Six Nations talking points: New eras, World Cup year and a two-horse title race?

The final Guinness Six Nations Championship before the Rugby World Cup begins in France later this year could be a blockbuster.

Six Nations title holders France and world number one team Ireland lead the way on current form, but it a tournament that also has a reputation for veering off-script.

Here, the PA news agency looks at some of the key talking points ahead of kick-off.

An early title decider?

If rugby union’s world rankings provide an accurate form guide, then this season’s Six Nations is a two-horse race between Ireland and France. They dominated the tournament last year, with France winning a first Grand Slam since 2010, and their Dublin showdown in round two on February 11 appears title-defining. There are other hurdles where either team could fall, but they are way ahead at the rankings summit of any European rival, with first-placed Ireland winning a Test series in New Zealand last year, then toppling South Africa and Australia, while France won all 10 of their games in 2022.

Can Steve Borthwick recharge England?

The Eddie Jones era ended in December after a miserable year when England won just five games, with the Rugby Football Union turning to former national team captain Steve Borthwick as his head coach successor. Borthwick’s coaching credentials are impressive, being highlighted by him transforming Leicester from Gallagher Premiership strugglers to champions in two years. A strong assistant coaching team features the likes of Kevin Sinfield and Nick Evans, and there is no doubt that the 43-year-old Cumbrian could make an immediate impact as England boss. Home games against Scotland and Italy should mean a smooth start before trips to Cardiff and Dublin sandwich a Twickenham appointment with France.

Warren Gatland’s Midas touch

Wales head coach Warren Gatland
Warren Gatland is in charge of Wales for the second time as head coach (David Davies/PA)

When Wales beat South Africa in Pretoria last summer, the odds on Gatland returning as head coach less than six months later would have been greater than 100-1 chance Foinavon winning the 1967 Grand National. But the New Zealander is back for a second stint in the job, having seen Wales win four Six Nations titles, three Grand Slams and reach two World Cup semi-finals when he was last at the helm between 2008 and 2019. Home defeats against Italy and Georgia underpinned Wayne Pivac’s departure less than a year out from the World Cup, so Gatland has little time to try and turn things around. If anyone can, though, then it is him.

Exciting prospects to emerge?

The Six Nations is a competition usually for the tried and tested, given its high stakes, but there is also room for new faces to shine. This season’s tournament should be no exception, with England, Ireland and Wales possibly leading the way. London Irish wing and England hopeful Ollie Hassell-Collins is among the Gallagher Premiership’s most consistent performers, showcasing blistering pace and exceptional try-scoring ability, while uncapped Ireland centre Jamie Osborne continued his rapid rise with a man-of-the-match display in Leinster’s recent Heineken Champions Cup rout of Gloucester, and Wales possess two of British rugby’s most promising prospects in Exeter forwards Dafydd Jenkins and Christ Tshiunza.

World Cup form guide

The Six Nations offers a final chance to see Europe’s major contenders in full throttle before attention switches to the World Cup. Summer warm-up games will allow coaches to make final selection touches, but for serious competitive action, this season’s tournament has extra spice. It will be a major surprise if Ireland or France do not head to the World Cup with a Six Nations title in the locker, although both will have pressures, given that Ireland have never progressed beyond the tournament’s quarter-final phase and France face huge home nation expectation. Time is not on the side of Borthwick and Gatland, given their recent appointments, but both will oversee hugely-competitive squads, while it could be Gregor Townsend’s last Six Nations campaign as Scotland head coach, given speculation that he might be heading to new pastures later this year.