Here’s a question: how’s the 2016 Six Nations been for you so far?
A silly one to ask you may think. The obvious answer being, “Great if you’re English, good if you’re Welsh, OK if you’re French and pretty rubbish if you’re from the other three countries”. But that’s not necessarily so…
The 2016 edition has, to date, been tinted by a lethargy and sense of disappointment that’s palpable across the collective fanbase of all six teams, regardless of where they currently sit in the table. That’s fully understandable if your supporters jersey is green, Azzuri blue or emblazoned with Tartan flashes, but why is this the case for a resurgent England, France and a stubbornly competitive Wales? The answer, we would argue, comes in the form of ‘expectation’.
Another question: has your team met or exceeded your expectation in the first three rounds of competition?
We’d be very surprised if the answer isn’t a resounding ‘no’. English fans will be pleased with the workmanlike way Eddie Jones’s charges have gone about their business to this point, but will still be waiting for the ‘New England’ to appear. The Welsh (this Welshman included) will argue that Gatland’s men are stuck in a ‘Groundhog Day’ pattern of over-reliance on defence to the detriment of team development (especially in attack). The French will worry that another false dawn is on the cards after Guy Noves’ first three games in charge. The Scots have seen plenty of their own false dawns in recent times and will be desperately frustrated to see, once again, promise fail to turn into glory. The Irish will wonder what they’ve done to deserve such a despairingly poor campaign up to this point given their ‘Champions’ tag, and any expectations of an improved Italian showing this year would have evaporated following the last run-out against Scotland.
Put simply, no-one will be happy. And so it seems to be. We are left in the strange situation where, with a tournament reaching its pivotal last two rounds (and with scraps at both the top and bottom of the standings), attention has been focused on the quality, format and even relevance of the tournament itself rather than on the annual cycle of ‘winners and losers’. The last few week’s column inches have been taken up by such probing questions as ‘Is this the worst Six Nations ever?’, ‘Does the Six Nations need bonus points?’, ‘Should Italy be relegated?’ and the like. And this is not just the ramblings of a mischievous press. Comment on social media has been less vitriolic banter and more existential despair. The natives are restless.
In turn, coaches and players have responded in public with surprise that the usual wave of fervour has not kicked-in among fans of the top three. “But we’ve been winning!” seems to be the tone of those multiple press conferences and junkets. Whether, in private, they truly believe they’re deserving of the plaudits given out in other Six Nations seasons is debatable. Each team must have some understanding of the greater expectation and scutiny placed on this year’s tournament following the semi-final whitewash of the World Cup (mentioned in our last blog). Incredulity, without a perceived improvement, will only frustrate fans further.
The game that best sums up the current mood is Ireland v Wales (pictured above): lots of effort, lots of tackling, lots of ‘sore bodies’ as Rory Best would put it…and a result that’s gratifying for no-one. Meanwhile the coaches accentuate the positives.
Final question: so is this year’s tournament a write-off? Is it worth sticking with?
The answer to that will very much depend on your outlook and whether you’re a cup (trophy) half-full or half-empty kind of person. If you’re the latter, you will have resigned yourself to (in your view) the established fact that the European nations will always be playing second-fiddle to the southern hemisphere big guns unless the global season changes/hell freezes over. Those of us who are of a more positive outlook would argue that the growing pains of this Six Nations will serve all countries better in the long-run. It’s good to keep coaches, players, teams on their toes regarding ‘the bigger picture’. If the sides we support are failing to evolve (or seemingly failing to evolve) it’s right that people should question them. If anything, this year’s tournament has showed how the fanbase itself has developed: no longer satisfied with winning the battle but losing the World War; determined to push their teams onto great glories.
All that said, if any game is going to ignite interest in The Auld Championship, it’s got to be a top of the table clash between England and Wales.
Here’s hoping our cup runneth over…