Rugby Union

Six Nations 2016: It's far from perfect but now not the time for changes

And to think England could be heading to Tiblisi on Saturday to take on Georgia in the opening match of the 2016 Six Nations Championship.

That was the scenario many were calling for in the wake of a quite atrocious performance by the Scots at Murrayfield in 2014, their display in a 20-0 defeat against England in keeping with the state of the surface that day - a churned, unholy mess, quite unsuitable for elite sport. The pitch was not much better. The collective verdict was damning: hapless and off-the-pace.

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Somehow Scotland managed to avoid the wooden spoon that year, by a sliver, beating the bottom side, Italy, 21-20 in Rome. Last season those roles were reversed, the Azzurri winning 22-19 in Edinburgh, leaving Scotland bottom of the pile.

So, in the interests of meritocracy, expansionism, fairness, drama, Georgia or Romania or Russia ought to have taken Scotland's place at the Six Nations high table. Does that thought work for you? It does not for me.

It ain't broke: The Six Nations has plenty to offer without changing a thing.
It ain't broke: The Six Nations has plenty to offer without changing a thing. Photo: Getty Images

Nothing to do with disdain for those fine teams, for Tiblisi or Bucharest or Moscow, or of a fear of change, or being yoked to conservatism, resistant to new impulse and fresh horizons. It is to do with being appropriate, about the long view, about proper development and resource, and not always responding to the knee jerk.

The Calcutta Cup on Saturday will be a fierce, tingling, theatrical occasion. Why would you even think to tamper with such a sporting heritage, all the more so given Scotland's exploits in the 2015 Rugby World Cup when they were denied at the death in the quarter-final against Australia? If those arguments ring true then they should apply in equal measure to Italy.


You can see the colour draining from Italian faces these days at the mere mention of promotion and relegation from the championship. They know that their head is on the block, with whispers of dissatisfaction at their performances in the Pro12, even more so than their record in the Six Nations, growing into clamours of concern.

There was something wrong in seeing as fine as player as has ever graced the game, the Azzurri captain Sergio Parisse, having to field questions as to whether Italy had a continuing right to be part of the tournament.

Italy do bring up the rear in the aggregate table of results from 2000, the year that they joined the brotherhood. In 80 matches since then they have won 12 times, beating every team with the exception of England. Scotland are one rung up the ladder with 19 victories, England topping the pile with 55 wins in those 16 seasons.

We have to continue to nurture Italian rugby in much the manner that Argentina have been given succour by their admittance to the tri-nations, now the four-team southern hemisphere Rugby Championship. The Pumas spent a decade or more hammering at the portals looking to be accepted into one of the major tournaments. The Six Nations was a target, given that so many of their players are employed in Europe. The tri-nations was a better fit.

Italy have not matched Argentina's rate of progress. But that is no reason to discard them. They have every right to belong. Georgia, splendidly as they did in the World Cup with victories against Namibia and Tonga, and Romania, too, whetting those sporting taste buds with their gutsy 17-15 win against Canada, must be brought into the November fold, assigned regular fixtures on the autumn schedules, until they too can mount a more persuasive case for inclusion.

There are commercial factors at work, too. And while they ought never to be more than a secondary consideration, they are in play. It is always dangerous to make a case for sport as carnival, as if what happens on the field of play, or the track or court, is mere fodder for the party taking place all around, the serfs providing entertainment for the lords.

Yet the Six Nations ritual is a significant part of people's lives. That should not be lightly discounted. The great European capitals. The annual treks. The gathering of friends. The communal sharing of moments. And, yes, rumour has it that drink is taken. Tamper with life's pleasures at your peril.

All the more reason then to back the Six Nations' stance on not shifting from its usual place in the calendar, the February to mid-March window, the discarding of the late-winter blues to embrace the renewal of springtime.

Those pushing for change want to streamline the season, put club rugby into more manageable and understandable blocks, with international competition taking place later in the season, chiming with the southern hemisphere season.

It has always seemed about-face to me that the economic powerhouse that is the European scene should put is format at risk for a model that is under commercial strain. Dogs and wagging tails come to mind.

For the next seven weeks, rugby will have prime position on the sporting landscape, all the more so given that the Six Nations is broadcast on free-to-air in the UK.

Rugby has pride of place, attracting millions of viewers as well as millions of pounds. Those pledges of support are not easily won. In April, May or June, rugby would be jostling for air-time with a host of other sports.

Even in a World Cup season, the Six Nations promises to excite and engage.

There are three new captains, two new coaches. Can Eddie Jones deliver the silverware that has eluded England so often and for so long ?

Only one title (2011) since the glory days of the successful World Cup era is a pitiful return. Can Warren Gatland cement his status as 2017 Lions-coach in waiting? Will France ever be France again?

How will Ireland, shorn now of two icons, Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, fare in their new age? Can Parisse rouse his men? And which Scotland will be see at Murrayfield in five days' time - that of last season's championship or the warriors of the World Cup?

There are plenty of unanswered questions, and that indicates a tournament of interest and intrigue. The Six Nations is far from being broke. So don't look to try to fix it.

The Telegraph, London