Robbie Orr of the Global Rugby Network (@globalrugbynet) examines the format of the Six Nations and how each team is shaping up for Rugby Nation USA.
Before taking a closer look at each team and their chances of victory, it’s important to review the format of the Six Nations as a whole. Tier Two nations have raised their voice unifying behind the prospect of a relegation system that would allow the likes of Georgia and Romania, as the European frontrunners, to test their metal against the best of the Northern Hemisphere. Much of the justification comes from Georgia’s domination of the European Nation Cup winning eight of the last nine tournaments – they are need of greater competition – while the past performances of Italy and Scotland shoulder most of the existing criticism.
So is it time for Georgia to be given their chance?
The short answer from the 6 Nations board is no, and there are a few reasons why. In the past 16 years the Six Nations has grown into one of the biggest sporting occasions on the planet with the highest average attendance rate of any sporting competition gaining an average attendance of 72,000 per game. That’s a higher than the NFL (68,000), the 2014 FIFA World Cup (53,592) and the 2015 Rugby World Cup (51,621).
That being said, would the inclusion of the likes of Georgia grow the sport? Perhaps. Their recent match against Romania drew a crowd of 50,000 people to Tbilisi, so the support base is clearly there. I recently read the proposition made underneath an article for the Telegraph advocating a playoff match between the bottom side in the 6 Nations and the top side of the ENC; an interesting idea and one that may be pursued a few years down the line.
While many have argued that there is always scope for growth, the Six Nations Committee will stand firm in the belief that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
It is also important to remember that the 6 Nations is run by the 6 Unions, so to expect these Unions to risk the loss of massive financial support, competitive edge and exposure due to one tournament of bad form is unrealistic. Whether this opens the door to discussing an overarching UEFA style administrative body is for another time, though the idea was floated a few years back. For now, the Six Nations is a competition that is booming, but which team will emerge on top?
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The English are tournament favourites after an unbeaten 2016 and a return to International prominence following a torrid home World Cup in 2015. With the likes of Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell establishing their place among of the world’s best as part of a Saracens side that have become the team to beat in Europe, the Red Rose will be confident in their ability to produce a winning result. England have been hit by a bad crop of injuries, though, and are without both Vunipola brothers, James Haskell, Anthony Watson and George Kruis for their opening test in France, among others. The form of the Flyhalf/Inside Centre pairing of George Ford and Owen Farrell will be their key to success.
The men in green will be looking to capitalise on a stunning Autumn having halted the All Blacks in Chicago with the standout performance of the year. CJ Stander and Connor Murray have been in scintillating form for club and country while the resurgence of Leinster has seen the emergence of a new centre partnership in Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose that has sparked talks of a Lions pairing in waiting. First up for Ireland is a trip to Murrayfield, no easy task but one they’ll be confident of conquering.
Despite their fantastic form since the 2015 World Cup, Scotland’s terrible record in the Six Nations has many pundits dismissing recent optimism with a weary shake of the head that’s heard it all before. Perhaps they’re right. But with Glasgow’s recent surge in Europe including a thorough rinsing of Leicester away from home (the first Scottish team to win at Leicester in 112 years), back to back wins against Racing 92 and Edinburgh’s strong form in the Challenge Cup, many are hailing this Scottish side as one of, if not the best, squad since the beginning of the Six Nations in 2000. Johnny Gray, Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg hold their key to success, though every man must play above their best if Scotland are to produce something special.
A new captain to accompany a new style of play is the general gist emanating from the Wales camp amid heavy criticism of their performances in the Autumn internationals. Thumped by Australia, narrowly beating Argentina and edging past Japan before beating a Springbok side that was by no means the Southern Hemisphere giant we have come to expect, it was the style of Welsh play that frustrated most. Picking Scott Williams over Jamie Roberts certainly points towards a more fluid attacking game, though, and you’d be a fool to write off a Welsh side peppered with Lions…
The French are without a Six Nations title since 2010 and after a sorry start to his reign as head coach in 2016, legendary club coach Guy Noves will be looking to deliver a team capable of glory. The loss of star centre Wesley Fofana is a huge blow for Les Bleus but with the bulldozing Bastareaud lurking in good form for Toulon and a Clermont side that has been in good form of late, French supporters will be looking for a return to the conquering form of 7 years ago. Look for winger Virimi Vakatawa, number eight Louis Picamoles and hooker Guilhem Guirado to be key in the French charge.
Despite beating the Springboks for the first time in their history in November, the Azzurri have been under mounting pressure as Georgia continue to improve, so much so that they have overtaken Italy in the world rankings. The perplexing choice of placing arguably their most talented back on the bench in Exeter’s Michele Campagnaro, who has scored 7 tries in his 4 games for his club, has done little to calm Italian nerves. It remains to be seen if O’Shea’s men can silence their critics.