Six Nations: The player head-to-heads to watch out for in this year’s Championship including a fascinating front-row battle
Ahead of the 2023 Six Nations, we take a look at the upcoming player head-to-heads that are not to be missed, including Tadhg Furlong against Cyril Baille.
We have chosen a duel from each round of this year’s Championship and this was a difficult task as there are numerous match-ups we can’t wait to feast our eye on.
Marcus Smith v Finn Russell (England v Scotland, February 4)
England skipper Owen Farrell initially had the inside lane to start at fly-half in their Championship opener against the Auld Enemy at Twickenham, while it looked like Smith was set to feature off the replacements bench. However, with Dan Kelly withdrawing from the squad earlier this week due to a thigh injury, Smith is now set to wear the number 10 jersey and measure himself against the mercurial Scotsman, Russell.
This is of course a repeat of last year’s head-to-head which proved to be an enthralling battle with Smith giving a good account of himself against his more experienced counterpart in his Six Nations debut, before the Harlequins pivot was bizarrely replaced by former England head coach Eddie Jones in that game’s final quarter.
Smith had scored all England’s points up to then and with him off the field they would not add to their tally and Russell took control of proceedings. He guided the home side to a memorable 20-17 win and will be hoping to replicate that performance and the result this weekend.
Smith and Russell have a similar approach to the game as both are explosive playmakers with a vast array of skills and capable of unlocking the tightest defences. The pair will be expected to deliver the full package of those skills with their running ability, distribution and kicking – out of hand and at goal – set to determine this encounter’s end result.
Tadhg Furlong v Cyril Baille (Ireland v France, February 11)
This fixture is arguably the most eagerly anticipated of the Championship between the world’s top ranked countries and the duel between these two highly-rated front-rowers will be a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.
Both men come into the Six Nations with glowing reputations and although there will be lots of other mouth-watering head-to-head battles lined up when these teams face off, there’s plenty of excitement about the confrontation between Furlong and Baille, who are arguably the leading players in their respective positions in the professional game at the moment.
In fact, whoever comes out on top in this direct clash can walk off the Aviva Stadium pitch and lay claim to the unofficial title as the best front-rower in the world. Both enjoy the physical nature of the game and are adept ball players and solid scrummagers, which sets the stage for a fascinating battle.
Baille’s prowess as a try-scoring prop who does not neglect his core duties has seen him cement his place in France’s run-on side in recent years, but he’s up against a seasoned campaigner in Furlong, who is the cornerstone of Ireland’s pack and a man who seldom takes a backward step to any opponent. This tussle should be one of the most entertaining ones of the entire Championship.
Antoine Dupont v Ali Price (France v Scotland, February 26)
With this match being played on their home turf in Paris, the home side will be overwhelming favourites to emerge as winners, which means Dupont should be hugely influential but he faces a tough task against Price, who will be a key player for the Scots.
Dupont is of course widely regarded as the game’s best scrum-half and his impressive skillset should put his team on the front foot, with his ability to break down the tightest defences a valuable asset in France’s attacking armoury.
Meanwhile, Price is one of the most improved number nines in the international arena of late, whose game has come on in leaps and bounds since making his Test debut in 2016. A British & Irish Lions representative on their 2021 tour of South Africa, Price has already made more than 50 Test appearances for his country and will be a key player when Scotland face Les Bleus in their backyard.
Both Dupont and Price’s decision making and game management will be key for their respective teams but the French captain’s brilliance on attack gives him an edge and the Scotsman’s defence will have to be at its best, especially around the fringes of the rucks and mauls where Dupont is at his most dangerous.
Paolo Garbisi v Dan Biggar (Italy v Wales, March 11)
Although Italy will once again head into this year’s Six Nations as favourites to finish with the Championship’s wooden spoon, they will fancy their chances repeating last year’s shock victory over Wales and the battle between their respective fly-halves – Garbisi and Biggar – will be one of the highlights of this encounter.
Garbisi has been like a breath of fresh air on the international scene since making his debut for the Azzurri in 2020, but he is expected to miss the Six Nations’ earlier rounds after spraining an internal ligament in his right knee while on club duty for Montpellier in the Top 14. Although that will be a major setback for Italy, he should be fit by the time they face Wales in Rome and he faces a tough adversary in Biggar, whose experience will prove invaluable for the visitors.
Although he is just 22 years old, Garbisi is one of the first names on Azzurri head coach Kieran Crowley’s teamsheet as he is an exciting playmaker who is capable of bringing out the best in his team-mates thanks to his impressive skill set. Biggar is also highly rated and a vital cog in the Welsh machine and will be expected to provide attacking momentum for the visitors, but where he has the jump on his younger counterpart is on defence and his prowess in that department could give his side an edge.
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Andy Farrell v Steve Borthwick (Ireland v England, March 18)
We throw a curveball into our selection of duels with the battle between the respective head coaches for this showdown at the Aviva Stadium in the last round of the competition set to have a telling impact in the grander scheme of things.
Farrell has shown considerable improvement in recent years and after initially struggling when taking over the coaching reins from Joe Schmidt after Ireland’s 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign in Japan, the former specialist defence coach has found his feet and guided the men from the Emerald Isle to the top of World Rugby’s official rankings list.
Although he is more experienced as a head coach than Borthwick in the international arena, Farrell will underestimate England’s new head honcho at his peril as he has earned a reputation for paying attention to detail. Despite it being his first job as an international head coach, there is plenty of excitement about Borthwick’s appointment after he transformed Leicester Tigers from Premiership relegation candidates to champions in the 2021/22 season.
He will have to do a similar job with England and faces a daunting task against Ireland in their backyard. With it being the final round of matches, there should be plenty at stake in this fixture and although Farrell and his troops will be favourites on their home patch, they can expect a tough challenge from Borthwick’s charges, who are expected to ask more questions of heir hosts after suffering a humiliating 32-15 defeat in the corresponding fixture at Twickenham last year.
READ MORE: Six Nations: Our players to watch in the 2023 Championship