The Rugby Six Nations Championships have always played an important role in the Northern Hemisphere’s international rugby calendar. They are the next big test after the challenging and always entertaining Autumn Internationals. They give the chance for local bragging rights, the opportunity to stake the claim to be European rugby’s biggest international power. And, every now and again, the chance to really make history by winning the Grand Slam. Yet, this year they will take on an even greater significance. This time they represent one of the final chances for their main protagonists to build up their form, confidence and momentum ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The tournament is now as even and thus unpredictable as it has been for many years. Indeed last year’s tournament could hardly have been any closer with England, France and Ireland all in contention to lift the trophy in the final round of fixtures, with the latter securing the Championship on points difference. Combine this with the context of what is to come and the connotation is clear for all to see. Get it right and you are confidently striding down the final straight towards the sport’s grandest tournament. Get it wrong and you are stumbling across the track in a panic stricken stupor, unsure of what needs to be done in the little time left to get facing forwards again.
Knowing you are playing well isn’t enough. Sport is ultimately a results based business – it gives squads an assurance and togetherness that cannot be beaten, a belief that they can overcome anyone no matter the opponent or the circumstance. It makes the life of the coach, the one so quickly singled out when things are going badly, so much simpler too. Any momentum gained from the Autumn Internationals can be shattered within 80 minutes but it can be revitalised too. Every one of those selected to play in this 5 game tournament, whether they be world-class experienced heads or raw, exciting new talents, will know how vital it is for their respective teams to not just perform but win. From game one to five – everyone is absolutely critical. Fail to deliver at your peril. Doing well can make a powerful statement.
Warren Gatland has stated that the Six Nations doesn’t have a massive impact upon the World Cup. Yet if the coaches of England, Wales, Ireland, France, Scotland and Italy really think that it doesn’t have an important part to play in a World Cup year then they are kidding themselves. Any opportunity to assess the qualities of their squads and gain a better understanding of who should be in them come the start of the tournament in September should be grasped firmly with both hands. These high-intensity matches are perfect for players to cement their names on the list. Others, whether being given a chance due to established players missing out or because of a recent run of excellent form for their clubs, can also stake their claims for selection.
The likes of Stuart Lancaster and Philippe Saint-André may think they have settled on a formula for their side’s style of play. They may feel they know their strengths and the areas that need to be worked on. These perceptions can change in an instant. The Six Nations means a lot – it provides an ideal, competitive environment for coaches to again go for their tried and tested tactics or change things up against strong opponents in high-intensity and pressurised atmospheres. Considering the different styles of play traditionally employed by the northern and southern hemisphere sides, having these matches on the back of the Autumn Internationals is a great opportunity to come up against a different type of rugby in a short space of time. To go far at the World Cup you need to be able to play with variety to accommodate and overawe your opponents.
The Six Nations is especially important this year for another reason – injuries. In any World Cup year in any sport players will know the need to push themselves but at the same time they will have in the back of their minds the dreaded injury curse that could deny them the chance to play on their sport’s biggest stage. Coaches and fans will be praying their players don’t pick up serious, long-term injuries during this Championship. England of course are already missing a bizarre number of players. Getting through this tournament with as much form and as few casualties as possible is the holy grail for fans, players and coaches alike.
This Six Nations is one of the final times before the World Cup where players will perform with a trophy at stake. These are not mere pre-tournament friendlies. Furthermore, the occasions where a coach can get his players together and build the camaraderie and togetherness needed more than ever in a World Cup year are coming few and far between.
The only thing predictable about this Championship is that it will be unpredictable. Any one of four teams could win it. Teams are given a development and transitional period in-between major tournament but that phase has no well and truly ended. The World Cup is coming. The Six Nations just got even more crucial.