Player welfare is obviously of the utmost priority, but the Six Nations ‘rest weeks’ are a detriment to the tournament, and the wider game.
From 2017, the Six Nations should look to scrap the two ‘rest weeks’ currently scheduled into the tournament. There are a number of reasons for this, most notably of which is the disruption it causes to the tournament itself.
Somehow we find ourselves in a situation where over the course of three weeks, each side plays just one game. After building fan interest in the pre Six Nations hype, fans get to watch games in successive weekends at the beginning of the tournament, only to then find the whole competition comes to a grinding halt in the third week.
Fortunately, after the first ‘rest week’, the action kicks off again and fans can pick up where they left off,. The issue however is that they are then subjected to another ‘rest week’ resulting in just one game over the course of three weeks. It is at this point that it feels like things fizzle out a little and fan interest begins to wane, particularly if things aren’t going too well for their team.
You compare this to the Rugby World Cup where the most fans have to wait between games is one week (between the semis and the final). This ensures continuity throughout the tournament and keeps supporters fully engaged with the action. Unfortunately this doesn’t transfer to the Six Nations where fans are left feeding off scraps during the middle of the competition.
It also means most players see very little game time over a three week period. This is particularly apparent for players used as replacements who may get 20 minutes game time each week. This means in the first five weeks of action, they spend around 60 minutes playing competitive rugby. If they suddenly have to step into the starting XV because of injury, they could being going in undercooked as no amount of training can replicate the intensity of test match rugby.
There is also the issue of disruption to the domestic game. The ‘rest weeks’ mean that teams are without many of their best players for seven weeks each year, in addition to the extra rest time these players receive when they return to the club game. This has been even more apparent this year due to the World Cup meaning more league games are being played during the Six Nations.
You only have to look at Wasps 64-23 demolition of Saracens to see the impact this has. The league leaders were without the likes of Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola and Jamie George – all of whom are key players. Whilst Wasps deserve huge credit for their performance, would the scoreline really have looked so lopsided had all of Saracens England players been available?
There are obviously issues surrounding player welfare, especially when it comes to playing five test matches in a row, however this could actually be a huge positive. By removing the ‘rest weeks’, sides in the Six Nations may instead have to look to rotate their players a little more, thereby giving chances to younger players, or those normally on the fringes of international selection. This could help open up the tournament and keep things more interesting.
You only have to look at the way players like Maro Itoje, Josh van der Flier and Stuart McCloskey performer in their first international starts this weekend to see the positive impact the added gametime would provide to young players. This could also benefit the longer term development of the teams, and ensure there is a wider playing pool for summer tours.
Even if the number of ‘rest weeks’ was halved so there was just one each year, (ideally after round three), it could have a huge impact on the viewing experience for fans. It would also ensure players aren’t undercooked going into games whilst also reducing the disruption to the club game, which despite the protestations remains the lifeblood of European rugby.