Believe the hype: Six Nations showcases northern hemisphere’s resurgence | Michael Aylwin
Human beings have a troublesome relationship with statistics. Them and damned lies. The wise treat them with caution, but only a fool, alas, dismisses these numbers as worthless. The hysterical, meanwhile, react extravagantly to whatever they find at the end of their nose and co-opt whichever statistics support their hysteria.
This Six Nations has been hailed already as the most competitive and deliciously anticipated in the history of the world, ever. “It says behind me: ‘Rugby’s Greatest Championship,’” said Eddie Jones last week, in front of the mandatory branding, “and I think it is that now by a country mile.”
He should know. England came fifth last year for the second time during his six years. But this claim of Six Nations vitality niggles only because of the feeling we have said it before. Probably this time a year ago, maybe a year before that, too.
So, to the statistics. World Rugby’s ranking system, introduced at the start of the 2003 Rugby World Cup, has suffered as ferocious a mauling as any sorry collection of digits in the history of the world, ever, but as a rolling index, responsive only to that other sometimes misleading stat, the result on the pitch, its findings are dismissed by, well, only a fool.
After a delve through the rankings at the start of each year since 2004, it is possible to ratify the claim that the Six Nations is better than ever. If we leave out Italy (and more on that later), the average ranking points of the other five (84.9) is higher now than it has ever been at the start of a year, pipping 2019’s 84.8. Even if we include Italy, whose ranking of 70.51 (14th in the world) is lower than it has ever been, only 2019’s figure is higher, just.
It is also true, though, that this is no more than the latest year in a golden era for the Six Nations. There seems to have been a step-change after the 2015 World Cup, which marked the passing of a New Zealand team many consider the greatest in the history of the world, ever.
The north’s resurgence has been led by England and Ireland, neither of whom have been outside the top five at the start of a year since 2016. The gap between South Africa at No 1 and France at No 5 is now a shade over five points, the tightest it has been. Normally, at least 10 points separate the top five.
All of which should put into some perspective the recent travails of Jones’s England. His win ratio of 78.2% is not only by some distance the highest of any England coach (next best, Jack Rowell on 72.4%), it has been achieved in this era of unprecedented competitiveness.
But England still struggle on the romantics’ most-prized achievement, that of a grand slam – only one since their own fabled team passed in 2003. One myth that does need debunking is this idea that grand slams are particularly hard to come by. The curious reality is that since the 1990s, when rugby became pseudo-professional, there have been more grand slams than not. Since a grand slam became five wins, rather than four, there have been 11 out of 22.
Momentum is the key and the inclusion of Italy has helped on that front. Of those 11 grand slam winners, nine have played Italy in the first three rounds, seven in the first two. No team has ever had to beat Italy in the final round to win one, which means none of the original five nations has ever played the others in the first four rounds and escaped unscathed (bad news for Wales this year).
The Italy Question has vexed fans and officials up here for most of these 22 years. The more hysterical regularly demand their ejection in favour of a Georgia or Romania, but the official line has remained consistent – and still does.
Ben Morel, the Six Nations chief executive, is certainly more circumspect than his predecessor, John Feehan, whose regular reply to questions about the fate of Georgia et al might be paraphrased with only mild exaggeration as: “We don’t need to give a damn and we don’t.” Morel last week reiterated the stance against change and was anxious to promote the idea of the July and November windows as the opportunity for tier one to bring les autres along with them.
This touches on another reality, more longstanding than any of the above. It is not just about playing standards. The quality of the Six Nations may now be higher than ever but the championship has always been, by far and away, the biggest beast in world rugby, its revenues dwarfing even those of the quadrennial World Cup. It is both rugby’s greatest showcase and most brutish menace.
The wonder is that the home unions and France have taken so long to close the gap with the southern hemisphere, given the resources available. Could it be that this is the shape of things to come? If so, what hope for any of the others, even the “Big Three” down south?
Worse still, the chances of Georgia and Romania joining the party any time soon might be minimal, but those of South Africa would have to be accounted favourable-to-nailed-on. That is another prospect repeatedly denied at official level but, as any coach worth their salt will tell you, don’t watch the hands when a player runs at you, watch the feet – that’s where they’re really going.
South Africa’s best players have long played in the northern hemisphere. Now their best teams play up here, too, in the United Rugby Championship. Soon the Springboks will close a deal with CVC, which owns a chunk of the Six Nations. It is next to inconceivable that South Africa do not join in the next few years.
Then we really would be looking at Rugby’s Greatest Championship in the world, ever. Hysterical? Maybe. But the numbers always tell in the end.