With the 2023 Six Nations done and dusted, Opta’s Nick Bentley takes a look at the numbers to see how the teams performed and how they are shaping up for this autumn’s Rugby World Cup in France.
The 2023 Six Nations was pitched as a battle between the top two ranked teams in the world, Ireland v France, and that’s how it played out. Ultimately Ireland had too much for all their opponents and won a third Six Nations Grand Slam and fifth Championship overall.
In trademark Andy Farrell style, Ireland kept a firm grip on their matches by playing tight. In fact a competition high 55% of their play remained within 10 metres of the previous breakdown. That said they also had arguably the most potent back-three in the Championship, meaning when they did move the ball to those extremities, more often than not they scored.
Hugo Keenan and James Lowe topped the metres gained rankings while Lowe also contributed 10 line breaks, the most of any player. In fact, as a unit, Ireland’s tally of 39 breaks was the most of any team.
Ireland were also extremely disciplined, conceding a competition low 44 penalties and finishing the Championship as the only side not to receive a card. A miserly defence in the red zone was also crucial, conceding just 1.2 points per entry to the 22, the best rate of any side.
Can anyone beat Ireland? They’ve lost just two of their past 24 matches (v France and New Zealand) and are on a 10-game winning streak, including a pair of wins over the All Blacks, victories over South Africa and Australia and a Grand Slam.
Their World Cup history is probably the most disappointing of any leading rugby nation, having never progressed past the quarter-finals. But this Ireland side fears no-one and has the talent, leadership and strategy to go all the way.
Les Bleus headed into this Six Nations on a record 13-game unbeaten run, however they could only extend that to 14 games before they were undone by a brilliant Ireland side. They bounced back with flamboyant wins against Scotland, England and Wales.
As a team they avoided nearly a third (29%) of the tackles they faced, with Damian Penaud, Antoine Dupont and Ethan Dumortier all in the top five of this category individually. Penaud had a remarkable tackle evasion rate of 81%, dodging 25 would-be defenders and only being tackled six times.
Fabien Galthie’s men were also clinical when they made a break, converting 50% (17/34) of their line breaks into tries, the best rate of any side. This attacking efficiency is mirrored in the fact they averaged three points per opposition 22 entry, again the best rate of any team. A competition high gainline success rate of 55% rounds off the CV, so despite having the least possession (45%), they definitely took the prize for best attack.
As World Cup hosts, the pressure will be firmly on France come September, especially as they kick the tournament off against three-time champions New Zealand. But this side are phenomenally talented and have the cohesion to go deep. If they do lose that opener, they could face a nervy final pool game against Italy to decide who progresses to the knockout stages.
A solid defence is a vital foundation for any side and Scotland’s tackle success rate of 92% was the best of any team; Jack Dempsey (55/55) and Jonny Gray (51/51) made more tackles than anyone else in the tournament not to miss a single hit.
On the flip side, Scotland chose to play with width in attack, going wide more often (14%) than any other side. This bravery was rewarded with the second-best red zone conversion rate in the tournament, averaging 2.8 points per opposition 22 entry.
Individually, Finn Russell is their star. However, his game is high risk, high reward. High for missed tackles (12) and turnovers conceded (12) but also sitting joint top for try assists (4), and top among fly-halves for metres gained (218) and defenders beaten (11).
Duhan van der Merwe is slightly more consistent in his threat. In this Six Nations he was one of two Scotland players to play every minute (also Jamie Ritchie), beating 35 defenders along the way, surpassing his own record from 2021 (31).
|Duhan van der Merwe||Scotland||35||2023|
|Duhan van der Merwe||Scotland||31||2021|
Scotland head into the World Cup with big ambitions, however a tough pool awaits. Defending champions South Africa are first up before a huge match against Ireland. They’ll be underdogs to escape the pool but both the Springboks and Ireland will be nervous about playing a rejuvenated Scotland. As with everything Russell is involved in, expect the unexpected.
Steve Borthwick endured a challenging first Six Nations as head coach. His side broke the defensive line the least often of any outfit (16 times), and combined with the lowest tackle success rate (83%) and worst goal-kicking (62%) you can understand how they failed to pick up more than a couple of wins.
Having the slowest average ruck speed (3.8 seconds) of any team didn’t help their attack find the gaps, nor did the four unique midfield combinations (10-12-13) they had through the campaign.
One area of success they did have was in the set-piece and maul. England managed the best line-out success rate (92%) of any team, made the most maul metres of any side and scored as many tries from mauls (3) as the other nations combined. They completed the set-piece strength by managing the best scrum success rate in the Championship (96%).
England start their World Cup with tough games against Argentina and Japan, both of whom are familiar with picking up big scalps in the tournament. Can Borthwick build cohesion and confidence in the short time before that opening game?
There will be no freebies to build into the tournament and their hopes could be all over before they play Chile and Samoa if they don’t hit the ground running.
Warren Gatland’s return provided some pre-tournament buzz but in the end a somewhat fortuitous victory against a wasteful Italy spared them the Wooden Spoon. Their lack of attacking threat and leaky defence are big worries.
Their tally of 147 points conceded was their highest since 2002 (188) while they also had the lowest success rates at the line-out (85%), scrum (81%) and breakdown (95%). They were also the only team not to score a try from a counter-attack and they sat bottom of the charts for defenders beaten (79) and metres gained (1,807).
One positive to draw upon is that they were getting in the positions to score points, behind only Ireland (10.6) and France (10.2) for opposition 22 entries per game (10). The worry is they only registered 1.6 points per entry, the poorest return for any side.
Wales have a lot of work to do if they want to go deep at the World Cup. A relatively sympathetic pool – thanks in large part to Wales’ ranking back when the draw was made – means they’ll be confident of escaping to the knockout stages. There are serious banana skins against Georgia (who beat them last November) and Fiji (who beat them in the 2007 RWC) which could derail those ambitions.
Although Italy picked up an eighth consecutive Wooden Spoon, and 18th in total, their performances were vastly improved. Their average result margin this year was -12, their best in 10 years and one big positive was their ability to hang on in the second half. In fact, the Azzurri ‘won’ the second half in two of their matches (v England & Wales) and drew another (v France).
Quick ruck speed was crucial to Italy’s momentum in attack, their average of three seconds per ruck was the fastest of any side, and in Paolo Garbisi they have a real maestro who can marshal that advance. Despite playing just 232 minutes, only Mack Hansen (7) made more passes that led to a line-break than the Italian fly-half (6).
|Juan Ignacio Brex||Italy||400||6|
Italy face the unenviable challenge of playing New Zealand and France at the World Cup. They’ve never beaten the All Blacks and have an average losing margin of 48 points from 15 matches. A narrow defeat against Les Bleus (29-24) in this Championship, however, will give them a glimmer of hope of upsetting the hosts in their final game and sneaking out of a devilish pool.