The northern hemisphere’s annual tournament is a sure-fire ratings winner and money-spinner – but below the surface there are difficulties which must be resolved to keep the event fit for 21st-century purpose
1. Grappling with the global perspective
It’s the economy, stupid, so do the math. Why talk American when the United States remains a stagnant rugby backwater? Simple. When it comes to the figures, even Wall Street might sit up and take notice of the Six Nations.
The annual tournament is operating at 98.5 per cent capacity, with an average gate of 72,000; it is broadcast in 190 countries and streamed live in another 20; it generates £1.2bn in hard currency over a four-year cycle. As a definition of success, the sums are hard to beat.
Yet there are moves afoot, albeit tentative ones, to shift the tournament from its late winter, early spring orbit of the sporting firmament and reposition it in April and May. That is the key, supporters of the move believe, to squaring the circle of the “global season”, bringing the northern and southern hemisphere calendars closer together, making the Test schedule less of a nonsense and aiding player welfare by reducing the number of high-pressure matches to which the poor bloody infantry are exposed.
So much for the theory: in practice, the Six Nations hierarchy are on record as stating that the tournament’s current place in the great scheme of things suits them fine, and that someone will have to come up with a bloody good reason why it should ever change.
But they have some hard arguing ahead of them – not least with the increasingly powerful clubs in England, who are heartily sick of the fixture clashes that force them to play major league games without their best players and are pressing for a serious debate on season restructuring.
2. A tournament for the people... or for television?
Fancy a Six Nations trip to Cardiff next Friday evening? If so, start early. Thursday morning sounds about right, judging by the 2011 experience, when the queue for the Severn Bridge toll began somewhere between Bath and Chippenham. The kick-off was delayed that night, which helped a little – but not a lot. The organisers could have put it back 48 hours and still found themselves on the painful end of complaints from the thousands cast into the bottom circle of travel hell.
Those supporters with rugby pumping through their veins, as opposed to hospitality-box Sauvignon blanc, found the advent of Sunday fixtures hard enough to take, wrecking as it did a traditional routine that enabled them to enjoy a whale of a weekend and still recover in time for work on Monday. The Friday dimension, driven by the broadcasters for nakedly self-serving reasons, has even less going for it. Are the tournament’s guardians brave enough to go to the barricades on this one, for the sake of the people?
3. The Beautiful South heads north
The Six Nations may soon be the Seven Nations. Or even the Eight Nations. Both New Zealand and South Africa are close to having full teams of players involved in the tournament. France may well field three imports from Springbok country in their starting line-up against the Scots, who themselves have a significant southern hemisphere contingent in their squad. And the number of “mercenaries” is certain to grow, especially when you add in a few wanderlust types from Australia.
For the avoidance of doubt, here’s what might be called a current Six Nations Sanzar team, consisting of players born in the somewhere between Cape Town and Dunedin via Sydney and Melbourne: Scott Spedding (France); Sean Maitland (Scotland), Jared Payne (Ireland), Brad Barritt (England), Luke McLean (Italy); Gareth Anscombe (Wales), Rory Kockott (France); Uini Atonio (France), Richardt Strauss (Ireland), Nathan White (Ireland), Quintin Geldenhuys (Italy), Josh Furno (Italy), Bernard Le Roux (France), Blair Cowan (Scotland), Robbie Diack (Ireland).
4. Securing Italy’s future
As any construction worker will tell you, it is never a good idea to build from the top down. Italy have made a decent fist of Six Nations rugby since gaining admittance at the turn of the century – a better fist, certainly, than the nay-sayers argued at the time – but there are those in the land of the Azzurri who argue that desperation to compete at international level has wrecked the game domestically.
The decision to relegate the Italian club championship to second-tier status and throw everything behind two “super teams” in Treviso and Zebre has hardly been a roaring success. Treviso lost half a team, largely to the English Premiership, at the end of last season and are in something resembling free fall.
When the France-based Azzurri captain, Sergio Parisse, perhaps the finest No 8 in world rugby, was asked at this week’s Six Nations launch whether it might be best for the Test team if everyone played abroad, he blanched slightly before saying: “That’s a very good question.”
Scotland, once at severe risk of losing all their best talent, are now drawing largely from Glasgow and Edinburgh and seem to be on an upward curve as a result. Wales, as the whole rugby world knows, are moving heaven and earth to keep the top personnel at home – and bring back those who have already skedaddled. Ultimately, the Italians will never fulfil their potential without a domestic game worthy of the name.
5. A fair format... or a farce?
And so it came to pass last season, on Brian O’Driscoll’s final outing in the green shirt of his country, that Ireland took the field against France in Paris knowing precisely what had to be done, right down to the scoring of the last point: always an advantage when the destination of the Six Nations trophy is at stake. And with England’s players looking on glumly in the television lounge of a hotel in Rome, the needful was duly delivered.
Blame the television scheduling, which in this instance was, and remains, the devil’s work. Simultaneous last-day kick-offs may be anathema to the broadcasters, but in an age of red-button technology there is surely something to be said for levelling the playing field.
Independent News Service