge.
Ange Capuozzo (Italy)
Even after last year’s improvement, we are probably a little way from Italy competing to win the Guinness Six Nations title, but ten of the 19 previous winners did not come from the side that lifted the trophy.
That includes one Italian, Andrea Masi, who was crowned in 2011, and Ange Capuozzo seems the most likely candidate to succeed him.
The full-back who produced perhaps the most iconic moment of the 2022 Championship, has not looked back, helping Italy to a first-ever win over Australia, and impressing for new club Toulouse. He faces some of his teammates in Italy’s opener, and with five tries in seven appearances for the Azzurri, will be one to watch.
Jac Morgan (Wales)
There is a case for one of the familiar faces called in by Warren Gatland, including 2019 winner Alun Wyn Jones, but we are going to go for someone who was not involved in the New Zealander’s first spell in charge.
Wales are overflowing with options on the flank but Jac Morgan has been so good for the Ospreys, as well as in the Autumn Nations Series, that he was impossible to overlook.
A strong ball-carrier with a knack for the try-line, Morgan can also play across the back row. Could he follow in the footsteps of Martyn Williams, Dan Lydiate and Hamish Watson in winning the prize from flanker?
Finn Russell (Scotland)
It does not take much to work out why Finn Russell would be a candidate to win this prize, even if no fly-half has previously done so.
The maverick label is probably outdated, although it is still true that Russell has aspects to his game that are the envy of most of his contemporaries.
He has been in scintillating form for Racing 92, and shone for Scotland in November. In what could be Gregor Townsend’s last campaign in charge, it might be the opportunity for another Scottish fly-half to shine.
Johnny Sexton (Ireland)
This is as much about narrative as anything else. Johnny Sexton will play his final Guinness Six Nations campaign, and likely finish as the Championship’s top points scorer of all time.
Leading an Ireland team who are ranked number one in the world and in search of a first title since 2018, it would only be fitting if Sexton finished on a high with team and individual silverware.
Of course, teammate and reigning world player of the year Josh van der Flier is among the many others who could easily have been included in this list.
Freddie Steward (England)
If you include Andrea Masi, who played two matches at full-back in 2011, then players wearing the No.15 jersey have won the Player of the Championship five times, more than any other position.
That might come as a surprise, particularly when you think that no full-back has ever won World Rugby’s men’s player of the year. In England’s new-look side, it feels like Freddie Steward could have an even bigger role to play.
After making an accomplished start to life at Test level, his ability under the high ball will surely be a big part of England’s game plan, and if he can thrive in a successful England side, he might even follow in the footsteps of new Leicester teammate Mike Brown by winning the trophy.