On the relentless treadmill that is modern professional rugby, the status of the Six Nations has been diluted somewhat in recent years. This is not to say there is a lack of enthusiasm among supporters, far from it. Yet the majority of discussion in pubs and papers seems to revolve around how each team or player is going to perform in the context of ‘The Big Picture’, whether it be the World Cup or the Lions. Words such as ‘building’, ‘transition’, ‘progress’, ‘development’ are prevalent and most of these are clearly positive things. The implication though is that winning the Six Nations is no longer much of an end in itself, but is merely a staging post to push on to bigger and better things.
Why might this be? It may be that this is a peculiarly English affliction. After all, Ireland had to wait 60 years for a Grand Slam and rightly celebrated it as the huge achievement it was. Wales regard supremacy over their neighbours as one of the greater aspirations and, without being too harsh, Scotland and Italy cannot look far beyond achieving respectability at the moment.
However Wales followed up their Grand Slam last year by taking a full strength team down to Australia in the hope of claiming a significant Southern Hemisphere scalp. That was the action of a team who felt that the Grand Slam was only the precursor to greater things to come. They promptly lost 3-0. In fact Wales, England and Ireland, who finished first, second and fourth respectively in the Six Nations managed no wins and a solitary draw in 9 test matches against the Southern Hemisphere big three last summer.
This may point towards another explanation for the Six Nations perhaps lacking the status it once held – the standard is not actually that high. The teams at the upper end of the table are the standard-bearers for European rugby yet they struggle to compete with rugby’s true big-hitters. Winning the Six Nations may therefore no longer be considered the mark of a true global contender. The increased regularity of fixtures with the Big Three makes those the true tests, the true barometers for the status of a team.
An unfortunate effect of this focus on the big picture is that it provides teams with a ready-made excuse. Every loss comes with a ‘but’ and an often infuriating explanation of the ‘positives’ to be taken. Again it is as though victories are a ‘nice-to-have’ but are not as important as ‘moving in the right direction’, however painfully slow that progress may be. You never hear such platitudes from New Zealand or South Africa.
It is hard to know whether this is a cause or an effect of the inconsistency shown by the European sides in recent years. The fluctuation in results between international windows, from Six Nations to summer tour to autumn internationals back to Six Nations has been vast. Coaches and players bang on about ‘consistency of performance’ but what about consistency of results? Success begets success. Win now and the future becomes a lot easier. A team that knows how to win come what may is far more likely to challenge the Big Three than one who puts together a few mesmerisingly pretty passages but goes missing when the going gets tough.
Of course much of this ‘big picture’ thinking revolves around the four year cycle of the World Cup. An unfortunate knock-on effect of that fabulous tournament has been the diminishing of much of the other international rugby which is played, particularly in the 18 months after each tournament. This is highly regrettable and fortunately rugby has established competitions such as the Six Nations to prevent the international game going the way of football’s mishmash of uninspiring fixtures.
But the point is that the Six Nations must not be taken for granted. Who knows what is going to happen in the next 3 years and to talk down the importance of today’s matches in that context is a nonsense. The home nations have no significant internationals in their own right for seven months after this so talk of momentum and the future must be ignored as that is too long a hiatus to maintain it.
This article might sound a little down on the Six Nations but it is far from it. It wants the status of that tournament to be elevated back up to the level it deserves. My wish for this year’s edition is that every win is fought for tooth and nail and that there are no weak excuses about ‘progress’ from the main challengers (with apologies to Italy and Scotland, I am talking about the others here). Let there be no talk of World Cups and very little of Lions. Winning each game it is the be all and end all, winning this tournament here and now is everything and should be treated as such. The biggest winner then would be the Six Nations itself.
By Stuart Peel