World's top two Ireland and France expected to dominate Six Nations title race

Team captains pose with trophy at 2023 Six Nations launch The SIx Nations gets underway on the first weekend in February (John Walton/PA)

The form guide leaves little doubt that Ireland and France should be the dominant forces in this season’s Six Nations Championship.

While considerable fascination surrounds England under their new head coach Steve Borthwick and Wales with Warren Gatland back in charge, everything points to the leading teams in 2022 taking charge again.

While they meet each other early in the tournament – at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium on February 11 – it is a game likely to shape the competition’s title destiny.

Ireland, ranked number one in the world, are on the back of a memorable year when they won a Test series in New Zealand, then rounded it off by beating South Africa and Australia.

Defending Six Nations champions France, meanwhile, won all of their 10 Tests last year, which started with them achieving a first Six Nations Grand Slam since 2010 and ended with victories over the Springboks and Wallabies in two memorable encounters.

With the World Cup on French soil under eight months away, Les Bleus have a golden opportunity to cement their credentials as leading title candidates at rugby union’s global spectacular.

France have never been crowned world champions – runners-up on three occasions are outcomes that weigh heavily – while Ireland have never progressed beyond the quarter-finals.

World Rugby’s current ranking list, though, sees Ireland top and France second, with the gap from Les Bleus to the next European team England being a sizeable 6.35 points.

And while rugby is played on grass, not paper, those figures do not lie, suggesting their Six Nations rivals are playing catch-up.

England will contest a first Six Nations since 2015 without Australian Eddie Jones at the helm.

Jones was dismissed last month following a miserable Autumn Nations Series, with former England captain Borthwick recruited from Leicester, where he transformed the club from Gallagher Premiership strugglers to champions in two years.

Whether he can enjoy similar success in the Test match arena remains to be seen, but there is an air of optimism pervading England supporters that has probably not existed since the 2019 World Cup final.

Borthwick has already made an impression in terms of selection, calling up uncapped players such as wings Ollie Hassell-Collins and Cadan Murley, while also making big calls in leaving out the likes of Billy Vunipola, Jonny May and Jack Nowell.

Home games against Scotland and Italy should produce a winning start, although England’s degree of difficulty then increases sharply, culminating in appointments with France and Ireland on the final two weekends.

Gatland, meanwhile, enjoyed sustained success during his previous stint as Wales boss between 2008 and 2019, with four Six Nations titles, three Grand Slams and two World Cup semi-final appearances the impressive highlights.

He returns, though, after Wales won just three Tests under Wayne Pivac last year, and a number of defeats included dispiriting home losses to Italy and Georgia.

Gatland unquestionably has the Midas touch, and there is no doubt that Wales’ odds for a tough opener against Ireland in Cardiff on February 4 have shortened since his arrival, but a title challenge would certainly be a tall order.

Consistency will be key for Gregor Townsend’s Scotland, with England at Twickenham being followed by Wales in Edinburgh.

They are unbeaten on their last two trips to south-west London, and a successful defence of the Calcutta Cup would provide immediate momentum, yet Scotland still possess a tendency to thrill and frustrate in equal measure.

As for Italy, despite the emergence of a world-class talent in Ange Capuozzo, is it hard to envisage them not propping up the Six Nations table for an 18th time in 24 Six Nations seasons, and eighth on the bounce.

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