Monday 26 August 2019

Does winning the Six Nations matter anymore?

Paul O’Connell with the Six Nations trophy in Murrayfield after Ireland had clinched the title on a dramatic final day last March. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Paul O’Connell with the Six Nations trophy in Murrayfield after Ireland had clinched the title on a dramatic final day last March. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Ruaidhri O'Connor and David Kelly

Our writers argue the merits of winning the Six Nations

Yes says Ruaidhri O'Connor

The bath water may be beyond saving, but the baby needs to be let back in the front door. We all said some things after Ireland's World Cup exit at the hands of Argentina that in the cold light of spring might appear a little rash.

Yet another quarter-final felt like Groundhog Day, the same problems exposed, the same flaws there for all to see. Beyond our island, the other Northern Hemisphere countries were feeling the heat too; watching on as Twickenham hosted a curtailed, more intense Rugby Championship, there was a sense that everything was up for review and nothing was sacred.

The Six Nations seemed old hat. Sure why would beating your neighbours matter any more when it's only victories over the men from below the equator that really count?

In the days that followed, everyone wanted another crack at it. But that next crack is four years away. Four months on, the old competition has rolled around and represents the first chance for all of the teams burnt by the World Cup to get back on the horse.

The Championship may be flawed, but it's been around for far too long and has far too much tradition for it to be discarded.


For all that it was slated in October, it wasn't the tournament's fault that everyone tanked at the World Cup; each country had different flaws that were exposed ruthlessly at the big show.

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You could point to Argentina as a team who were able to lose 18 out of 21 Rugby Championship matches in between World Cups and say it was worth it to reach a semi-final, but is that really the case for Ireland?

Can Ireland really forsake a Six Nations title in the pursuit of World Cup glory in four years' time? Is it really wise to discard any player whose age profile suggests he might be over the hill in 2019?

No. The prize of a third straight Championship is worth pursuing above and beyond long-term development. It would not wash away the woe of the World Cup, but it would certainly ease the pain.

This year, Ireland's players will be exposed to South Africa three times, New Zealand twice and Australia once. In the Six Nations, they begin with the three hardest fixtures front-loaded. 2016 is arguably the toughest year Ireland have ever endured, and people want Joe Schmidt to throw in the kids.

Add in the fact that the Championship funds the whole game in this country and it gets harder to argue that experimentation with the long term in mind is the way to go.

Schmidt will throw everything at this campaign as he has done in the two titles he has claimed and there is little doubt that a win over Wales would mean just as much as it did before the World Cup. Improving towards Japan and maintaining the standards in a tournament that represents Ireland's bread and butter are not mutually exclusive, they go hand in hand.

Clever coach that he is, the New Zealander will be looking to tweak the game-plan as he goes, while slowly introducing new faces.

He will know that poor performances in the seasons that followed World Cups cost his two predecessors their jobs and will be acutely aware of the risks of tearing up all of the good work he has done in recent years in favour of revolution.

Winning another Six Nations would give everyone in Irish rugby a lift, would keep the cash flow going and maintain the high standard of recent years. Japan can wait.

No says David Kelly

At the tail end of last year, when nobody was really listening, IRFU performance director David Nucifora suggested that if Ireland keep doing what it has always done, they will keep getting knocked out at the same stage of World Cups where they have always been undone.

Insanity may be defined by repeating the same cliché every time Ireland flop at a World Cup but it can be argued that they have become inordinately equipped to absorb the lessons of failure at the highest level before promptly ignoring them.

The primary reason for this, clearly, is the disproportionate financial importance of the Six Nations to the IRFU; they know how much it costs to run the show, they know how much euro they can pull in and there is a comforting familiarity in that.

Professionalism may have come of age in Ireland but there remains a conservative approach to economics; it is perhaps not unexpected to find that this has often transmitted to the field of play.

It is also logical - for logic and consistent zeal in its pursuit underpins much of the IRFU's business - that recently Ireland have accrued benefits from such prudential planning.

And yet it also stands to reason that the pursuit of global success still remains tantalisingly beyond the country's reach.

More recently, when substantially more people were really listening, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt suggested that he would be aiming for a top-half finish.

But the most important revelation of recent weeks was that of IRFU's chief executive Philip Browne - who is, after all, Schmidt's boss - who admits that his organisation only budget for finishing fourth.

Effectively, one might tentatively suggest, the head honcho is offering his coach the wriggle room that it seems everybody else would wish to deny him.

It is now up to Schmidt to decide whether he wants to use it.


Few sides have threatened to expose Ireland in the past two Six Nations campaigns, and their miserly defence, relentlessly precise execution and clinical ability to translate pressure into points has held sway.

It is not pretty and some of us have been saying it for quite a while. Then again, Declan Kidney's Grand Slam-winning side of 2009 wasn't pretty either.

Browne's confession reminds us that the Irish rugby team is guaranteed a captive audience; now they need to captivate them.

A team that prides itself on calculating every possibility now needs to discover a new calculus.

That which measures risk versus reward.

Sated with so much Six Nations bread and butter, is it really too much to ask for some jam?

Schmidt is the type of human being who worries about letting people down.

But if he were to be bold enough to let his side to play a more attractive kind of rugby, even if they lose while being brave in the attempt, the kind of people he would be letting down probably aren't worth it in the first place.

This is the perfect time for Ireland to challenge everything from how they play the game to who they get to play it.

And they have the best man to do the job too. To borrow a predecessor's phrase, never die wondering.

Irish Independent

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