What are the biggest questions facing each team ahead of Round 3?

Ross Byrne 2000
After a rest week, the focus is now firmly on the 2023 Guinness Six Nations halfway point with two teams still striving for Grand Slam glory.

After a rest week, the focus is now firmly on the 2023 Guinness Six Nations halfway point with two teams still striving for Grand Slam glory.

Pre-Championship favourites Ireland have met expectations by beating Wales and France in their opening two games, while Scotland have matched them by winning in England and at home to Wales.

But this weekend will be a stern test for Gregor Townsend’s side as they travel to face defending champions France, who are in need of a victory to get their title defence back on track.

Elsewhere, England visit Wales after getting a first win of the Championship in Round 2, while there are plenty of questions facing their opponents who sit bottom of the standings.

Italy impressed on the opening weekend, almost earning a shock win over France before a defeat against England, and now take on an Ireland side looking to make it three from three.

Here are the biggest questions facing each team ahead of Round 3.

Can Ireland’s depth keep shining?

Irish rugby has never been so good. Ranked world number one, while on track for a Grand Slam all in a World Cup year, things are looking very rosy.

But what has been most impressive so far, is how Ireland have managed expectations and remained level-headed.

They opened the Championship with a dominant 34-10 win at Wales before a hard-earned 32-19 victory over France in an all-time classic encounter in Dublin.

All that has been achieved without players who would have seemed irreplaceable before the campaign started, most notably tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong.

This weekend in Rome, James Ryan will take over the captaincy with Johnny Sexton out, while Ross Byrne gets the No.10 jersey.

They will still be strong favourites to make it three from three but it is also a chance for Andy Farrell to get an even closer look at some of his back-up options in a pressure environment.

Are Scotland the real deal?

Sunday could mark a record breaking weekend for Scottish rugby, as they look to win three games out of three for the first time in the Six Nations era.

Scotland shone in Round 1 to win 29-23 at Twickenham, before running riot in front of the BT Murrayfield faithful to beat Wales 35-7.

But those two wins came against teams in transition under a new head coach, so this weekend is their biggest test yet.

France will be hurting from that Ireland defeat and itching to set the record straight to get their title defence back on track.

So how will Scotland manage a resurgent France side, who boast world class quality through Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack?

Consistency has also been the issue for Gregor Townsend’s side in recent years. Is that something they can overcome to maintain momentum and keep up hopes of Guinness Six Nations glory?

Can France bounce back?

France’s last match against Ireland is the one many looked at as the potential Championship decider.

It was the world’s two best sides going head-to-head and the match lived up to the pre-match hype, looking on a knife-edge for the majority of the 80 minutes before eventually went in favour of the top ranked team.

Not only that, but it ended France’s hopes of being the first side to clinch back-to-back Grand Slams in the Six Nations era.

This weekend is massive for Les Bleus. Another loss will most likely end their title defence but if they get a win, then they are still in with a chance.

But unlike Ireland, France have not yet reached expectations in 2023 considering Round 1 was a nervy 29-24 win for them at Italy.

Scotland provide a huge test of France’s character to see if they can overcome the visitors, with sights on a home World Cup later in the year.

Has Borthwick found his midfield?

After an opening defeat to Scotland, Steve Borthwick overhauled his playmaking axis, moving Owen Farrell to fly-half with Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade outside him.

While it was England’s maul that was largely responsible for their bounce-back win over Italy, Lawrence thrived, and was named Player of the Match for his display.

So it is little surprise that Borthwick has stuck with the same trio for the trip to Cardiff, meaning a spot on the bench for Marcus Smith once again.

In the Italy game, Smith came on to play alongside Farrell, rather than slotting in for his skipper, and it is clear that England’s attack will revolve around the captain first and foremost.

Against a Wales team with two rookie centres, it feels like a real opportunity for Farrell to get even more out of Lawrence in Cardiff, and for England to bed in their new combination a little more.

France and Ireland, the world’s top two teams, await in the final two rounds, but another successful 80 minutes might convince Borthwick that he has hit on something with his 10-12-13 combination.

Where do Wales go from here?

It has been anything but a fairytale return for head coach Warren Gatland so far.

Opting for experience in the opening game – fielding eight players over the age of 30 – Wales suffered defeat to Ireland, before going for a more youthful approach against Scotland.

The result was still the same, however, and Wales sit bottom of the Guinness Six Nations.

Now with England coming to town, Gatland has gone for a mix of more youth in the backline, with experienced reinforcements up front.

Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau are all back in the starting XV, while in the backs Mason Grady gets his debut, linking up with former Wales Under-20s centre partner Joe Hawkins.

Those two are undoubtedly raw, but obviously talented and have experience playing together. They will be playing outside a new fly-half in Owen Williams and while he certainly does not have Dan Biggar’s experience, it may be that he is more compatible with Tomos Williams.

The bigger questions may be up front. Gatland has gone with experience in his front five, where only Gareth Thomas was not involved four years ago the last time the New Zealander took on England.

He will be hoping that they can provide enough ball for the likes of Hawkins and Grady to thrive.

Can the France game inspire Italy to claim a surprise win?

Italy almost started the 2023 Championship with a brilliant, shock victory against the defending champions.

In front of a home crowd, the Italians led 24-22 after 62 minutes and were giving France a very good game.

Eventually, the quality of the visitors just shone through.

But it did show how far Italy have progressed in the last two years, with the team collecting historic wins over Wales and Australia in 2022 before almost adding France to that list.

Game management is their biggest issue.

With seven minutes to go against France at five points down, Italy opted for an ambitious shot at goal instead of kicking for touch at a point where they had gathered momentum.

Now they have star fly-half Paolo Garbisi back, and he should have a huge impact on that game management. Whether it will be enough to beat Ireland, the world’s best team who have their sights on a Grand Slam, is doubtful.

But if Italy improve their decision-making, they might make it a little more uncomfortable for Andy Farrell and his men.