Six Nations Format Explained

The start of February means only one thing for rugby union fans in the northern hemisphere: The Six Nations! Over the course of six or seven weeks and 15 games, the elite players from England, France, Italy, Ireland, Scotland and Wales go head to head with every tackle, try, turn-over and TMO decision analysed in minute detail.

But how long has the six nations format followed the current schedule? And with all sports looking to innovate and find new audiences, could the six nations grow into a bigger tournament in future years? Read on as we look at how we came to this Six Nations format and explore what the future could hold.

Six Nations Format

How It All Began – Home Nations Championship

Back in 1883, the Home Nations Championship was launched with England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales competing. England emerged as champions beating Wales in Swansea, Scotland in Edinburgh and Ireland in Manchester. Ireland and Wales both lost their opening two matches (against England and Scotland) and with the teams on zero points, did not contest a game between themselves.

However, by 1884, the round-robin concept (each team playing the other once) had taken off and all four teams played three games with England again winning all their matches to retain the trophy. Ireland also continued their form from 1883 and lost all three of their games. It wasn’t until 1887 that Ireland finally got their first victory with their win coming over England in Dublin.

Scotland won their first title in 1886, shared with England, before winning it on their own the following year. Wales won the tournament for the first time in 1893 with Ireland claiming their first title 12 months later.

The Home Nations Championship continued in this format until 1909 with the following concepts entering common parlance: The Grand Slam – winning against all opponents; The Triple Crown – beating all of the other home nations; and The Calcutta Cup – awarded to the winner of England v Scotland.

Five Nations

France Rugby Five Nations

From 1910 onwards, France were admitted to the tournament and the competition was immediately renamed The Five Nations. However, in spite of an additional team being added to the schedule, the round-robin format was kept in place. England won the inaugural Five Nations, winning three and drawing one match at home to Ireland. Newcomers France finished bottom with four defeats out of four. 

The French got their first victory in the opening game of the 1911 tournament when they defeated Scotland 16-15 in Paris. However, they would have to wait until 1954 for their first title, albeit shared with England and Wales, and another five years before they won the Five Nations outright. 

France were expelled in 1932 due to allegations of professionalism and the tournament reverted to the four team Home Nations Championship. Although they were readmitted later in the year in 1939, the competition had already taken place. World War II was underway by 1940 and the Five Nations did not resume until peacetime returned to Europe in 1947.

The Five Nations format continued with the teams playing round-robin fixtures with the home team alternating year on year. 

After England and France won seven of the eight Five Nations tournaments from 1991 – 1998, calls to make the competition more open and competitive became louder. Italy, who had impressed in the second half of the decade, were admitted to the tournament at the turn of the millennium.

Six Nations

Ireland Six Nations

The Six Nations tournament we all know and love so well has been in place since 2000 and the six nations format shows no sign of losing popularity or appeal with rugby union followers. In the 23 years of the competition, England, France, Ireland and Wales have all won the title with only Scotland and Italy still waiting for their first triumph. 

Italy won their first game of the Six Nations, beating reigning champions Scotland 34-20 in Rome in February 2000, but they have struggled to repeat successes like that over the last two decades. In this year’s Six Nations, Italy are hoping to avoid finishing in last place for the seventh successive year.

Wooden Spoon

Since the adoption of the Six Nations format, all teams apart from England and Ireland have finished in sixth place and taken the ‘Wooden Spoon’ title. Italy are the only team to win the Wooden Spoon in successive seasons with Scotland coming the closest to also claiming the feat, and taking the unwanted title at the bottom of the Six Nations standing, two years out of four on two occasions.

Why the Format Works

The broadcasters and supporters continue to love the format which now sees games played across the weekend. But how has the format survived where other sports crave change?

It’s because the Six Nations format is simple and uncomplicated. Rivalries have been built up over decades and longer in this sport and no quirks or pointless innovation is required. Fans love the tournament which spans the end of winter into the beginning of spring.

Could the Six Nations Change?

With Italy’s continual struggles in the Six Nations, newspaper opinion pieces are often filled with thoughts of expelling them or ‘chucking them out’ in time for the next tournament. But that is very unlikely to happen. Firstly, many rugby supporters enjoy a trip to Rome, particularly to see their team win! And secondly, the broadcasters certainly do not want to see the competition shrink back to its Five Nations format. More likely would be the tournament to expand with the likes of South Africa, Romania, Spain, Georgia and Portugal said to be keen to join.

The Six Nations tournament has evolved from a four-country competition to the exciting round-robin affair that sports fans enjoy in the comfort of their own home and in pubs every year. It seems inevitable that at some stage it will grow and incorporate some new countries but for now sit back and enjoy the traditions and passion of this fantastic competition.

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