With the fast approaching RBS 6 Nations bearing down on us the usual suspect are preparing themselves for a close knit tournament. The teams classed as the big guns of Europe aim to pitt themselves against each other and endure some gladiatorial bouts to fight for the crown of the RBS 6 Nations.
But why are England, Ireland, Scotland,Wales, France and Italy such highly regarded teams in Europe and in some cases the world? With 6 out of the top 12 IRB world ranking slots being filled by the six Nations teams you can understand the prestige of the tournament.
But if you were to delve deep into the world rankings you would spot that out of the top 30 ranked sides, 13 teams were European! Raising the question why do we not hear more about European national fixtures?
Are France, England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy so high up the scale because of the 6 Nations tournament and other international fixtures they play against the likes of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa which earns them more ranking points?
Shouldn’t the IRB be encouraging other European teams to have the chance to improve their play and get more recognition? Surely by doing this, it will highlight the game to a larger audience and encourage them to grab an oval ball and take up the game.
There are 2 suggestion for doing such a thing in the European game and both have a plus but also a negative, depending on which way you look upon it.
For my first suggested idea would be to develope a European cup. Similar to the football tournament, it could be held every 4 years between world cups. As rugby is considered a smaller sport to football to have 16 teams lining up for a trophy would be a big ask. But as in 1987 only 12 teams lined up for the first Rugby World Cup and was quite a low key event, but now you just have to see the true global magnitude of the world cup in all its glory to see that starting small can great big things. We saw during the last RWC teams such as Georgia, Russia and Romania managed to start competing with the world powers, and competing with them on a regular basis would only increase their game.
In 2000 Italy joined in the 5 Nations making it 6. For many years Italy truly were the whipping boys and regularly got flogged by the other teams, but now after 12 years in the competition they are true competitors and can realistically hold their own. During the 90’s Romania were considered as the next big European force after the big 5, but financially they couldn’t offer as much as the Italians! Unfortunately this seemed to knock them backwards and the Italians were brought to the forefront, proof that bigger competition helps to bring on the minows. A competition of this form would surely help many countries financially and create another huge rugby spectacle for rugby fans to get our teeth into.
Another option is possibly the most controversial suggestion- a second string 6 nations, this would involve a promotion and relegation operation. It would involve bringing together 6 of the best other European teams such as Russia, Georgia, Romania, Spain, Portugal and Belgium. So for those who do well in the mark2 competition they can seek to replace the wooden spoon holders of the 6 nations the following season.
The problem that a second tier in this format may cause is the fact that the 6 Nations is steeped in history and fans would be angered by seeing their team relegated from such a long standing competition.
With the 6 Nations being the oldest competition in rugby starting as the home Nations in 1883 and in 1910 the addition of France turned it into 5 Nations. Italy made the jump at a much later time in 2000 making it into the competition we now come to call the 6 Nations. Since the beginning of the tournament there has been a few alterations such as- pausing for the First World War, the ejection of France in 1931 going back to the home Nations, another halt for Second World War then France returning in 1939 to reform as 5!
It also has a couple of personal trophies between nations-
- Calcuta cup between England and Scotland began in 1879.
- Millennium trophy between Ireland and England started 1988.
- Guiseppe Garibaldi trophy now between France and Italy from 2007.
Through this competition there is a whole lot of national pride involved. Between the home nations they all compete to be the triple crown winners (beating all home nations). England being the most successful of all winning 23 triple crowns over Wales with 19 and Scotland and Ireland united on 10.
There is also the grander prize of a grand slam (to win all fixtures). This is the ultimate achievement and with England heading the pile with 12 it shows the difficulty of the challenge. Wales have succeeded on 10 occasions closely trailed by France on 9, Scotland pulled it of on 3 attemps, Ireland have only 2 success and Italy are yet to achieve this feat. The true sign of a domineering side has been show first by Wales in 1976-1979 then by England from 1995-1998 with 4 back to back triple crowns. Previously the triple crown victory was only rewared with pride but in 2006 a trophy was presented to the winners.
With such history embroiled around the campaign could a second tier even be contemplated or could this be just one step too far? Although the inclusion of Italy showed an evolution of the game and a step towards a bigger picture.
Should we march forward for the benefit of Europe or revel in the past glories of our nations??