Is the Six Nations a good indicator of Rugby World Cup prospects?

RBS Six NationsBarely a pub conversation will occur during this year’s RBS Six Nations without mention of the World Cup. Any ray of light will be seized upon as an indication that a team is timing their run to perfection, any defeat will be interpreted as a harbinger of doom and lead to soul-searching over whether it is really worth turning up in New Zealand at all.

But does this really make any sense? Should some supporters start laying in the celebratory bubbly for October if their team has a successful championship? And by the same token should others consider booking a month in a remote Himalayan retreat at around that time to avoid the embarrassment of seeing their team despatched in humiliating fashion?

Some international teams are so erratic that it is nigh on impossible to make predictions nine months down the line. Ireland entered the last World Cup on the back of a Triple Crown and proceeded to scrape wins over Georgia and Namibia and get stuffed by France and Argentina. Wales were equally dreadful in that tournament and won a scintillating Grand Slam 4 months later. So does the Championship in a World Cup year really give any sort of benchmark by which to set expectations for the big event?

England were only a Scott Gibbs-shaped juggernaut away from going into four consecutive World Cups as Grand Slam champions. And that failure at the last in 1999 was the precursor to their worst World Cup performance since 1987 when they were also knocked out in the quarters, the difference being that in 1999 England had high hopes but in 1987 they were coming in off a joint last place finish in the Championship and were genuinely rubbish. Peter Williams at fly half anybody? No, me neither.

So we can conclude that if England win a Grand Slam, they will go on to reach the final at least, unless of course the opposition has a genetic experiment such as Jonah Lomu playing on the wing. In 1991 and 2003, England followed up Grand Slam victories with appearances on the biggest stage of all. The great anomaly was 2007 when England finished 3rd in the Six Nations including getting pumped by Ireland at Croke Park and beaten well by Wales. And after losing 36-0 to South Africa in the Group stage they somehow ground their way to the final using little more than nous, grunt and a left foot.

France, like England, have traditionally done well in World Cup years. They won a Grand Slam in 1987 and proceeded to thrill their way to the final come World Cup time. The other time they reached the final however they achieved a solitary one point win over Ireland in the preceding championship. They also entered their own 2007 World Cup as Six Nations champions (with no Grand Slam) but, although they reached the semis and knocked out the All Blacks, they performed poorly in losing to England and Argentina twice. In both 1991 and 2003 they finished runner up to English Grand Slams and then lost to their old rivals in the quarters and semis respectively.

So the French, not entirely unexpectedly, should read precisely nothing into their Six Nations form and just hope they don’t run into England in the World Cup (which, should it go according to rankings, they will do in the quarters – chin up Thierry).

The Celtic nations also should not read too much into their Six Nations performance as, barring exceptional circumstances, they will lose in the quarters no matter what happens. The exceptions are, being in the same group as a South Sea Island team if you’re Welsh (see 1991 and 2007 and also 1999 when defeat to Samoa handed them a quarter against Australia. What’s that? They’ve got Fiji and Samoa? Shame, I hear New Zealand is lovely in October, wish you could have stayed longer); your fly half having a total meltdown if you’re Irish (see 2007); or not having to play anybody remotely good until the semis if you’re Scottish in which case you may exceed expectations (see 1991 when Scotland beat an awful Ireland team in the group, then Western Samoa in the quarters).

In fact the two occasions on which Celtic teams made the semis, they did so on the back of pretty mediocre Six Nations showings. Wales were joint bottom in 1987 and Scotland put up a disappointing defence of their title in 1991 to finish third (don’t forget that Wales and Ireland were appalling at this point in time).

In recent World Cup years, Ireland and Scotland have generally finished mid-table in the Championship and gone out in the quarters which would probably be in line with expectation. Wales however have always performed shockingly in World Cup years. They have won only four 5/6 Nations matches in World Cup years and have failed to register a win on three occasions, in 1991, 1995 and 2003. They won two matches in 1999 and reached the quarters but only after losing to Samoa once again. So if Wales win more than two matches this season they will be in unchartered territory and could ride the wave all the way to World Cup glory.

So there we have it. If you find some snooty Englishman, loud-voiced Welshman, drunken Irishman, delusional Scotsman, wildly gesticulating Italian or, God forbid, Frenchman of any description bending your ear about how his team is going to win the World Cup after an unconvincing victory, simply fix him with a weary, pitying stare and explain to him that it matters not. Only England can point to any sort of correlation between Six Nations and World Cup success and that took a blow in 2007. So just sit back, relax and enjoy the rabid local rivalries which only the Six Nations can offer. Because in terms of the big picture, it doesn’t really matter at all.

By Stuart Peel

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