As usual – and you know I generally don’t share it – there’s a tsunami if optimism sweeping through everyone on the eve of the Guinness Six Nations Championship.
And why not? The sounds of the championship should return in full after two years of disruption, postponement and isolation.
You know the stuff. The songs: FoS, Swing Low, Hymns and Arias, The Fields of Athenry (don’t the Irish have any happy songs?) Allez les Bleus, Fratelli D’Italia.
The best sound in the 6 Nations is…
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) January 26, 2022
My favourite Six Nations sound is the annual whining of the soccer mujahedeen wondering why some other sport is getting some media attention.
No, seriously, it’s when 60-80,000 plus people simultaneously gasp in awe. When Finn Russell throws another audacious pass. Or when Louis Rees-Zammit gives the defender a two-yard start and still outpaces him.
Or perhaps Antoine Dupont doing something outrageously brilliant AGAIN. Maybe Maro Itoje ripping people off the ball at the breakdown like he was opening an Amazon package. Or Tadhg Furlong snapping an opposition ankle with a sidestep moments after he’s gone pull pelt at a scrum.
Rugby seems ready to emerge for the pandemic fully re-bloomed, if recent evidence of play is anything to go by.
The 6 Nations is traditionally the most attritional of tournaments on the rugby calendar – largely because it ALWAYS matters – but last year’s fabulous championship behind closed doors was a sheer delight in terms of entertainment.
Post-pandemic finances are…okay. Just. The popularity of the sport’s most compelling annual event is undimmed.
So why on earth do we want to change it?
The most competitive Six Nations ever, but…
The championship was the most competitive in decades in 2021 – any one of five nations could have won it. Well, really four, but remember England were many people’s pre-championship favourites before they laid an egg against Scotland and Wales.
The one exception, of course, is Italy. 2021 was the worst of a dire series for the Italians that last saw them win in 2015 at Murrayfield.
And that was with a last minute penalty try. Italy haven’t really been competitive in the Six Nations since 2013, when they beat France and Ireland and got within seven points of England.
My long-time theory that Italy would begin to thrive when the do-everything captain Sergio Parisse retired proved to be utterly erroneous. Their first season without him was record-settingly dreadful. So much so he’s considering un-retiring.
And of course this has meant the subject of relegation from the Six Nations has come up again. It wasn’t so long since some people were advocating this for Scotland, remember.
But now the Italians almost accept it. After Scotland’s last game in Rome, Gazetta della Sport’s headline on their report was “Non vinicamo mai: che sneso ha?” (We never win, what’s the point?).
The Mighty Lelos of Georgia are waiting in the wings, perennially top of the second-tier ranks and at least deserving of a promotion play-off. In playing terms few could deny them – if they beat Italy straight-up, which is no sure thing.
Tbilisi would certainly add an element of exotica to the annual Six Nations tour, but it’s the wrong timezone and there are few economic benefits. These things matter to the 6 Nations engine that generates more cash for the sport than any other annual event.
What about 7 Nations? Even 8?
🇿🇦 Ladies and gentlemen, your SA Rugby Player of the Year for 2021 is none other than our Springbok captain, @SiyaKolisi, who led by example and is the only player to feature in all 13 Tests last year. Siyavuyisana nawe Siya! #SARugbyAwards #StrongerTogether #StrongerForever pic.twitter.com/q0VtoKQO8E
— Springboks (@Springboks) January 27, 2022
Italy, not surprisingly, are loath to give up their lucrative spot at the table. But what about 7 Nations? Even, possibly, 8?
South Africa are now openly campaigning for a spot in the championship. Although their provincial switch from Super Rugby to the URC Championship simply cannot (yet) be judged a success, it seems the momentum of that has, predictably, started to shift the Springboks.
According to some calculations, South Africa generates more than 60% of the revenue in the Rugby Championship. They want a competition, in a reasonably similar timezone, where that financial contribution guarantees a far bigger return.
This will of course wreck rugby’s “hemispherical” divide (which is a curious thing anyway – no other major sport separates itself like this).
It also ups the ante quite considerably in terms of the competitiveness of the event. But for a few very brief lulls the Springboks have been a top three side in the world for 25 years.
Most of the Six Nations play the Springboks on at least an annual basis already. The championship has a different sort of history, but adding Italy in 2000 didn’t diminish the 100 plus years that came before.
Change hasn’t damaged the championship
February 15th 1986: Scotland 33-6 England.
Three iconic tries at BT Murrayfield as Scotland picked up their biggest-ever win over England. pic.twitter.com/iqdl4AxrUw
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) February 2, 2022
The enlarged Six Nations ended up garnering more worldwide attention and making MUCH more money. If that happened with the Italians being regularly rubbish, what would happen with the `Boks on board?
The one thing that might manifestly change the championship if the Boks joined would be a (probably) necessary change in annual timeslot.
It would have to be a little later in the year than the Six Nations’s “traditional” place in February and March. But the championship was played in early January all the way to April in the not-too-distant past.
An enlarged 6-7-8 Nations played in the midst of a European season would have the blood of club owners boiling. But perhaps this gives the chance to properly organise rugby’s global calendar at last for everyone’s benefit.
Play the club season unfettered until early April, then play the championship into May. I’m down with that; top-class golf in Europe doesn’t seem to find any playable green growth until June these days.
There will be some traditionalists who grumble. There are no doubt some (me, often) who long for the days at Landsdowne, the Parc, Old Green Twickers, the proper Arms Park and Murrayfield’s East Terrace under the scoreboard.
But the old championship survived their loss, even survived Covid, and it still thrives. Tempus fugit.