The 2023 Six Nations Championship has proven to be quite the spectacle.
Taking place just seven months before the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, this year's tournament has served as an impressive start to what should be a fascinating year of international rugby union.
The Six Nations — which has lived past lives as the Home Nations Championship, and later the Five Nations — is the oldest continuously played rugby union tournament in history, with 2023's championship set to be the 129th time the competition has been played in some form or another.
Six Nations ready 👊 pic.twitter.com/XSnpRuAkoL— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) January 23, 2023
In its 140 years of existence, there has of course been a plethora of historic teams, players and tournaments that have caught the eye, from Wales' electrifying side that lit up the 1970s, the dominant England of 2003 who followed up their Six Nations victory with a World Cup triumph, to last year's Grand Slam winners France.
At The Sporting News, we've compiled a history of the tournament, its format, most successful sides, and players who have stood the test of time and gone down in folklore as some of rugby's greatest ever. For all the sport's visual, physical and global changes over the centuries, the magic of the Six Nations is something that will always remain.
Six Nations history: 'Rugby's Greatest Championship'
The Six Nations, which began its life as the Home Nations Championship, predates the majority of other sporting tournaments still played today, including the FIFA World Cup by almost 50 years. The inaugural 1883 edition actually began in 1882, with England beating Wales 2-0 in Swansea on Saturday, December 16. England won the first competition, contested between themselves, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, also taking home the first Triple Crown trophy in the process.
The Home Nations Championship was played in all but five years (1885, 1888, 1889, 1897 and 1898) from 1883 until 1909, before adding France to the tournament roster to become the Five Nations. From 1910 to 1931, aside from missing 1915-19 due to World War I, the tournament was contested annually. New boys France didn't win a single title but did collect six wooden spoons at the base of the ladder.
A Five Nations lineout, 1927-style! pic.twitter.com/4YAUwAaBXi— Rugby World (@Rugbyworldmag) January 26, 2023
A short French withdrawal saw the Home Nations return between 1932 and 1939 before a six-year hiatus on the tournament was enforced by World War II. France returned in 1946, and so began the longest continuous period of competition between the Five Nations, with all of them reaching double figures for number of victories (albeit some of these were shared titles).
The late 1990s saw another sea-change for the tournament with the addition of Italy, beginning in 2000. The Azzurri had beaten Tier 1 nations Argentina, France, Ireland and Scotland in the years prior to their inclusion, and also recorded victory over the latter in their first ever Six Nations match. However, the other nations' strength relative to theirs has made it very difficult for the Italians to compete over the years, and they've finished bottom of the pile in 17 of the 23 tournaments they've played so far.
Happy Birthday to one of the best full-backs to play in the Guinness Six Nations... @WelshRugbyUnion's @byrney_15!— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) June 1, 2019
Who remembers this try against England in 2008 to set up one of the greatest comebacks in Championship history! 🙌 pic.twitter.com/JyZxG88qr2
Who has won the most Six Nations titles?
England and Wales are officially the most successful sides in the history of the championship, with 39 titles each. However, several of these were shared titles, won before tie-breakers such as points difference were taken into account. Therefore, in terms of outright titles won, England just edge it, with 29 wins to Wales' 28.
England pip their rivals to the post in titles won during the Six Nations era, too. Since 2000, England have won the competition seven times, while Wales and France have won six. Ireland are next with five victories since the turn of the millennium, with Scotland and Italy both yet to claim a Six Nations title of their own, although the Scots won the final Five Nations in 1999.
What is the heaviest defeat in Six Nations history?
In round four of the 2023 championship, England were put to the sword by France as the reigning champions delivered an utterly dominant display at Twickenham.
Les Bleus triumphed 53-10, thereby inflicting upon Steve Borthwick's side their heaviest ever defeat at the famous stadium, surpassing their 42-6 loss at the hands of South Africa back in 2008 — a match in which Borthwick started.
43 - France have equalled their largest win in the @SixNationsRugby (56-13 v Italy in March 2005), being also England's largest ever defeat in the tournament. Sensational.#ENGFRA pic.twitter.com/I1FsLoppFT— OptaJean (@OptaJean) March 11, 2023
It was not far off the biggest winning margin by an away side in the championship's history. That record is held by Ireland, who defeated Italy 63-10 back in 2017.
The heaviest defeat home or away was also suffered by Italy, when they were defeated 80-23 by England in 2001.
'Grand Slam' and Six Nations rivalry trophies
Ireland have enjoyed a famous St Patrick's weekend in Dublin: by defeating England 29-16, they not only became Six Nations champions for the first time since 2018, but they also won the Grand Slam and the Triple Crown.
Arguably even more desirable than the championship trophy, the Grand Slam is achieved by the tournament winners if they manage to win every single one of their games. This has historically been a much rarer feat than simply winning the title, given the minute gaps in quality between the respective competitors year-on-year.
Only 42 Grand Slams have been achieved in the 129 tournaments played, but it has been done in the past two championships, by France last year and Ireland in 2023. England have claimed the Grand Slam on 13 occasions —more than any other side — last doing so in 2016 to kick off a world-record winning streak of 18 consecutive matches.
As well as the Grand Slam, other in-tournament silverware can also be won. The most notable of these is the Triple Crown, contested between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. A continuation of the old Home Nations Championship, should one nation beat each of the other three in a single tournament, they take home the Triple Crown title. Ireland are the holders of this, having beaten England, Scotland and Wales in 2022 and 2023.
#OnThisDay, 1964 🗓 The Five Nations Championship was shared by Wales and Scotland. On the final weekend, Wales drew 11-11 with France in Cardiff, with Scotland beating England 15-6 at Murrayfield.— Welsh Rugby Union 🏴 (@WelshRugbyUnion) March 21, 2020
🎞: @swansearfc's Dewi Bebb goes over for a try in Wales' draw at Twickenham. pic.twitter.com/cOIonI6UvK
Several other trophies are contested between the individual nations, with the oldest, the Calcutta Cup between England and Scotland, first played in 1879 and predating the Home Nations Championship by four years.
Six Nations rivalry trophies
|Trophy||Teams||Reason for name|
|Calcutta Cup||England vs Scotland||Made of melted-down rupees donated by Calcutta Club|
|Millennium Trophy||England vs Ireland||Celebration of Dublin's Millennium in 1988|
|Centenary Quaich||Ireland vs Scotland||A 'quaich' is a Gaelic drinking vessel|
|Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy||France vs Italy||Commemoration of Giuseppe Garibaldi, former general and Italian revolutionary|
|Auld Alliance Trophy||France vs Scotland||Commemoration of those from rugby communities who died in war|
|Doddie Weir Trophy||Scotland vs Wales||Recognition of former Scotland star Doddie Weir, who died of motor neuron disease in 2022 after raising millions for research|
|Cuttitta Cup||Italy vs Scotland||Commemoration of former Italy captain and Scotland coach Massimo Cuttitta, who died in 2021|
Who are the best players in Six Nations history?
One hundred and forty years' worth of play is certainly a large sample size from which to pick and choose the best performers throughout the tournament's history, but at The Sporting News we've done our best to whittle the list down to six iconic players — one from each nation — since the modern Six Nations was born in 2000.
England — Jonny Wilkinson
A player who needs little introduction, Jonny Wilkinson was arguably the face of international rugby during the 2000s and is best known for kicking the drop-goal that won England the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia. In the Six Nations, Wilkinson has scored the second-most points of any player, after Ireland's Ronan O'Gara, and has the record for the most points in a single match, notching 35 in England's 80-23 win over Italy in 2001.
His ferocious defence and razor-sharp accuracy off the tee saw the fly-half play a massive part in England's victories in the 2000, 2001 and 2003 tournaments, the latter a Grand Slam, while he also featured in their 2011 triumph towards the back end of his career. For a time in the mid-2000s, no player on the planet came close to Wilkinson's masterful performances on the pitch.
France — Antoine Dupont
He may only be 26 years old and only made his Six Nations debut in 2017, but Toulouse scrum-half Antoine Dupont is already well on his way to establishing himself as a legend of French rugby. As the captain of Fabien Galthie's title-winning side, Dupont has twice won the Six Nations player of the championship award, becoming the first Frenchman to do so in 2020 and 2022 (and he was also nominated in 2021, the year in which he was crowned World Rugby Player of the Year). He's fast become the poster boy of rugby for Les Blues, and with a World Cup on the horizon in France later this year, his stock won't be falling any time soon.
Ireland — Brian O'Driscoll
Arguably the greatest player to have set foot on the field of play in the Home Nations, Five Nations, or Six Nations championships, O'Driscoll holds a number of records in the competition that will likely stand for years to come. The centre, who transcended his position in the first years of professional Rugby Union, is the top try-scorer in the Six Nations with 26, and has made 65 appearances, the second-most of any player in the competition's 140-year history. O'Driscoll has also been nominated for player of the championship six times, winning three. Both are competition records, and cement the Dubliner's place as one of the greats of the modern era.
Italy — Sergio Parisse
Just as O'Driscoll is a clear choice for Ireland's best ever Six Nations player, Italy's legendary captain Parisse stands head and shoulders above the rest in the annuls of the Azzurri. The Argentine-born No.8 holds the record number of caps in the entire history of the competition with 69, all as starts, and has achieved eight nominations for player of the championship — without winning once! Parisse captained the Azzurri from 2008 up to his international retirement in 2019, during which time Italy finished bottom of the Six Nations table on nine occasions. To be nominated for player of the tournament seven times in this period shows just how important Parisse's world-class performances were for Italy, and it'll be a long time until the Six Nations sees a player of his like again.
Scotland — Stuart Hogg
Another current player who has excelled in rugby's greatest championship is incumbent Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg, who, like Dupont, has twice won player of the tournament. Winning the prize consecutively in 2016 and 2017, despite Scotland finishing fourth both years, Hogg's dynamic running and ferocious defence earmarked him as one of the most dangerous players in the game. The Exeter Chiefs full-back still plays a crucial cog in this Scotland side, who will be looking to build on a fourth-placed finish in 2022, one in which they retained the Calcutta Cup against England.
Wales — Shane Williams
Several Welsh players could claim to be the country's best ever Six Nations player, and at first glance, figures such as Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton come to mind. Lurking behind the two forwards, though, is diminutive winger Shane Williams, who defied all his critics over a 12-year international career to become a legendary figure of Welsh rugby. The five-foot, seven-inch winger, often the smallest on the pitch by some distance, scored 22 of his 58 tries for Wales in the Six Nations, and won player of the championship in 2008 — the first winger to do so. Williams never let his size defy him on the pitch, and he more than played his part in the two Grand Slams won by Wales in 2005 and 2009.