Source: ©INPHO/Bryan Keane

Thoughts on the Future of the Women’s 6 Nations 2019-2500

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The 6 Nations tournament, male and female, has always been an unequal enterprise, right back to the days when it was no more than a Home Championship within the British Isles. Ever since the nineteenth century England has outweighed its rivals in sheer numbers of inhabitants and players, raising the question: why do its men win the big prize so rarely? The Welsh can look back with pride on their long periods of total dominance in European rugby. More recently the Irish have basked in a similar glow of triumph.

For the women, the inequalities are far more marked. Scotland did win a Home Championship and Grand Slam in 1998; Wales have recorded two second places in the 6 Nations and Italy’s best placing was third in 2015. But between the first year of the current format (2002) and 2018 France has won six times, England nine. And of these fifteen, thirteen have been Grand Slams, suggesting an unhealthy imbalance. Sadly, it seems unlikely that any of the Celtic lands will be able to repeat Ireland’s two great triumphs of 2013 (the only Grand Slam by a Celtic nation) and 2015 for the foreseeable future.

Is this pessimism justified? A blunt response is: no, it’s just a game of 15 versus 15 – or rather, these days, 23 versus 23. And there’s the rub. The countries with the largest player pools have a distinct advantage when it comes to filling those replacement positions. We have only to look at the players Simon Middleton has ‘consigned’ to the bench over the past few years to see the power of this point. He and his French counterparts have been picking from heavily laden fruit trees.

Whither the 6 Nations?

The organisers of the 6 Nations – both men’s and women’s – won’t countenance any enlargement of the present set-up. Obviously, just one extra nation participating would mean a lengthier programme. If other countries – like Spain, Georgia, Romania or Russia – were given the nod, the international season might drag on interminably. The proposal to introduce promotion and relegation has its supporters. In the predominantly amateur women’s game, relegation wouldn’t involve the catastrophic effects that would befall the men’s unions. But turkeys pre-Christmas come to mind.

Red Roses’ test matches against nations outside the top rankers are unknown these days. We have to go back to 2011 and the days of FIRA (now Rugby Europe) to find them playing the Netherlands, Russia and Spain. We can be sure the leading nations in the European Championship (a sort of Division 2 in all but name) would love to have a crack at a 6-Nations participant. A week before the last World Cup Spain did come over to Brunel University to play an England A team containing eleven past, present and future full internationals. And they beat them. But the Red Roses put them firmly in their place in the opening game of the World Cup.

There is some flexibility during the summer break and in the Autumn Old Mutual Wealth (now Quilter) series. England have travelled to the New World in past summers, and France, New Zealand and South Africa have joined in on occasion. Perhaps Autumn is the spot in the calendar for experiment: a fixture against, say, Russia or China, would have curiosity value as well as helping to widen the base of women’s rugby.

World Rugby would love to have a more even spread of talent across the five continents, but how best to achieve it? At present it is the 7s version which attracts ambitious countries outside the elite group. Somehow the women’s 15s game needs to emulate that example – but without the sugar-pill of the Olympics as the reward. Finance is the biggest constraint. For as long as the game remains essentially amateur, it will be a long haul before the World Cup can achieve the same magnetism as the Olympic torch. Additional fixtures require more time off work, and in the amateur game that is hard to achieve.

The 6 Nations – a Prediction

So no major changes are likely to the present pattern of 6 Nations programmes. They would entail logistical, financial and other problems, not least sponsorship and television rights. Minor adjustments, like the recent introduction of bonus points, are always welcome.

It can be argued that future success will depend more on size of population than on a rich rugby history. If that proves to be the case, then Italy Women are likely toachieve parity with England and France in the mid- to long-term far more readily than the Celtic nations. The latter will be all out to prove this thesis wrong. Ireland have already claimed the title twice, including that memorable Grand Slam. But at present it is hard for those three nations to fill all 23 squad places with the talent and experience to ensure victory against the toughest opposition. And when injuries intervene, the larger nations have the advantage once more with a ready supply of reserves. Scotland’s loss to Italy 38-0 in November was a worrying portent of the developing trend. But their next performance against Canada (a loss by only 25-28 at Scotstoun) will have put them in a much better mood.

Two other factors are of central importance: structure and financing. One of England’s great strengths is the clarity of the pathway from beginner to Red Rose. Very few talented players are missed during the screening (or scouting) process. Catherine Spencer, distinguished England captain (2007-10), may have been overlooked when trialling for the Under 20s, but such miscalculation is much less likely these days.

Then once the players are in place, does the national union have the finance, support personnel and facilities to look after them properly? In its desire to raise standards, the Italian Union is looking closely at the methods adopted by its French and English counterparts to see what needs fine-tuning in their own structures. The other three nations probably know exactly what they would like to see improved, but struggle for the resources to accomplish the task. We wish all of them luck in their endeavours.    

What the Championship desperately needs is less predictability in the round-by-round results. If only France and England can be confident of winning future championships, the women’s game will be the poorer. The 2018 version brought two surprise away wins and a near miss: Scotland will have been annoyed to go down by just one point in Wales; Italy were overjoyed to beat Wales by 7 points; in the same Round 4 Scotland had the huge encouragement of beating Ireland in Dublin.

In the Autumn 2018 tests Italy increased their self-belief by seeing off South Africa and Hong Kong, as did Wales. Now they need to turn their efforts to toppling nations ranked above them. Wales have twice beaten England, as well as going down by just one and two points.

The introduction of professionalism has been a long-held ambition in the women’s game. But it will only come in piecemeal, and brings with it an even greater inequality in playing standards. It seemed invidious for England to be the one fully professional side competing in the Irish World Cup in 2017. Of the six leading nations in Europe, only England and France are likely to be operating at this higher level in the next few years. Scotland has offered a small number of contracts to its leading players and they were warmly received, but none of the Celtic nations can reasonably expect to follow England’s example in the short term.

So for all the excitement another six-sided tournament will bring, the only likely champions are the multiple winners of the Grand Slam, France or England. Let’s hope for the day when all six contenders can aspire to victory. The excellent news is that ever larger crowds are watching these matches. Television and livestream cameras are present and other media coverage is growing – though still not fast enough for the loudest backers of the women’s game.