The Six Nations should not be eclipsed by World Cup
Given that they never stop banging on about the World Cup, it’s probably too much to expect the rugby union industry to not bang on about it during an actual World Cup year.
But it would be nice if they eased off on the fetish for at least the duration of a Six Nations campaign.
Every sport is fighting for its slice of the market share, so it seems like a rather perverse habit for the game in the northern hemisphere to have acquired, consistently relegating its finest annual showcase to the status of mere curtain-raiser for an event that only takes place once every four years. And an event that is wildly over-rated at that, while the enduringly enjoyable annual tournament is left to languish in its shadow.
The Six Nations is one of the great perennial competitions of international sport, never mind being the jewel in the crown of northern rugby union, and perhaps of the game globally.
It is one thing to have to battle for its space in a crowded marketplace with all the other major sports, but it surely does not help its profile or credibility when it is so routinely diminished within its own culture by the never-ending fixation with the World Cup.
The latter tournament was first held in 1987. By then the annual competition that started out as the Home Nations in 1883 had celebrated its centenary. In the decades after ’87 the venerable and original of the species became increasingly seen as old hat in comparison to the shiny new quadrennial affair with all its corporate and marketing extravagance. Union became quite the blowhard when it came to talking up their version of a World Cup which, in reality, was global in name only. It is still global in name only: the same few familiar powerhouses keep turning up for the finals and semi-finals with monotonous regularity. And the minnow and mid-tier countries keep getting hammered with monotonous regularity too.
Now, a world gathering of rugby union’s nations in some sort of four-year cycle was always going to be inevitable at some stage of the sport’s evolution. One might wonder indeed why it took them 100 years to put it together. And its birth was a catalyst at the elite end of the sport in transitioning it out of amateurism and into the professional era. Nor can the prestige of the prize be denied: winning the World Cup has become the Mount Everest for every generation of top-tier international players.
In Ireland that aspiration has, if anything, become more desperate with every passing failure at previous editions of the tournament. Now that the sporting public here does no more than sniff at a triple crown, and will settle for not much less than a Grand Slam these days, the World Cup has become the obvious point of reference. So, onwards and upwards with this ambition when they begin another assault on the summit at RWC 2023 in France next autumn.
But it is negligent of the game in this country, as in other countries, to continually obsess about the big show when the annual show still has so much to offer in terms of brilliance and drama on the pitch, and social enjoyment and international bonhomie off it. It might be ancient in origin and relatively provincial in global terms, but the Six Nations has evolved into a tremendous annual exhibition of elite sport, with all the glamour and prestige befitting its stature as a major-league tournament.
Ireland against Wales and England against Scotland next Saturday; Italy versus France on Sunday. No sooner will the final whistle have been blown in each of them than various aficionados and alickadoos and assorted pundits will be pondering the implications for RWC 23. As in, that’s alright now, but it won’t do for the World Cup; Joe Bloggs has done his chances of making the World Cup squad no harm at all with that performance there today; Joe Bloggs has ruled himself out of contention for the World Cup with that performance there today. What has Andy Farrell learned about his World Cup prospects from that performance there today? And Warren Gatland and Steve Borthwick and so on and so forth.
Meanwhile, these splendid occasions we’ve just witnessed and savoured are once again diminished by the casual presumption that they are mere bumps on the road to rugby’s notional Super Bowl. We could almost be forgiven for forgetting that these are Test matches featuring players, many of whom are among the highest calibre in their sport. These games are sufficient, and more than sufficient, unto the day thereof.
And surely we haven’t reached the level of smug ennui in Ireland that we would turn our noses up at the prospect of winning a Grand Slam, this year or any year? The Lord knows we haven’t won too many of them: three in total, in our long and impoverished history. Even despite our current prosperity in the sport, it might be a bit soon to be acting all nouveau riche in this regard.
Therefore, it came as something of a relief to hear that Jonathan Sexton, no less, was keeping an eye on the immediate prize when asked about it at last Monday’s pre-tournament media launch in London. “We’re not talking about the World Cup at all,” replied the great man. “We won’t even be talking about France [next Saturday week], we’ll be talking about Wales for the next two weeks and how we can get ourselves in the best shape possible. But 100 per cent we’ll be doing all we can to win this tournament.”
Good. Sounds like a chap who isn’t of a mind to keep postponing the present for some putative Valhalla that might never materialise. Anyway, in sport in general, the best way to build for future success is to build for success in the present. Play for today not tomorrow. If things are going right today, the foundations are being laid for things going better the next day. “To prove that we can do something in the World Cup,” added the Ireland captain, “we need to go and do something in the Six Nations as well.”
Right. He has to think a bit more long-term too, or at least keep it in the back of his mind. But the future will take care of itself, no matter how much we might try to bend it to our will in advance of it coming. Meanwhile, this shining diamond in the annual sporting calendar will be here with us now, very soon, and maybe it is worth staying in the present just for its sake, and its sake alone.
So, never mind the World Cup for now. Let’s hope that Sexton and Co will shortly be able “to go and do something in the Six Nations”, just to prove that they can go and do something in ... the Six Nations.