The 6 Nations -perpetuating Northern Hemisphere mediocrity?

The 2015 Rugby World Cup was generally considered a success on the pitch. The best team ended up winning it, the minnows provided some memorable moments and Japan pulled off the biggest shock the rugby world has seen.

Amongst the rugby jamboree there was one game which perhaps didn’t receive the attention it deserved, both during the tournament and in the subsequent analysis; this is the quarter final between Ireland and Argentina.

 

Ireland mauled by Argentina

Ireland came in to the World Cup as the Northern Hemisphere’s shining light. They were reigning 6 Nations champions and had notched up a couple of victories against the southern hemisphere’s best over the preceding Autumn internationals. In some quarters they were being touted as genuine contenders for the title itself.

The luck of the Irish quickly dissipated into the Cardiff air as Argentina quickly raced to a 20-3 lead, before finally recording a comfortable victory 43-20. It wasn’t so much the size of the victory that is worth further thought but the manner in which the victory was won.

This wasn’t the tough, forward dominated, set-piece orientated Argentina that had previously been their trademark style and had taken them to 3rd place in the 2007 World Cup. The 2015 vintage were playing a fast, high risk game with backs with pace (Imhoff) and trickery (Cordero) and a team that was willing to try things that sometimes wouldn’t come off.

Here are the highlights as a reminder:

 

What’s changed for Argentina?

There was one major change for Argentinian rugby between 2011 and the 2015 Rugby World Cup – in 2012 they joined the southern hemisphere triumvirate and the Tri Nations became the Rugby Championship. This has given them regular exposure to the best teams in the world.

We know that the southern hemisphere’s approach to rugby is different from that in the north. Their emphasis is on pace, skill, ball handling ability and importantly the willingness to take risks. It seems as if these traits have rubbed off on Argentina in the 3 full seasons they have played in the Rugby Championship to the extent that they are now arguably stronger than the best the north has to offer.

The other interesting consideration is that by and large Argentina’s players haven’t had exposure at club (sub-international) level to the SANZAR nations; most have plied their trade in Argentina and Europe. Here are some of the key players for Argentina in the 2015 World Cup and their recent domestic playing experience:

Tuculet – Sale, Grenoble, Bordeaux, Cardiff Blues

Imhoff – Racing Metro

Hernandez – Racing Metro, Toulon

Sanchez – Bordeaux, Toulon

Lobbe – Sale, Toulon

Ayerza – Leicester

Creevy – Clermont, Montpellier, Worcester

 

Other than the odd season here and there the vast majority of the squad do not have experience of southern hemisphere domestic rugby; they have managed to bring this new dimension to their game in the relatively short time that they are together in the test environment.

 

Does the 6 Nations help or hinder competitiveness?

An interesting rhetorical question is would Argentina have made their performance improvements if they had joined the 6 Nations rather than the Tri Nations? The answer is arguably no.

The 6 Nations is undoubtedly a great tournament that fuses tribal rivalries in a small corner of Europe with huge commercial clout. Year on year the tournament grows with increased interest and better financial figures but shouldn’t the goal of the tournament be to help produce teams to challenge the best in the world?

If the 6 Nations organisers brought in some City consultants and asked them “what does success look like for the 6 Nations tournament”, the answer would probably not include the desire to prepare teams for global domination. Winning the 6 Nations is too important in itself to worry about other wider objectives.

This “win at all costs” mentality should be considered a positive characteristic for a rugby team – surely that’s why they play the game? But too often this approach to rugby in the 6 Nations brings with it a host of other traits; negativity, overly-structured game plans, an unwillingness to take risks and castigation of players who try things but make mistakes.

It is this restrictive northern hemisphere mindset and approach, that has its origins in the 6 Nations tournament that is a large contributing factor to the continual failure of the northern hemisphere to match the best in the world.

 

But the 6 Nations is great – don’t change it!

If the objective for the 6 Nations is to put on a tournament that satisfies our urges to beat our neighbours and have a long boozy weekend in Dublin, Rome, Edinburgh etc then the 6 Nations should stay as it is. However, if we really want the 6 Nations teams to be the best in the world the approach to the 6 Nations needs to change.

And it can. The last weekend of the 2015 championship was stunning with teams playing positive rugby in the attempt to score tries. Isn’t this the sort of rugby we want to watch? Some of the rugby on offer that day was as skilful and adventurous as any seem in the Rugby Championship. Northern hemisphere rugby players are not born with a genetic inability to make a pass or spot a gap.

Argentina has showed us that we don’t have to have regular bottom up exposure to SANZAR nations to make real changes at test level. What is required is a concerted effort by the 6 Nations’ teams to make the change in mindset and agree on a new approach to rugby.

If this happens we can still head to Paris for a long weekend, but we will do so in the knowledge we will see a great game of positive rugby and our team will have a chance of toppling New Zealand off their perch. Don’t hold your breath this will happen though!

Enjoy the 6 Nations!

 

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