Do the men above look nervous to you? They should do.
No matter how confident and moody this set of six look (in the now traditional coaches photo) they should be feeling worried. Why? Because to a greater or lesser degree the nations they head up have been found out. Rugby World Cup 2015 has come and gone. What it left behind was a three word message to Europe’s best international teams: MUST. DO. BETTER. No semi-finalists among them. Two knocked out in the group stages. The remaining four eliminated by their Rugby Championship counterparts in the quarter-finals. Bar the Welsh, no side makes it into the top five in the world rankings. Come this Six Nations we are faced with the stark reality that the world’s oldest and greatest rugby tournament will be fought among, in the grander international context, second-rate teams.
Harsh? Well you could point to the bits of bad luck (either through injuries or a dodgy penalty decision) which ended the campaigns of Wales and Scotland last October. “Had those things not happened, it may have been a different story”, you could say. But that would be to put a sticking plaster over a deeper wound: one of a lack of speed and skill in the European game. There are several examples where the absence of a top gear undid the Six Nations sides during the World Cup: the Welsh failure to score against an Australian side down to 13 men when overlaps were abundant; an Irish side ripped apart by the pacy panache of the Argentinians; the refusal of the Scots to unleash their most dynamic XV against a lumbersome South African side; the nine-try demolition job handed out to France by eventual world champions New Zealand. The failure by these sides to break the hegemony of the southern hemisphere isn’t down to bad luck, it’s down to a negative mindset based upon a mantra of “you shall not pass” rather than “we’ll score one more than you”.
Now, please don’t misunderstand the point above. It’s not meant as a denunciation of good defensive play. Defence is, and will remain, an important part of the modern game. In fact, the Six Nations boasts some of the best defensive sides in the world (just look at last year’s epic battle between Wales and Ireland in Cardiff). But there’s the rub. Their defensive prowess is not exclusively confined to the borders of Europe. New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and, increasingly, Argentina have a defensive game to match anything in the north. That’s not to mention the emergence of Tier Two Nations. If good defence was an exclusive tacit of the Europeans then world rugby would be much more balanced and competitive: the unstoppable force of the south’s attacking game vs the unmovable object of the north’s defence. But this is not the case. The best teams in the world have both a solid defence and a speedy, skillful, attacking philosophy that argues that rugby is about finding space, not the man.
To date this has meant the Six Nations has engaged in a vicious circle of its own making. The tournament continues to go from strength to strength in terms of popularity and competitiveness (this year promises to be the closest yet), but the unspoken agreement between all concerned is that, to conquer over each other, the sides must play the same way: a game based on winning the gain line, playing the percentages and defending as if your life depended on it. And while this repeated exercise in glorified arm-wrestling produces moments of delight, some tense and thrilling encounters and, of course, champions, the ultimate truth is that all six participants fail when they step up to face those who occupy the top spots in our sport.
Blimey, this is all a bit depressing isn’t it?
Well there are reasons to be hopeful that this cycle will come to an end pretty soon. For one, the semi-final shut out of Six Nations sides has, as mentioned above, meant that there can be no excuses any longer. The “there’s more than one way to play” argument now looks untenable and threadbare. All coaches will know that things have to change. Secondly, the appointment of Eddie Jones to England and Guy Noves to France (two men known for their lack of conservatism) should, hopefully, break the ‘softly, softly’ approach of two traditional big guns of international rugby. Finally, all of these sides will be hurting. All of them have come off the back of a World Cup thinking “what might have been”. (At least) four years of preparation went down the swanny as each of them took their bows at Twickenham, Manchester, Cardiff or Exeter. They, and their players, will not want the same thing to happen in Japan in 2019. Winning a Six Nations title (or even a Grand Slam) will provide the good vibrations that will appease fans for a year or so…but continued failure at a World Cup? That’s going to hurt for a generation. For all these reasons, expect things to be a little different this year.
So what will happen? Wales will rightly go in as favourites given their spirited display in the World Cup, and their knack of winning Grand Slams the year after the world’s showpiece event. The ‘random injury crisis generator™’ has chosen Ireland as its current victim, and they’ll be hoping to make the most out of a bad deal. Three championships in a row looks unlikely. England and France have nothing to lose and, as such, could be dangerous. In fact if the English and French start to play a bit, it could force the hands of the more pragmatic Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt to ‘open the taps’. Scotland will be champing at the bit to get started given their heart-breaking loss last run out. What better way to begin than against the Auld Enemy? Win that one and who knows? Meanwhile you fear Italy will simply be going through the motions as they await a new coach and fresh impetus from next season. Conor O’Shea anyone? In terms of style it would be foolish to expect the tournament to continue where it left off last year (with the flair, madness and spectacle of Super Saturday) but expect more running rugby over the course of the five rounds than we have seen previously. The question is, when the competition gets tight, will these coaches have the courage to go against type?
When it comes to this year’s Six Nations, yes, let’s hope for a great competition with a worthy champion. But let’s also hope for a noticeable increase in speed and skill across those fifteen matches: a change in style which puts the onus back onto the Rugby Championship sides who themselves are going through periods of change.
If that doesn’t happen? We all lose.