For all the bold claims of being ‘Rugby’s Greatest Championship’, the Six Nations continues to disappoint all but the most partisan of fans.
The reality is, the Six Nations is becoming increasingly reliant on the long established international rivalries, rather than the quality of the rugby on display for entertainment purposes. This is in stark contrast to the Rugby Championship in the Southern Hemisphere where the quality of the rugby offered up is very much the jewel in the crown.
Whilst the close knit rivalries of the Six Nations make for some great encounters for fans in Europe, there is not much appeal in the championship for those from outside the six participating nations. You only have to look at the attitude of Australians and New Zealanders to the tournament to see that it is of little interest due to the quality of the product.
Ignoring the last weekend of the 2015 Championship, it is hard to really remember a quality weekend of Six Nations action from a rugby perspective. Yes, there have been games filled with intrigue, like Wales’ heroic defensive performance against Ireland last year, but whilst this kind of action is exciting for ardent rugby fans, it is hardly likely to interest neutrals.
Unfortunately, if anything, the Six Nations is looking even worse this year. The first six games have offered up very little in the way of genuine entertainment, other than perhaps for short periods of the Wales versus Scotland game last weekend. Beyond this, there has been very little to entertain fans who do not have a vested interest in the other five games.
Whilst the opening weekend saw a total of nine tries across the three games, five of these tries were scored in the clash between Italy and France, meaning England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales averaged just a single try per team in the opening weekend.
There was an improvement in week two with 11 tries in total being scored, however ten of these came in two games, with Ireland versus France producing a solitary try for eighty minutes of action. It is also a concern that the majority of the tries in the England versus Italy game came in the final half hour or so of the game.
Now let’s contrast this to the number of penalties. In week one, there were a total of 14 penalties scored. That means there were more than 50% more penalties than there were tries during the opening weekend (ignoring missed penalty attempts). In round two, there were 15 penalties scored which makes for a slightly better ratio, but hardly for an entertaining game.
The concern is that for all the talk of opening up the game, and competing with the Southern Hemisphere sides who for the most parts totally embarrassed their Six Nations counterparts in the World Cup, there has actually been a regression. Instead of trying to open up their playing styles, European teams have instead reverted back to a forward dominated game that is reliant on the set piece, a solid defence, and forwards getting over the gain line.
Not only does this style of rugby completely turn off neutrals, or prospective fans, it will also ensure that European teams will continue to fall behind sides in the Southern Hemisphere. Unfortunately, if the World Cup didn’t provide a wake up call to coaches, then it seems nothing will.
The fact Ireland are still so reliant on aerial bombardments as their primary attacking threat, or Wales continue to play ‘Warrenball’ shows just how stuck in their ways coaches in Europe have become. It seems even Scotland, for all their attacking flair during the World Cup, have been somewhat neutered in attack. Perhaps this is because of the poor weather conditions, or more likely it is to do with having to counter the negative tactics employed by their opposition.
Whatever the issue, there is a serious concern that the quality of rugby in the Six Nations Championship is actually getting worse. Not just from an entertainment perspective, but also from a fundamental skills perspective, teams seem more interested in holding their defensive shape than in making a break or trying to open the game up.
For now at least, it appears that Northern Hemisphere sides are going to continue to struggle at World Cups.