Planet Rugby’s bold predictions for 2023: Italy to claim first ever win over England, Wallabies job for Scott Robertson and more

Colin Newboult
Planet Rugby's bold predictions for 2023

As we are almost in 2023, we have put our head on the block to bring you seven bold predictions that could happen in the upcoming 12 months.

The clue is in the title, so to speak, as while these calls are not nailed on they could well become reality by the time the year is out.

Italy to beat England for first time ever

A big one to start with, considering the Red Rose will be at home, but if Steve Borthwick’s stint at Leicester Tigers is anything to go by, England may take time to get all the pieces in order. There wasn’t an immediate improvement when the 43-year-old took over at Leicester in 2020 but a gradual building process that resulted in a stunning 2021/22 campaign.

It is therefore a lot to ask for Borthwick to immediately right the team’s wrongs and make them Six Nations challengers in 2022. The pack is their real area of concern, something the new head coach is well aware of, and it certainly gives Italy a sniff of causing a stunning upset at Twickenham.

The Azzurri look a better drilled unit in pretty much every department, so if they can hold their own up front and take advantage of an English forward eight that is going through a few changes, they have the backs to cause the hosts significant problems.

In what will be just Borthwick’s second game in charge, Kieran Crowley’s men will certainly sense an opportunity to create a bit of history. They continue to improve, while England are rather in the doldrums after an abysmal 2022, so there could be some Azzurri delight in the middle of February.

Scott Robertson to become Wallabies head coach

With England rather pulling the trigger early by, in our view, surprisingly sacking Eddie Jones and Wales replacing Wayne Pivac with Warren Gatland, that is potentially two options gone for Robertson after the Rugby World Cup.

The Crusaders head coach has always set his sights on the New Zealand job but it has got to a point for him where he is certainly looking at alternatives. He has stated that England is an attractive proposition for him but, as stated, that looks highly unlikely now that Borthwick has been hired.

In August, it looked almost certain that Robertson would be the All Blacks boss heading into France 2023, but the issue for him now is that the current team under Ian Foster actually looks quite good. With coaches Jason Ryan and Joe Schmidt making a huge impact, they are starting to build nicely and by the time of the global tournament New Zealand will be a massive threat.

That means Foster could well stay in his role, leaving in our minds just one realistic position for him to fill and that is the Wallabies. Not that it is completely Dave Rennie’s fault, but we would be surprised should he remain after the tournament in France and Robertson would relish the chance to lead Australia at their home World Cup.

Warren Gatland to fail and depart Wales after 2023 World Cup

We have stated previously that Wales’ only hope of success in France was to rehire Gatland and we stand by that, but we also think that Welsh rugby is beyond repair at the moment, even for a coach as talented as him.

The fact is that we’re not sure anybody can take this position and make a success of it due to the mess the Welsh game finds itself in. The New Zealander did remarkably well in his first stint, despite coming up against significant challenges, but there comes a point where you finally pay the price for an inability to get the overall structure right.

As an organisation, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) have consistently got it wrong over the past decade and it is finally starting to affect the national team, especially when it comes to their talent base. The front five is not nearly as strong as it used to be, a key facet of any successful outfit, while they continue to lack depth in other positions.

Good coaching can improve players but you still need the talent to win and Gatland has a massive task on his hands to get this side on the right track. The Six Nations will be challenging, which will immediately put him on the back foot going into the World Cup, and as a result it will be a tough tournament for him and the players.

Wales could sneak into the quarter-finals, especially if, as we have predicted below, Portugal beat Fiji, but they will be doing well to get past the quarter-finals.

The appointment of Gatland has been done to provide immediate results, but his return is also seen as a long-term project by the WRU. Would a poor Six Nations and last-eight appearance at the global tournament be enough for him to stay? Or will the man himself take one look at what Welsh rugby has become and think, ‘even this is beyond my capabilities’?

An English side to win the Champions Cup

Two years ago this wouldn’t have been such a bold claim but, given their clubs’ financial issues and subsequent struggles in Europe, it would be a surprise to see an English team lift the Champions Cup.

The squads have been impacted by the reduction in salary cap, which has challenged their ability to compete on two fronts. It means that no outfit has made it past the quarter-final stage over the past couple of seasons, with Sale Sharks the best performing side.

Sale once again look a reasonable prospect, despite their heavy defeat to Toulouse, but it is the return of Saracens which provides a boost to their prospects. With Sarries back at the top table and Exeter Chiefs and Leicester Tigers also showing promise, they have teams that could genuinely reach the latter stages of the competition.

Squad depth is a potential stumbling block later in the season when it comes to challenging Leinster and the French clubs, but if the likes of Saracens, Sale, Exeter, Leicester and potentially Harlequins can manage their players well then the Premiership teams will be a force in the knockout stages.

Bath to finish in the top-four of the Premiership

Bath have taken a short while to settle under the new director of rugby Johann van Graan. Still, after a slow start, the club has seemed to gather momentum with wins against Northampton Saints, Newcastle Falcons and defending champions Leicester Tigers in the Premiership.

Their squad has also benefited from the downfall of Wasps and Worcester Warriors, with Ollie Lawrence a notable performer for his new club.

It certainly looks as if there is something much more promising building, and the Rec outfit will feel an extra boost having confirmed the signing of Scotland maverick Finn Russell. The Scot will only join the club after the World Cup, but the statement signing is an indication of how the team is trending and underlines an exciting future ahead.

They may be bottom at the moment but expect Bath to kick on, and if they string more wins together, then there is a real possibility the team could shoot up the standings. There is just nine points separating fourth from 11th and their performance away at Exeter Chiefs showed that Van Graan’s men are not far away.

Portugal to beat Fiji at the World Cup

Portugal will obviously go into the 2023 Rugby World Cup under the radar but they will be a test for the other teams in Pool C, having impressively qualified for the global tournament following a dramatic 16-16 draw against the USA. Their promise extends further as the side ran both Italy and Georgia close with a 38-31 loss and a 25-25 draw respectively, underlining their true firepower.

Samuel Marques, the veteran scrum-half, is a key player and boasts experience from French club rugby with Pau, Toulouse and Carcassonne. The veteran and his men meet a Fijian side who played very well during the Autumn Nations Series but did not quite put together a complete performance.

The Portuguese will be looking to target the clash against Vern Cotter’s men as a game they could win and create history with their first triumph at a World Cup.

In 2019, the Pacific Islanders were stunned by Uruguay and it wouldn’t be a surprise should they suffer another surprise defeat. That loss may help them โ€“ there was a certain arrogance to their display three years ago โ€“ but equally it may haunt Cotter’s outfit should Portugal gain the upper hand early on.

South African franchises to all qualify for the URC play-offs

The Bulls and Stormers have both had brilliant starts to the 2022/23 URC season. The teams sit in the top four, with the latter in second place following their impressive victory over the men from Pretoria last Friday.

The pair have clearly found a strong footing in the competition. Any betting man would have their money on the teams kicking on and qualifying for home play-offs, particularly after the return of their Springbok contingents.

Meanwhile, the Sharks look to have turned the corner thanks to director of rugby, Neil Powell, who has taken over coaching duties from Sean Everitt. The Durban side’s squad is so powerful that the team will inevitably go on a run. With Springboks everywhere, it would be a massive shock if Powell’s men do not make the end of season shake-up.

Finally, the Lions have been a real surprise package this season, playing with passion and commitment. Some great talent is coming through the ranks and it feels like something special is cooking in Johannesburg. Count on the men from Ellis Park to sit in the top eight at the end of the regular campaign.

READ MORE: Planet Rugby’s seven players to watch in 2023