A Poor Quality Six Nations in World Cup Year

The Six Nations may be the jewel in the crown of the Northern Hemisphere rugby season with all of the history and rivalry it entails, but some of the matches played so far this season have been dour, with skills and spatial awareness at times sparse or even completely absent.

Last weekend’s European derby in Rome was a real fast-forward-frenzy, perfectly formed for the Sky+ era with only about 5 minutes of play worth enduring at normal speed.  Forget the thrills; this was all about the spills as players from both teams juggled the ball like inexperienced clowns, time and again allowing it to fall to the deck.  What a depressingly poor quality match, and a terrible advert for the tournament as a whole.  Indeed, all of the French matches have been pretty dire thus far, and a far cry from the resplendent offloads and mazy running lines of days gone by.

Even when angles are cut and half-breaks made, try scoring opportunities are squandered and opportunities go to waste.  England has the most creative backline in the Championship and created several gilt edged chances against Scotland but failed to complete the job time and again.  In Cardiff, Wales defended heroically on their own line but the Irish must have been wearing Gold Cup blinkers as they pummeled away around the fringes and spurned countless men over on the wide outside.  As good as the result was for Wales, and as enjoyable as the tight games may have been for the fans, realistically one has to say that the lack of composure and clinical finishing does not bode well for the forthcoming World Cup.

Contrast the game in the North to the rugby in the Southern Hemisphere.  The Super 15 season is not long underway and the games are electric, the offloads come thick and fast and there is a much bigger emphasis on attack.  That isn’t to say that defensive duties are neglected, in fact far from it.  There are some bone crunching hits, well won turnovers and solid counter-rucks, but teams aren’t wasting time grappling on the floor to slow opposition possession, or simply trying to win a long-winded territory battle with the boot.  Instead, they concentrate on handling skills and working hard to break down defences with deft running lines, neat offloads and intelligent support play.  Fitness levels in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa must be immense; players are working so hard with and without the ball for 80 minutes, providing an enthralling spectacle week in, week out.  Come the World Cup in October, when the cream has risen to the top and players have been in International training camps for a few weeks, these teams could prove unplayable for the Northern Hemisphere outfits that seem to be playing at a far slower pace.

That isn’t to say there have been no rays of light in this year’s Six Nations, as the emergence of some new players onto international the scene have been a revelation.  The Italian lock Biagi, France’s Scott Spedding and La Rochelle Number 8 Goujon as well as a trio of centres from England, Ireland and Scotland – Jonathan Joseph, Robbie Henshaw and Mark Bennett have all proved their worth, with the Bath centre in particular taking his creative club form straight onto the Six Nations stage.  But what I’ve felt has really been missing is the intent from teams to go for the jugular and kill off the opposition with heavy scores.  Perhaps this is something a bonus point structure could address?  After all, the 6 Nations is now the only annual rugby tournament still not using points-scoring incentives of any kind.  Maybe now is the right time to break with tradition and introduce bonus points to improve the spectacle and encourage teams to play with a more attacking mind-set?  This year’s table might well look the same if bonus points were accounted for, but that simply reinforces the belief that no-one is really playing with enough ambition or desire to score more tries than they absolutely require to win.  Who knows just how the results could have been impacted had the extra point incentives been in play?

Overall, this year’s Six Nations has been rather disappointing and lacking a certain “je ne sais quoi”, as maybe teams have a bigger prize in mind and one eye on the World Cup in the autumn.  For all the excitement and importance placed on the final table at the end of this Saturday’s games, perhaps though we should be wary about proclamations and predictions of who will do what when the tournament kicks off in September.  Last Saturday, Wales did do well to beat a tough Irish team, and England did show they could make a break or two, but each and every team in this year’s Six Nations will have to reduce their error count significantly if they have great aspirations later on this year.  Come to think of it, perhaps the French have developed a cunning plan to get all of their mistakes cleared out of the way before the tournament gets underway in September…..

The Problems with the European Challenge Cup

In the jigsaw like Northern Hemisphere rugby season, the game has moved into the Autumn International window, although some top-level clubs and regions have continued into yet another competition (the LV Cup) whilst others take a break and Welsh grassroots clubs effectively close down.  It’s easy to forget the excitement, just a few weeks hence, of the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup, the successor to the Heineken Cup, this time managed directly by the clubs and regions involved.

But what a great start to the competition it had been, some ferocious games, unexpected results, superb performances on both an individual and team level and a hugely encouraging competition all round.  Although the disjointed nature of the fixture list doesn’t help with its momentum, I for one am looking forward to the next two rounds in December with eager anticipation

However whilst the top tier of the new cross border competition flourishes, the level just beneath is in real danger of becoming a pantomime farce.  The European Challenge Cup should be a meaningful competition with crowds watching exciting matches week in, week out, in the same manner as the Champions Cup, however that is not the case.  The Challenge Cup has been relegated to little more than a simple development competition by the absence of criteria to ensure the winner is automatically entered into the higher tier event in the subsequent season, something which did in fact take place in the former Heineken and Amlin Cup tournaments.

All that really is at stake now as a result of winning a season-long competition involving many miles travelling is prestige.  And realistically, when compared to the Top 14 in France, or the Aviva Premiership in England, surely no-one expects the Challenge Cup to represent the same value to clubs participating in these leagues?  That is why we see sides like Stade Français playing their second string in Europe and whilst the Dragons deserve high praise for their win in Paris, it is difficult to imagine the same outcome had they been competing against the home sides first choice lineup.

Having won the battle for control, this was an opportunity for the newly formed European Professional Club Rugby organisation to get things right immediately, and whilst for the most part they did, they have also made a calamitous and potentially damaging mistake.  With French sides already playing their “Espoir” teams even at this early stage of the competition, I would be severely worried that propaganda could soon emerge from the EPCR critics who lost the “war”, highlighting exactly this issue for their own personal gain.

Overall, the situation does seem somewhat bizarre.  After all the gripes over the qualifying formats, subsequent changes spiced up competitions like the Guinness Pro 12 and turned them into meaningful events, yet one of the results of these alterations has been a diluted second tier in Europe.  Quite why this was not considered at the outset seems a rather bizarre oversight, however this is not a difficult issue to resolve and the administrators should seriously be considering making this change sooner rather than later so all clubs competing in Europe, and their multitude of fans, understand that every game, whether in the Champions or the Challenge Cup, will have implications further down the road.