This weekend, many rugby watchers will focus on the 2021 Six Nations competition. It is holding their attention for more reasons than simply a ‘lockdown fix’.
In realizing its popularity more so now than ever, why is that?
By comparison, The Rugby Championship is often held up as a gold standard of free-running rugby. Watching the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies engage in champagne rugby, whilst the teams of the Six Nations slog it out in the mud before the referee makes the inevitable signal towards the posts and the captain chooses to take three points, had been accepted. However, that impression no longer rings true.
The Six Nations has now become more entertaining than the Rugby Championship
Try scoring vs kicking penalties has long been seen as a great indicator of rugby-entertainment, with competitions rewarding teams who score four or more tries with a bonus point; a system that first came into use in New Zealand in 1995 and was most recently introduced into the Six Nations in 2017. The stereotypes of Southern Hemisphere teams running in more tries, while their Northern counterparts would rack up kick after kick at goal, is well entrenched yet statistics no longer bear that out.
Over the past decade, the number of tries and the percentage of points that result from tries (both from the try itself and the resultant conversion) has increased dramatically in the Six Nations. In comparison, the trend actually goes the other way in The Rugby Championship.
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Between 2010 and 2015 the percentage of points resulting from tries and conversions went up by 10% points, from 51% to 61%, a significant increase. The Rugby Championship also increased its percentage during this period from 67% -71% maintaining its high standards. However, the following five years have seen a swing from the South to the North. The Six Nations has gone on to increase the percentage of points resulting from tries by a further 15% reaching 76% (5% more than the Rugby Championship managed in 2015) while the Rugby Championship has slipped back to 61%.
So what reasons are there for the change between North and South?
First of all, the Rugby Championship teams are a victim of their own success. At the 2015 Rugby World Cup, all four SANZAAR nations reached the Semi-Final stage, a high watermark that is hard to keep up. This also triggered a response from the sides in the North to try and match their Southern counterparts, England and France both changed head coaches after underperforming at the tournament.
The Southern influence on the North is seen in the dugout as well with twice as many head coaches coming from Southern Hemisphere nations today, whereas in 2010 only Wales and Italy had coaches from Rugby Championship countries. Currently, England, Wales, and Italy have Southern Hemisphere coaches and, Scotland and Ireland spent five and seven years respectively under Southern Hemisphere stewardship within the last decade.
The introduction of bonus points into the Six Nations in 2017 is also a significant factor. Encouraging teams to go for a fourth try and secure the bonus point, invariably, leads to more tries. Whilst previously a kick at goal may have been the preferred tactic, that is one area where the entertainment has seen the balance between North and South ‘level out in the 6 Nations favour’.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 24, 2021
Beyond the scoring nature of the points on the field, another indicator of entertainment can be the competitiveness of a tournament. In the years between 2010 and 2020 the Six Nations had four different champions; with England winning on four of those occasions, Ireland and Wales having three titles apiece, and France winning a single championship. In the same period, the Rugby Championship has had three champions however, New Zealand has been victorious eight times (with Australia winning twice and South Africa once). Winning year in, year out is only entertaining if you do it in the fashion of the previously imperious All Blacks.
Rugby is not the only sport to have the continued success of a single team lead to the sport being labeled as boring. See Mercedes’s recent domination of Formula One as a prime example. It is not the fault of the All Blacks though, they are paid to win, and win they do. However, from a neutral point of view, the excitement of a hard-fought championship where the victors could be anyone is far more appealing than the expected result happening every year.
Six Nations competition on the rise in recent years
The entertainment of the Six Nations has been on the rise over the last decade with scoring increasing and more of those points coming from tries. Within that it has still kept its ultra-competitive nature up with the French team from 1986-1989 the last side to win it more than two years running (although two of those titles were shared).
Quite likely, the Six Nations may have edged ahead of the Rugby Championship in entertainment value but, that doesn’t mean that the competition has become all about goal kicking. It may have slipped from its 2015 high but there is still plenty of running rugby to enjoy and there are signs of increasing competitiveness – as Argentina notched their first-ever win against New Zealand on their way to second place in the 2020 competition.
With more games between the sides of the two hemispheres on the World Rugby agenda, there appears to be plenty of entertaining rugby on the horizon and a strong future for both competitions.
Guinness Six Nations 2021 – Round two fixtures:
Saturday February 27 – Italy v Ireland | Wales v England
Sunday Feb 28 – France v Scotland
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