‘Six Nations passes Kiwis by because they don’t much rate it’

The gap between the Rugby Championship and Six Nations is considerably bigger than anyone imagined, writes Gregor Paul of the New Zealand Herald

Whoever wins this year’s Six Nations title, rugby fans in New Zealand won’t be paying too much attention

Whoever wins this year’s Six Nations title, rugby fans in New Zealand won’t be paying too much attention

 

It’s a sad truth for the Six Nations to absorb but as they get their claws out, ready to gouge and scrap over the next eight weeks, their collective efforts will barely be noticed in New Zealand.

There’s a few reasons for that. Super Rugby kicks off in mid February and with quality rugby on the doorstep, why go looking elsewhere? There’s also the practical problem of time differences and Six Nations Tests mostly being played in the middle of the New Zealand night. It’s enough of a struggle for New Zealand audiences to haul themselves out of bed to watch the All Blacks in South Africa: so Scotland versus Italy has no chance.

But really, the biggest reason the Six Nations kind of passes Kiwis by, is that they don’t much rate it. New Zealanders who have spent time in Europe can understand the depth of passion that is linked to both the playing and non-playing histories of the respective nations. It’s easy to see that the occasion is magnificent, that the rugby only forms a small component of the weekend – that there is a level of engagement that the Southern Hemisphere’s Rugby Championship will never have.

But the issue for New Zealand audiences is that watching the actual rugby 12,000 kilometres away on the telly in the middle of the night – without the deafening noise; the smell of the Guinness or the spine-tingling moments when 80,000 people are connected by a single overwhelming desire to will one of their own over the line – it comes across as second rate. Six Nations rugby needs the flummery. Events at the World Cup have only hardened that view.

The All Blacks arrived in England last year suggesting that the 2015 tournament was the most open in history. There was so much optimism coming from the North. England as hosts and one of only three teams since 2011 to have beaten the All Blacks, had to be taken seriously. Wales, under the ever resourceful Warren Gatland had good footballers and a strong understanding of what they were trying to do. Ireland had taken the All Blacks to the brink in 2013 and their golden generation had, surely, one last big push in them? Scotland were emerging and France could never be trusted at a World Cup.

It was understandable why there was apprehension in New Zealand about the threat posed by the Northern sides.

But as it turned out, once again, none of them lived up to the hype and if anything, the World Cup showed that the gap between the Rugby Championship and Six Nations is considerably bigger than anyone imagined.

Perhaps this was best illustrated by two days in Cardiff. In the first quarter-final played there, the All Blacks demonstrated where exactly the world needs to get to in terms of skill level, conditioning and game management. They were, frankly, outrageously good. Dan Carter’s supreme offload to set up Julian Savea; Ben Smith’s aerial snatch from Louis Picamoles and Sonny Bill Williams’ offload to Ma’a Nonu were all memorable highlights. But it was the offloads by first Joe Moody then Charlie Faumuina that showed how different the game in New Zealand is. Moody and Faumuina are props and yet they were out in the open, getting the ball away in contact with one hand as if they were playing outhalf. So rarely did any Northern Hemisphere backs manage such exquisite execution and after being annihilated, French captain Thierry Dusautoir said: “It felt like there were six All Blacks for every one of us.”

The following day, Ireland – arguably the Six Nations’ greatest hope – were slowly and expertly dismantled by Argentina. The Pumas have had four years in the Rugby Championship to build their skills and physicality and that was more than enough to equip them to scorch past Ireland. There’s no getting away from this, Argentina were better prepared. Their players could do more with the ball; they had better technical expertise at the set-piece and they were infinitely more aware when it came to exploiting space.

And that’s largely why the Six Nations drifts past the Southern Hemisphere without so much as a glance – it’s deemed to be structured, formulaic rugby. The more phases they work through, the less certain they get. The instincts aren’t there the way they are in players who populate the Rugby Championship. To a New Zealand audience, that’s never going to cut it.

But maybe this year the arrival of Eddie Jones as England’s coach will pique the interest. For all that the two Celtic Tigers – Ireland and Wales – have roared in recent years, it is still England that New Zealand are most wary of. They have money and they have a huge number of players. Those two ingredients are enough to make everyone a little uneasy that if England finally find a coach who can navigate his way through the club conflicts and political red tape, then they could become a genuine force.

And it could happen quickly. New Zealanders saw how quickly Australia improved once Michael Cheika arrived. Jones is smart and he’s respected and there will be interest in watching England’s progression over the next eight weeks.

New Zealand aren’t scheduled to play them until November 2017 but it would be a reasonable guess that a handful of English men, at least, will find their way into the British and Irish Lions.

Wales are due to play three Tests in New Zealand this June so there will be interest as to their form in the Six Nations.

But New Zealand audiences have learned that what they see in February and March rarely, if ever, correlates with what they see in June. The Northern Hemisphere sides that have toured in New Zealand’s winter, have been a shadow of what they were three months earlier.

Ireland will generate similar interest on the basis they are due to play the All Blacks twice at the end of the year – the first time in Chicago before they meet again in Dublin.

There is also the added intrigue of seeing how coach Joe Schmidt fares – especially as incumbent All Black coach Steve Hansen has hinted he will step down in 2017. Schmidt would be a definite contender if the job becomes available but he has the potential to do his prospects more harm than good if he can’t get Ireland beyond being good without actually regularly beating the top sides.

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