In the history of the Championship, no team that has won the Six Nations in a Rugby World Cup year has won the following Championship. Ireland dominated the 2023 Championship, seizing a Grand Slam victory. With a new captain, new fly-half, and the still-fresh disappointment of a Quarter-final exit in the World Cup, will they be the same team that took the Northern Hemisphere by storm last season?
Ireland isn’t alone in being a team in transition. Five nations have named new captains, and a total of 27 uncapped players have been included in the Six Nations squads. England, who finished fourth in the 2023 Guinness Six Nations but were unexpected Bronze medallists at the World Cup, have named a Championship high seven uncapped players. However, will changes in personnel see changes in tactics? Insights provided by Sage from last year’s Six Nations can give a flavour of how teams may approach the upcoming Championship.
In recent seasons, Scotland’s modus operandi has been getting the ball to their wide threats in style. The 2023 season was no exception, finishing the 2023 Guinness Six Nations with the highest average pass distance in the Championship (7.5 metres). The appointment of Finn Russell as co-captain for the 2024 Championship suggests that fans can expect more of the same elegance from the Scottish attack. Perhaps the most significant talisman in the Northern Hemisphere game, Russell’s vision was the heartbeat of his team, his hands and boot the engine of their threat. He was the only fly-half in last season’s Championship to make over 1,000 passing metres.
In contrast, Champions Ireland took a more collective approach to distribution. Meticulously organised in attack, they made a tournament-high average of 149.8 passes per match, trusting the skill of players across the park and generating lots of touches. The now-retired Johnny Sexton was the orchestrator of this intricate passing network, which offset the volume of passes with the lowest average pass distance in the tournament (6.3 metres).
However, Ireland’s first Championship without the 2018 World Rugby Player of the Year will see the return of key attacking decision-makers, notably in the back row. Caelan Doris’ 11.1 metre assist of Garry Ringrose, in contact, remains as remarkable a year on; Josh van der Flier was also given a prominent role as a distributor. For the men in green, it feels like a story more of continuity than change. Will it just be a case of installing their chosen fly-half into an already well-oiled machine?
This is in stark contrast with England. Owen Farrell, England’s captain at the last two Rugby World Cups, has appeared in 80% (48) of their Six Nations matches since his international debut in 2012. Last season, he made the joint-most kicks in play among fly-halves, averaging 9.3 per match (equal with Finn Russell). His absence will mark a notable change in the composition of their team. Will this be accompanied by a tactical change now that Steve Borthwick’s tenure as head coach has begun in earnest?
Alex Mitchell, a player in perhaps his best form, could now assume greater playmaking responsibility, particularly if a less experienced fly-half is selected alongside England’s incumbent nine. Mitchell had the highest average pass distance in the 2023 Guinness Six Nations (8.8 metres), while England was the only team to average over a kilometre of kicking metres per match. How will distribution via passing balance with the territorial play of this new-look England side?
In a very similar boat to their arch-rivals, Wales go into this Championship with a much-changed squad and a recently reappointed Head Coach. Three Welsh centurions (Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar, and Taulupe Faletau) who started in their Championship opener last season aren’t available for selection. Combined, the absences of former captain Ken Owens and fullback Liam Williams, who also started in that match, represent 176 caps of unavailable experience.
Wales may have placed fifth in last season’s Championship, but their kicking strategy gave them promising opportunities nonetheless. Their average kick distance was a Championshiplow 29.7 metres, but their retention rate of 17.5% was the highest in the Championship. Tomos Williams, who made the second-most box kicks and was instrumental in the execution of this tactic, is one of the few experienced campaigners who could shape the course of Wales’ Six Nations with his leadership.
A team who leveraged their kicking game to greater effect was France. Les Blues backed their counterattacking brilliance and ability to break the line quickly in 2023. Opting to kick long – their average of 31 metres of territory gain was the most in the Championship – their attack was minimalist but incisive. They made a Championship-low 648 passing metres per match and yet Damian Penaud was the top tryscorer in the competition (he scored five tries). Their attack was instinctive and guile superlative; they seized opportunities when available and made pragmatic territorial decisions otherwise.
This control and cleverness was also evident in their discipline: they conceded a Championship-low average of 98 metres from penalty kicks per match. They could also count on the precision of Thomas Ramos’ boot – he kicked the longest goal of the Championship last season (48.4 metres) – to capitalise on this advantage. Even without the extraordinary talent of Dupont in tow, Les Blues’ frustration with their World Cup exit could make them even more ruthless in 2024.
Continental rivals Italy lacked the precision of France in 2023, but their ambition to attack outstripped any of their Championship competitors. For every kick the Azzurri made in last season’s tournament, they made 9.5 passes – a higher ratio than any other team. Key to this approach, the playmaking axis of Paolo Garbisi and Tommaso Allen made the most and third-most passes respectively among fly-halves. Their ability to threateningly distribute is unquestioned, but could a more conservative approach yield more success than they enjoyed last season?
Either way, a win in the Championship for Italy feels more like a predictable result than an upset season-on-season, and Benetton Rugby – the club from which most Italian internationals herald – have secured impressive results of late.
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