Last year’s Guinness Six Nations felt like one of the most hotly anticipated Championship’s for years, the first played out of the gloomy shadow cast by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Returning to stadiums and resuming matchday rituals was a relief as much as it was a joy.
But there is a fresh air to the 2023 Championship. The winds of change have been felt in the coaching box, with Warren Gatland and Steve Borthwick – neither a stranger to the Championship – hoping to breathe new life into their sides.
Scotland’s search for consistency promises to be an intriguing one while Italy have shown they will not suffer fools gladly.
And what of the battle between last year’s top two? Grand Slam holders France are out to steal Ireland’s tag as world No.1, with Andy Farrell’s side the first northern hemisphere nation to sit atop the world rankings heading into a Championship since 2004.
So ahead of what should be campaign to savour, let’s run you through six of the biggest storylines set to unfold.
How will Ireland cope with target on their backs?
The task ahead of Ireland and Andy Farrell is not an envious one.
Not only are they chasing a first title in five years, Ireland are the team everyone wants to beat, having moved to the top of the world rankings in July last year after their series win in New Zealand.
The pressure of defending a Six Nations title is one that the likes of Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Cian Healy have handled previously – Ireland defended their crown in 2015.
But the weight of being the world’s best is sure to bring it’s own, unfamiliar challenges.
Farrell could not have done much more in his three-and-a-bit years at the helm, but a first Guinness Six Nations title remains outstanding.
The reward is great – but should Ireland lose to France in Round 2, they might just forfeit the Championship, and with that, their No.1 status.
Friendships put to one side among coaching staff
Another niche to this year’s Championship is the relationship among the coaching staff, with the home nations contingent having crossed paths throughout their careers.
That largely centres on Warren Gatland’s time as head coach of the British & Irish Lions, with Andy Farrell having taken the reins as defence coach during the 2013 and 2017 tours, Steve Borthwick having assumed forwards duties for the 2017 epic and Gregor Townsend setting the attacking blueprint for the 2021 expedition.
The simple conclusion to make then, would be that Gatland has the advantage, having witnessed three of his rivals at work.
But Scotland’s Townsend is the only one the Kiwi has come up against previously, with Borthwick and Farrell having refined their ideologies since their time under Gatland’s stewardship – the two apprentices now better equipped than ever to show the sorcerer just how much they have learnt.
England handling pressure moments
Steve Borthwick believes that England need more support in the pressure situations that determine the outcome of Test matches.
Certainly in England’s Autumn Nations Series loss to Argentina and to a lesser extent in the bruising defeat by South Africa, fine margins cost them dear.
Shell-shocked by a brilliant Pumas score at the start of the second half, England failed to re-establish control and shipped a second try just four minutes after the first.
Then a few weeks later, Jonny Hill’s pull of Faf de Klerk’s shirt was a dear one, with the world champions crossing just a couple minutes later, a score which sapped all remaining life out of the hosts.
On both occasions, England were the masters of their own downfall and with ‘clarity’ a key buzzword of Borthwick’s, keep an eye on England’s composure when the pressure mounts this spring.
How different will this Wales look?
Seven of those who started Warren Gatland’s last Championship fixture start the first game of his second spell as head coach.
So while he has resisted a complete overhaul, there is a fresh feel to this Wales side, with the likes of Rio Dyer and Joe Hawkins selected ahead of Nick Tompkins and Alex Cuthbert for Round 1.
That said, a few of Gatland’s former favourites have kept their places in the team, with Justin Tipuric and Alun Wyn Jones two of the big hitters in a very experienced pack, whose collective mobility will be tested.
Ken Owens selection as captain came as a surprise but that may say more about the competition facing Jones in the second row, with Dafydd Jenkins, Rhys Davies and Christ Tshiunza all vying for a starting spot.
Tommy Reffell can count himself very unlucky to have missed out on this occasion but if the Leicester Tigers man maintains current form it will only be a matter of time before he forces a way into the starting line-up.
Who will shine next for Italy?
This time last year, Ange Capuozzo was a name unfamiliar to many. But the full-back burst onto the Championship scene with a two-try showing against Scotland and coming-of-age performance against Wales.
This could be the breakthrough campaign for Tommaso Menoncello, a try-scorer in Round 1 last year, he was only denied a full campaign through a hamstring injury.
Hailed as one of the top five young players former Benetton coach Paul Gustard has worked with, he will break through either on the wing or in the centres – it’s just a matter of when.
France’s depth set to be tested
As many as six of France’s regular matchday 23 from last year’s Championship are facing a spell on the sidelines, forcing Fabien Galthie to reassess as they defend their crown.
The absence of centre Jonathan Danty will be keenly felt and may force a change in role for Gael Fickou. Though, as the case always seems to be, Galthie is not short of alternatives, ranging from Top 14’s top try-scorer Ethan Dumortier to former under-20s captain Émilien Gailleton, who is incidentally just one short of the Lyon flyer’s tally this season.
Whoever comes in will have to get up to speed quickly, with France in no mood to carry stragglers as they go in search of back-to-back titles ahead of the Rugby World Cup in the autumn.