Yes, if we focus on the quality of rugby on show. It’s very unevenly balanced still, but the overall level of skill keeps rising.
Yes, if we focus on the numbers watching it from the stand or the sofa. Social media involvement grows year on year.
Then we come to the tricky side of things.
There is still no sponsor. Guinness may put in a formal bid, but might have done so from the outset of their participation in the men’s game.
The fixture list is hitched to the men’s, which masks its individuality. There are at least those two empty weekends in the programme which could give it a higher profile.
Since the inception of the Home Nations Championship in 1996, Scotland have won it once, in 1998, which is also the only time they have beaten England; Ireland have twice won the Six Nations, in 2013 (also a Grand Slam) and 2015. For Wales and the latest to join, Italy, nothing. This is a far more extreme and perturbing imbalance than in the men’s version.
Outcomes have long since become predictable. Forests of Grand Slams for England and France (14 out of a possible 18) don’t do the Championship any good. Now one of them is full-time professional, the other 50%. Will the four other unions find the courage and the funding to follow suit?
Of course the organisers of the Championship cannot tell the less successful nations to pull their socks up; that is not their remit. But they need to discuss ways of introducing a more even set of results year on year.
Then there’s the inbuilt imbalance caused by having six competitors. That means an uneven split in home and away games – a charming quirk, if you like, but even the potential Grand Slammers find it hard to win those extra away games. And when you have only two home games to organise, the choice of venue becomes tricky. In England’s case, everyone wants one match to be played at Twickenham, but that leaves an invidious choice for the other location. North, east, south or west? After Exeter’s huge success this year, many would like it to be chosen again. But how would the other regions react, having to make two such long journeys to see their favourite side play?
Two Stumbling Blocks – Size and Professionalism
Three of the six nations are large, with populations north of 60 million; the other three are barely a tenth that size. England are the best financed and supported of all. They are stuck out on a limb of professionalism where they can only hope the other nations will follow suit. In January France’s 15s players were offered a half-time contract (a ‘contrat fédéral’). This formula works on the principle that every rugby player needs another major interest in life, indeed, a paying one. Help is given to find jobs that offer the right kind of flexible working hours that make this possible.
Many French commentators have scoffed at this approach. They contrast it unfavourably with the English set-up, where players can devote themselves more wholeheartedly to the game.
But that is to ignore the possible drawbacks in this form of full-time professionalism. At present, the 28 contracted players stand alone in the world with this lifestyle, there are no parallel groups to compete against; if a contract ends, there is no fall-back to a lower level of occupation. Basically, you are either in or out. The seven part-time players enjoying EPS (Elite Player Squad) agreements stand closer to the French in style. They attend training sessions – held at Bisham Abbey – only as and when. Some are studying, others have full-time jobs of their own as in amateur days. One or two of them could be considered first choices for any England test match; others have been used solely as support players for the first-choice side.
It was never going to be possible for all the so-called elite nations of women’s rugby to accept professionalism in one fell swoop; it was bound to be introduced slowly, stage by stage. That has led to barbed criticism of the blatant chasm in achievement between the Red Roses and the rest of the Six Nations. Even France, on those part-time contracts, were unable to hold them down. Then the question arises: what would the outcome have been if everyone had remained true-blue amateur? You have a sneaking suspicion that England would have walked off with the trophy in very similar fashion.
The fact is they now have a large number of exceptional athletes to choose from. All eight on the bench could expect to be starters in another game. Even players brought in from beyond the umbrella of contracts, like Poppy Leitch, would be welcome in opposing teams. They possess match-winners from the front row to the rear echelons.
Fifteens and Sevens?
The results of this year’s 6N makes us wonder again whether it is possible to field two equally strong squads in 15s and 7s at the same time. At the moment the French XV lost to Italy in Round 5, their 7s sisters were winning a tournament in Nice that involved other leading nations. They stand currently 3rd and 5th in world rankings in the two formats. England, by contrast, stand 2nd and 8th. Apart from New Zealand, can any country claim to be achieving the heights it sets for itself in both forms of the game? And even the Black Ferns might be pushed to maintain their nearly 100% success-rate while keeping two quite distinct squads.
Is Change possible?
The unwillingness of the 6N managers to countenance any change in the make-up of the constituent nations gives it the appearance of a closed shop. Yet since the earliest days of the Home Championship it has changed its shape several times.
In the case of the Women’s version a dramatic switch came in 2007, when Spain was ousted in favour of Italy. This was a matter of convenience – and not rugby convenience.
The Women’s 6N needs to be considered quite separately from the Men’s. Italy’s men may have yet to beat the English, but otherwise it’s a very open competition. Not so on the female side. Possible alterations include the addition of one or more nations, a revised calendar and the introduction of promotion/relegation. All would entail difficulties, but the effort would be worthwhile.
Professionalism simply cannot be turned on like a light switch. This has led to the ridiculous situation where Italy couldn’t turn out their first-choice side against England because of work commitments. We can only guess how many years it will take to even this inequality out.
Attendance figures are improving all the time, but the day may dawn when spectators no longer feel drawn to one-sided matches like the one at Twickenham that decided the latest Grand Slam.
The Six Nations has a new Chief Executive, Ben Morel. When he ruled out any change to a winning format, he was undoubtedly referring to the men’s game. But the women’s game is in urgent need of adjustment. He and his advisers should keep open minds about refreshing the formula.
Why must the women’s 6N be a carbon copy of the men’s? A straightforward proposal would be to re-admit Spain. They were harshly treated when they were ejected twelve years ago. Indeed their overall performance was better than Italy’s proved to be. They are another large nation, offering a large player-pool to ensure rising standards. They do find it hard beating the elite European nations, but they stopped Scotland from competing in the last World Cup.
Three home and away games offer a natural balance and the opportunity for the game to be spread wider across the map.
Think of the decades it took France to become outright champions (1910-1961) in the early years of the men’s Five Nations – such slow progress is normal. The irony of the women’s version is that it is two of the oldest competing nations, Scotland and Wales, that find life so difficult. Wales’ men now stand second in World rankings. Scotland’s men put 38 points on the board at Twickenham this week.
But their womenfolk haven’t found a way of matching these feats. This is harder to explain in Wales, where the game has such a strong place in the nation’s affections. But they have never won the Championship; Scotland did, twenty-one years ago.
A meeting between the Six Nations authorities and the administrators of the six unions involved would be a sensible starting-point.