Ian Smith's Six Nations - Part 2
By Ian Smith
January 31 2019
The eve of the first game of the 2019 Six Nations competition seems a fitting time to muse over the development of the competition as we know it today. In Part 2, we pick up where the competition convened after the end of WW2, and this was probably the true birth of the Six Nations as it has become today. It is too easy to imagine that all of this history was destined to get us to where we are today, as if today was the end point, but in reality, 2019 is just another year, and the game will move on, so that one day, 2019 will just be another year in history. Let's hope it is a memorable year for all the right reasons.
1947 to date, and beyond?
France were readmitted into the Five Nations championship in the first competition after the war years suspension but it was England and Wales that shared the spoils with both teams achieving three wins however it was Ireland that proved to be the tournaments dominant force over the next two years and winning the invisible trophy of the Triple Crown in 1948 and 1949 with the 1948 campaign giving them their first Five Nations Grand Slam.
France who had had a 44 year struggle to establish themselves as a force in the tournament finally took a share of the title along with England and Wales in 1954 and again shared the title in 1955. With a team including inspirational players such as lock forward Lucien Maas, full back Pierre Lacaze, and flanker Francois Moncla they won their first outright title in 1959 and then went on to win the championship for a further three consecutive years, sharing the title with England in 1960. Two more championship finals came the way of the French in 1967 and 1968 but French rugby had really won its place on the international stage when they finally achieved the greatest prize by recording their first Grand Slam in the 1968 campaign.
By the start of the 1970’s the Five Nations was firmly established in the Sporting Calendar with sell out crowds and huge television audiences. The 1970’s also saw the rise of the Welsh as the dominant force in Northern Hemisphere rugby with players
that were to achieve legendary status not just within the principality but wherever rugby union was played.
The 1972 British Lions had been the first team to win a test match series in New Zealand and the 1973 game between the touring All Blacks and the Barbarians at Cardiff Arms Park was billed as the return clash. The strength of Welsh rugby had played no small part in that Lions success and the Barbarians team that took the field on the 27th January. Derrick Quinnell, Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett, John Dawes who captained the side, John Bevan, J. P. R. Williams and Tom David the uncapped flanker.
That game produced what is widely regarded as the greatest try in world rugby as Phil Bennett started the move that was finished by Gareth Edwards scoring with a dive into the corner in the fourth minute. In 2003 a poll of international rugby players declared Gareth Edwards as the greatest player of all time.
The Welsh record in the 1970’s set a remarkably high standard that until recently subsequent welsh teams struggled to emulate. Wales shared the championship on two occasions, won it outright five times, capturing three Grand Slams and five Triple Crowns along the way.
By the end of the 1970’s, age had caught up with a lot of the high profile Welsh players and the 1980’s was a fallow period as France became the dominant force in Northern Hemisphere rugby taking six championships in ten years. The top of the championship table was generally a tussle between England and France during the 1990’s however professional rugby came into being on 27th August 1995 raising the profile of the game and therefore the tournament.
Six Nations championship previous winners (* Denotes Grand Slam):
1947 Wales & England 1948 Ireland * 1949 Ireland
1950 Wales * 1951 Ireland 1952 Wales *
1953 England 1954 England, France & Wales
1955 France & Wales 1956 Wales 1957 England *
1958 England 1959 France 1960 France & England
1961 France 1962 France 1963 England
1964 Scotland & Wales 1965 Wales 1966 Wales
1967 France 1968 France * 1969 Wales
1970 France & Wales 1971 Wales * 1972 Not completed
1973 five way tie 1974 Ireland 1975 Wales
1976 Wales * 1977 France * 1978 Wales *
1979 Wales 1980 England * 1981 France *
1982 Ireland 1983 France & Ireland
1984 Scotland * 1985 Ireland 1986 France & Scotland
1987 France * 1988 Wales & France
1989 France 1990 Scotland * 1991 England *
1992 England * 1993 France 1994 Wales
1995 England * 1996 England 1997 France *
1998 France * 1999 Scotland
The dominance of England and France led to criticism that the competition had lost its edge and was not offering a high enough standard of competition. The resulting discussion led to Italy joining the rebranded Six Nations competition in the Millennium year of 2000 and they did not have to wait long for their first victory. In front of a crowd of 24,000 at the Stadio Flaminio in the Eternal City of Rome Scotland provided the Italian opposition in their first home game in the Six Nations competition on the 5th February and although champions in the previous and final Five Nations competition in 1999 they could not contain the Italians who came out victors 34 – 20.
Italy have struggled to overcome their opposition on a regular basis since taking their place in the competition but the establishment of the Six Nations tournament coincided with a resurgence of Welsh fortunes with Grand Slam championships in 2005 and 2008.
2007 was a historic year in Irish sporting and social history with "Rule 42" being broken down allowing Rugby to be played at the home of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and Gaelic Games. The traditional Irish Rugby home of Lansdowne Road was undergoing it’s transformation into the Aviva Stadium and Croke Park became Ireland’s home from 2007 until 2011. It was in Croke Park in 1920 that 14 civilians were killed by British forces as they attended a Gaelic football match and for Ireland wing Shane Horgan, it was an important day in all sorts of ways.
"An England v Ireland match always has a certain cachet and certainly when you add in all the historical links between England and Ireland and the breaking down of Rule 42 to allow the match to be played at Croke Park, it was very special. For me it was more social history than a rugby event. It demonstrated that we had matured as a nation by allowing the game to be played there. We always have to respect the past but it was a break from the past. It showed that we had grown as a nation. We could stand apart and welcome someone in after having a very difficult history with them. We could welcome them in as an equal.
I thought there might have been some noise for ‘God Save the Queen’. We expected a huge response, something from the crowd and we knew that that would have been a huge motivational tool for them; you know this country doesn’t respect us and this team doesn’t respect us, which would have given them a lift, allowed them to play at a different level.
However, when there was such respect shown by the crowd for the national anthem the English players had nowhere to direct that anger. It was a very proud moment to be an Irishman. It was an historic moment, the biggest match that an Irishman could have played"
The rugby gods had already allocated the winners before the game had started and Ireland sent England back home, on the wrong end of a 43 – 13 score line.
Fueled by strong performances by the provinces of Leinster and Munster in the Heineken Cup, Ireland have consistently performed at a high level and finally won
their second Grand Slam in 2009 as Stephen Jones, the Welsh Fly Half missed with a 50m penalty that would have continued the 61 year Irish wait for the top honour in Northern Hemisphere rugby.
Six Nations championship previous winners (* Denotes Grand Slam):
2000 England (Italy enter, first year as Six Nations)
2001 England 2002 France * 2003 England * 2004 France *
2005 Wales * 2006 France 2007 France 2008 Wales *
2009 Ireland* 2010 France* 2011 England 2012 Wales
2013 Wales 2014 Ireland 2015 Ireland 2016 England*
2017 England 2018 Ireland*
Ireland could not maintain their place at the top of the table in 2010 with defeats by France and in their last game of the tournament, Scotland who both robbed Ireland of a Triple Crown and avoided the wooden spoon. Against England John Hayes became the first Ireland player to achieve 100 caps followed by Brian O’Driscoll against Scotland.
At the Stade de France in Paris on 20th March, England scored the only try of the game but France beat their visitors 12 - 10 to win both the 2010 title and the Grand Slam, their first Grand Slam since 2004. A day in the French sun but to date, those heady times have not been revisited by Les Bleus.
The 2011 Tournament was notable for a number of reasons. It was the first time that the tournament was opened with a game played on a Friday night as Wales welcomed England to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Ireland returned to their Dublin home of Lansdowne Road into the rebranded Aviva Stadium.
Chris Ashton's four-try performance against Italy made him the first player of any nation to score four tries in a Six Nations match and the first England player to have scored four tries in a Six Nations, Five Nations, or Home Nations match since Ronald Poulton-Palmer scored four against France in 1914.
In the same match Jonny Wilkinson's 52nd-minute penalty for England made him the leading point scorer in international rugby, overtaking Dan Carter.
Controversy is never far away in the six Nations and in the Wales - Ireland game in Cardiff, the officials were heavily criticised for allowing the Wales try as it became obvious from numerous TV replays that it was scored following a quick throw-in, after the ball went out on the full, with a different ball. A quick throw-in must be taken with the same ball without it being touched after going over the touchline. The TV replays were not available to the officials at that time so the try stood, much to the chagrin of the Irish.
This tournament was won by England but was possibly more notable for a major upset as Italy beat the 2010 champions France 22 – 21 in Rome. Despite this upset, Italy still finished last, and as a result claimed the wooden spoon however on a positive note for Italy, Andrea Masi was named the Six Nations Player of the Championship, becoming the first Italian player to win the award.
The 2012 tournament saw Italy continuing to play their home matches in Rome but at the Stadio Olimpico rather than the Stadio Flaminio, which they had used for their home Championship fixtures since entering the competition in 2000. The Championship was won by Wales, who achieved their third Grand Slam in eight tournaments being both England and Ireland on the road 12 – 19 and 21 – 23 respectively, claiming their Grand Slam with a 16 – 9 victory in the Millennium Stadium against France
Wales retained their title in 2013 on point’s difference after a victory at Twickenham against England. England had won all four of their matches; Wales had three wins under their belt which meant that their clash in the final week of the tournament would determine the champions. A victory by Wales would give them two points and put them on the same points as England but if they won by more than seven points they would will and retain the title on points difference.
Maybe surprisingly England were slight favourites with the bookies before the game but Wales were at home in Cardiff and they had an experienced side that a few months later made up a large contingent in the British and Irish Lions squad that toured Australia.
Wales led 9 – 3 at half time but in the second half eased away from an England side that coach Stuart Lancaster admitted "Just didn’t turn up". The final score was 30 - 3, their biggest ever win over England.
France ended up with the wooden spoon, the first time they had finished last in the competition since 1999.
Going into the final day of the 2014 championship, Ireland, England and France could have been winners. In the final game in the Aviva Stadium, Ireland hung on to win against France by just two points and secure the championship, on point’s difference, over England. This was their first championship success since 2009, and the 12th title they had won in either the Five or Six nations Championships.
After the France game Brian O'Driscoll retired from international rugby, with a record number of 141 international caps, 133 for Ireland, 83 as captain, and 8 for the British and Irish Lions.
England won the Triple Crown by beating Wales, Scotland and Ireland, becoming the first team in the championships history to win the Triple Crown while another of the Home Nations won the championship outright.
Whilst Brian O’Driscoll retired, other players achieved significant land marks. Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni became the most-capped Italian players with 105 caps, Gethin Jenkins earning the same number to become the most-capped Welsh player. In their match against Wales on the 1st of February, Italy broke the world record for the most-capped starting pack with 587 caps, surpassing the previous record of 546 caps as held by New Zealand.
The final day of the 2015 Six Nations Ireland retained their title from the previous year, on the original ‘Super Saturday’, a day that is known for being one of the most exciting in the Championships history.
Wales were first on stage as they thumped Italy in the Stadio Olympico in Rome 20-61. After that first game of the day Wales sat at the top of the pile but when Scotland and Ireland left the Murrayfield pitch the game had produced a 10-40 win for Ireland who assumed the top of the pile position over Wales on points difference. A key moment in the match was a last-ditch tackle by Jamie Heaslip to prevent Stuart Hogg scoring for Scotland which maintained their 30-point winning margin, the importance not being realised until later in the day.
France made the journey to Twickenham and England knew the task they had, a victory by at least 26 points would give them the championship. It ended up being an atypical England - France game, a try fest, which got off to a flying start with scrum half Ben Youngs crashing over for the first try of the evening after just two minutes.
As much as they tried England could not shake off the French and after a try from England wing Jack Nowell, the score was England 55 – 35 France with six minutes to go. An exciting game and a pulsating finale was brought to a conclusion when France kicked the ball dead and the referee blew for no side, the score was still 55 – 35 and Ireland had retained their title with England missing out by just six points.
It was Ireland’s 13th triumph in the competition and the first time that they had retained their title outright since 1949, having shared the 1983 championship with France after winning in 1982.
After their disappointing performance in their home World Cup in the autumn of 2015 England parted company with Stuart Lancaster and brought in Japan’s Aussie coach Eddie Jones ahead of the 2016 Six Nations championship. The start of Jones’s reign was a purple patch for England and they won the Championship on 13 March with a game still to play, winning their first Championship since 2011. The next weekend they earned the Grand Slam for the 13th time, their first since 2003.
The 2016 Championship was the first time since Italy joined the competition that both the champions and the wooden spoon "winners" were decided before the final round of matches. Scotland beat France to nail Italy once more to the bottom of the table, the 11th time they had finished their campaigns on that position.
To bring the tournament in line with most other professional rugby union tournaments the 2017 Six Nations Championship embraced the bonus point system with four points for a win and two for a draw, a team scoring four tries in a match received an additional league table point, as did a team losing by seven or fewer points. Additionally, to ensure that a team achieving a Grand Slam would also win the Championship, three additional bonus points were to be awarded.
With Eddie Jones England on the crest of a rugby wave, England won the championship for a second successive year with a round to spare however, they were denied the Grand Slam and Triple Crown in the final game by a defeat to Ireland 13 – 9 at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
2018 The Championship was won by Ireland on 10 March 2018. Once again the title was decided before the final round of matches as with their four wins, including three, four try bonus points from their first four matches they could not be caught. Ireland secured their third ever Grand Slam, alongside the Triple Crown when they defeated England at Twickenham 24 - 15 on the final day of the championship.
Maybe slightly worrying for the tournaments organisers was the fact that this was the third tournament running where the championship and Wooden Spoon had been decided by the end of round four. Not ideal in generating excitement in the final round of matches and raising eyebrows amongst the marketing executives that invest heavily in the tournament.
St Patrick’s Day was the day of the 2018 England – Ireland clash at Twickenham and although there was a Grand Slam at stake, maybe the special day in the Irish calendar stimulated greater interest.
TV3 Director of Programming Bill Malone said: "Ireland’s historic Grand Slam win over England at Twickenham on Saturday was the perfect ending to TV3’s first NatWest 6 Nations tournament. It truly was a national event, and with over 1.3 million viewers tuning in during the course of the game, it is the most-watched television programme this year."
The Six Nations Championship is rugby union’s largest annual tournament in terms of TV audiences attracting over 125 million TV viewers and being broadcast in more than 190+ countries. It is an attractive proposition for advertisers and takes multi-millions in sponsorship money but with the support comes a need to keep investors happy.
At the present time Rugby Union has some global issues to grapple with around the need to change the dynamic of the game in pursuit of "entertainment" and "player safety". Tinkering with the Laws, the way in which technology is being used and the dreaded referee "Directives" may be having an impact on the essence, the heart and soul of the game but whilst growth of attendances in stadia around Europe for the club games may have plateaued, it cannot be denied that interest in the game from TV is very strong and growing at both club and international levels.
The Six Nations is unique in that late winter; Northern Hemisphere international rugby is sewn into the social sporting fabric of the competing nations. Attendances within the various stadiums is not an issue, getting your hands on tickets is the issue and with well managed input and support from sponsors and advertisers, the Six Nations gives the sport it’s beacon with which it can enthuse and guide people of all ages into the game as participants, volunteers or simply enthusiasts. It is the window onto the top level of the sport but does the current format of the competition stifle the development of the game in the emerging nations?
There were exceptional performances by tier 2 nations in the 2015 Rugby World Cup that have stimulated heated discussion about opening up potential routes to the top of the international game. Should Georgia be included in a Seven Nations tournament? Should there be promotion and relegation? Should this be dependent on a play off?
How will more games be fitted into the schedule? There are many more questions and there are no easy answers. Strongly held points of view and positions will likely depend upon your feelings of comfort with the status quo, be you involved with the actual teams with games to play, a fan with cities to visit or a sponsor with particular markets to penetrate.
The Six Nations has unequivocally stated it is not its function to develop the game elsewhere but it will be interesting to see how this moves forward as commercial and participant tensions are considered, as undoubtedly they will have to be, at some point.pqs: qs:
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