Guinness Six Nations 2023 Rugby Coverage

Guinness Six Nations - Five Talking Points Heading Into Super Saturday

Guinness Six Nations - Five Talking Points Heading Into Super Saturday

Guinness Six Nations 2023 Super Saturday preview as Irish Rugby is on the verge of a fourth Grand Slam title, Italian rugby regroups and France host Wales.

Mar 17, 2023 by Philip Bendon
Guinness Six Nations - Five Talking Points Heading Into Super Saturday

The end is in sight for the 2023 Guinness Six Nations as round five's Super Saturday is nearly upon us. 

Several questions have already been answered in what has been yet another compelling edition of Rugby's oldest international Championship. 

Clearly, above their counterparts, Ireland and France enter the final round as the only two teams with the chance of taking the title. 

The other four nations will be looking to end their Championship campaign on a high. Heading into the final round, any of Scotland, England and Wales could mathematically finish in third position. 

Here are five of the most significant talking points heading into Super Saturday. 

Irish Rugby On The Precipice Of History 

Three Grand Slams in 127 years is a wildly inefficient return for a nation that has produced some of the best players in history. Of the three clean sweeps, not one has been completed at the home of Irish Rugby, the Aviva Stadium. 

Never before has there been a greater opportunity to break this heinous run than this weekend's clash with a beleaguered English team.

On paper, this match is a no-contest, clear-cut, dominant Irish victory in waiting. Having achieved what no Irish team before them has, with a series victory over the All Blacks in New Zealand backed up by wins over the Springboks and Wallabies in 2022. Andy Farrell's team hit the ground running in 2023 and thus far have swept all before them with relative ease. 

On the other hand, England is heading into their fifth match of the Steve Borthwick era. An era which to date has yielded two home losses, firstly to Scotland and then the record 53 – 10 defeat to France. Sandwiched in between these two horror shows have been two unconvincing victories over a trudged Welsh team and an Italy side who have yet to decipher how to win Rugby matches with regularity. 

Further hamstringing English progress is the regularity with which Borthwick has changed vital positions within his team. Having made the significant shift away from Captain Owen Farrell in favour of Marcus Smith in round four, Borthwick has once again reverted to his captain for this weekend. 

Thus presented this weekend is an apparent mismatch of two sides on very different stages of their journeys. Throw into the mix that legendary Irish captain Jonathan Sexton is set to play his final Six Nations game in Dublin before his retirement at the end of the season (on St. Patrick's weekend, nonetheless). All indications are a perhaps record-breaking Irish victory that will see them enter the World Cup as the world's best team come October.

Can Italy Rebound In Edinburgh

Bitterly disappointed having let slip the chance to record a first home Six Nations victory since 2015. The Azzurri will be looking to move forward from round four's defeat to Wales with a win away to Scotland. 

Starting with the hosts, Scotland is without their two key playmakers in, flyhalf Finn Russell and fullback Stuart Hogg who both miss out through injury. In their place come Blair Kinghorn and Ollie Smith, respectively. 

In the forwards, secondrow Richie Gray limped off against Ireland and is replaced by Sam Skinner. Finally, Hamish Watson starts at openside, with Matt Fagerson dropping to the bench. 

Just how much of an effect the absence of the three experienced veterans will have is difficult to quantify. All three replacements present an exciting opportunity to see how deep this Scottish squad truly is. 22-year-old Smith, in particular, has been much heralded as the future of the position for Scotland since bursting onto the international scene last November. 

On the other hand, Italy will once again be without star playmaker Ange Capuozzo who is ruled out through injury. 

Capuozzo's absence in round three was notable and contributed significantly to the Italian's inaccuracies in the attack. 

Despite the loss, Italy again showed their attacking endeavour and had Wales on the ropes several times before ultimately falling foul of an avoidable error. 

Should these issues be resolved even by just 50%, then Italy will be confident of causing Scotland trouble. 

Sexton To Becoming Six Nations Record Holder

Unquestionably one of the greatest players to ever grace a rugby pitch, Jonathan Sexton is a prime example of perseverance through adversity. 

Making his international debut at 24 years old, having been overlooked by both province and country in the early years of the contract. 

When his chance eventually came, Sexton grabbed it with both hands, pushing incumbent Ronan O'Gara out of the starting Irish line-up. 

On the subject of O'Gara, the Munster legend will likely see his Six Nations points record fall to Sexton on Saturday afternoon.

Unique in many ways, the impact of the two players is such that, by and large, they have been the only two to wear the green number ten shirt with regularity since the turn of the millennium.

Thus, in an almost seamless transition of the record, Sexton once again picks up where O'Gara left off. Adding further to the cyclical nature of Rugby, Sexton will finish his Six Nations career against the team he first faced in England.

Ireland's 2019 Tormenters Return

It is a case of back to the future for English Rugby this weekend as Steve Borthwick turns to a handful of seasoned veterans. 

Front and centre of the English changes is the return of captain Owen Farrell to the starting flyhalf role, with Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade lining up in the centres. 

Hoping for lightning to strike twice, Borthwick will look for the trio to replicate the form they showed in England's monumental 2019 victory in Dublin. Indeed, there are plenty of similarities between then and now. At the time, Ireland was regarded as the best team in the world under then-head coach Joe Schmidt. 

Under Schmidt, Ireland were ruthlessly effective as they operated in a militant-like fashion. Built on immense physicality with Tuilagi leading the charge, England obliterated the Irish game plan to such an extent that the Schmidt era never recovered. Heading into that clash, nobody saw a dominant English victory coming. 

Dig a little deeper, and the England performance and, to a greater extent, the Irish freefall could be seen coming months before. At club level, the powerhouse that was Saracens had routinely bullied the Irish provinces physically. 

Yet, four years on, whilst Ireland again enters as world number one. The gulf between the two sides could not be any bigger. This Irish side is one of the most well-rounded teams in the sport's history, whilst England are at an all-time low. 

Gone are the key contributors such as the Vunipola brothers, Sam Underhill, Tom Curry, Luke Cowan-Dickie and George Kruis. 

Thus, the expectation that the English midfield will have as much of an influence as it did that day would appear to be wishful thinking.

Welsh Wholesale Changes

Wales head coach Warren Gatland has made six changes to the team that defeated Italy in Rome.

Reverting to several seasoned veterans, Gatland is once again asking his players to go to the well for him. Only this time, the challenge facing them is an in-form and world-class French side in Paris. 

Now clearly a preordained plan to see what he has at his disposal, Gatland's changes see the experienced trio of Dan Biggar, Nick Tompkins, and George North come into the backline. Joining them in the backline is the electric Louis Rees-Zammit, who is selected at fullback in place of the injured Liam Williams. 

In the forwards, Rugby's most capped international player Alun Wyn Jones returns ahead of Dafydd Jenkins, who drops to the bench. Whilst backrow Aaron Wainwright comes into the starting line-up in place of the injured Jac Morgan. 

This week's headline news for the Welsh is number eight Taulupe Faletau, who will make his 100th appearance for Wales. 

Such is the experience of this Welsh team that Faletau is the fourth player in the starting line-up to hit the 100-test mark. 

Indeed, hitting 100 test caps for your country is remarkable from an individual standpoint. Yet, for a rugby-playing nation like Wales, this is a great inditement on where Welsh Rugby finds itself. 

Lacking in depth, Welsh Rugby fans will be gravely concerned about relying on an ageing squad past their glorious best. 

Sure, there are sprinklings of young talent, but at present, Welsh Rugby is at as low an ebb as at any point in the professional era. However, Gatland's removal of several young players, most notably the centre pairing of Joe Hawkins and Mason Grady, has removed any margin for error. 

Should Gatland's army hope to spring a surprise at the World Cup later this year, a performance this weekend in Paris is a must. Realistically a win appears to be beyond this team based on what we have seen from both sides in the Championship. A heavy loss with their most experienced players at the helm will be further confirmation that round four's victory was merely papering over the cracks.

Written by Philip Bendon