Static and stubborn Six Nations is becoming a slave to its traditions
European rugby must innovate or risk being cut adrift of global stage as the gulf of skills grows ever wider
It is a peculiarity of the Six Nations that its custodians will brook no argument about its future. Suggest the slightest tweak to the tournament and one might as well be desecrating the Turin Shroud.
Any chance of allowing Georgia or Romania to gatecrash the cosy cartel? No. How about bringing in a bonus-point system that has become a cornerstone of just about every other competition? Heaven forbid.
What, we cannot even consider starting the matches a month later, to give the sport a chance of establishing a global season from March to November that might transform its profile?
Wash your mouth out with soap and water.
The fallacy persists that the Six Nations is flawless, that any interference in its format would compromise the sanctity of the product. One might have dared imagine, after a World Cup that dealt European teams the sharpest poke in the eye, that there would be a sober debate about how to enhance the standard of Six Nations fare for this edition. But the committee in charge refuses to buckle.
Its members resolved yesterday that the event would remain exactly where it was in the schedule, overlooking the fact that drenched fields in early February tend to be inimical to the expansive game that might ultimately unlock World Cup success.
Nothing else in rugby is afforded the same protected status. Every four years, World Rugby is quite content to lop a tournament of the Rugby Championship’s calibre in half, lest the matches encroach unduly upon World Cup preparations.
But the Six Nations stands aloof, unyielding in the face of change and ring-fenced from all prevailing rules. There are few cogent reasons, beyond pure romanticism, for why this should be so. Yes, there is a tapestry of mystique that must be kept intact. Yes, any showpiece where one can flit freely between a Joycean pilgrimage to Dublin’s watering holes and a late-winter schlep along Rome’s Viale Angelico needs protecting at all costs. Look more closely at the actual rugby, though, and the picture becomes muddied.
Short-term memory is blurred by the final-day free-for-all in last year’s championship, where the madcap defensive ineptitude of England’s 55-35 win over France would be anathema to a coach such as Eddie Jones. The narrative was acclaimed as emphatic proof of the Six Nations’ inherent drama and charm, even if a triple-header of back-to-back matches was of dubious fairness and confected purely to suit television.
It turned out, sadly, to be a precursor for the most dismal World Cup showing on record for the northern hemisphere, as not a single Six Nations representative reached the semi-finals.
The southern-hemisphere monopoly extended beyond simply locking out the last four. England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland played seven matches against the big four of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina, and lost all seven.
Tot up the points from those games and the south swept to triumph by 245 to 121. They also held the four top spots in the try-scoring table, putting paid to those spurious claims for how the Six Nations has enhanced the vibrancy of European rugby.
A conversation recently with Simon Poidevin, the flanker who won the 1991 World Cup for Australia, reinforced the message. Suggesting that he found the Six Nations a turgid spectacle from the purists’ perspective, Poidevin also expressed the view that the quality of pitches was not helping the European cause.
For the last Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield in 2014, the playing surface was in a pitiful state. “I feel that England, eventually, will have to go to synthetic grounds,” he said. “On boggy ground, there is not much you can do in terms of a free-flowing game. That dynamic has to be changed. There are too many excuses around the conditions they play in, so you have to take them out of the game.”
The dour contest in Edinburgh two years ago was one to prove that quagmire-like pitches could be the enemy of ensemble rugby. As such, fundamental skills are not leaping forward at the same rate as they are south of the equator, where the quality of most Rugby Championship encounters puts Six Nations equivalents to shame.
When Wales won the title in 2013, they scored nine tries. The All Blacks, en route to glory in 2012 – admittedly playing one extra game – managed 18. The emphasis on skill, dynamism and creativity is unrelenting.
In the Six Nations, by contrast, the focus tends to settle upon the craic, the stadium atmosphere, the richness of the fan experience. It is for this reason that Sir Graham Henry labelled it the “envy of the southern hemisphere”.
In what other sporting context could supporters follow a bibulous Parisian weekend by wreaking merry havoc in the crazy thoroughfares of Cardiff? The Rugby Championship has no such ambience to call its own, spread diffusely as it is across 15 time zones, with negligible travelling contingents. Even Steve Hansen, the All Blacks’ bluff head coach, has described the derby-day mood around each fixture with a sense of yearning.
“The Six Nations is unique,” he once said. “I love it all.”
But these eulogies ought not to preclude the chance to evolve. Such is the hemispheric gulf, Six Nations chiefs risk making the tournament a slave to its cherished traditions.
Why not move it back by a month, if it could free up a slicker mode of play? Why not contemplate a system of promotion of relegation, when Italy have been on a downward curve for two years?
Why not throw in a bonus-point experiment, if only to avoid such stultifyingly arid matches as Italy versus France 12 months ago? Tradition, in and of itself, is no excuse for a reluctance to innovate, when the alternative for all these teams is to be cut further adrift on the global stage.