Six Nations no longer a graveyard for ten-man rugby

12:00 PM GMT

The late, great Spike Milligan was once asked what he liked most about the Ireland Test team. He replied: “The fact that they are the only side who come off at the end of the game and ask: ‘Who won?'” Milligan would have loved the current Irish line-up. Maybe they still haven’t a clue after 80 minutes whether they’ve won or lost. But Joe Schmidt’s men certainly know how to produce inspiring, pugnacious performances to ensure their Six Nations Saturday evenings are enjoyable.

So much so that after three rounds, Ireland have a more than reasonable chance of winning their third Six Nations title in four years — as long as they can stay ahead of Scotland and England. As crucially it has been three invigorating rounds — rousing and enjoyable viewing for us down south who have been subjected to a very pedestrian start to the Super Rugby season.

For decades, us southerners have delighted in taking pot-shots at the Five Nations cum Six Nations — arguing it was merely a graveyard for ten-man rugby, tedious penalty goal shootouts and forward-ridden play. We approached it as if having to suffer fingers being scraped across a chalkboard.

Not in recent years though, with the Six Nations standard lifting substantially, with even the drifters of the competition, Italy, occasionally able to surprise as they did against England on Sunday when they exposed the titleholder’s inability to think on their feet.

In the first half, England were bamboozled by Italy’s reluctance to compete for the ball after the tackle, enabling them to stand on their side of the gain line and play ring-a-ring-a-rosy football. It was only after their coach Eddie Jones told them during the half-time break to use their brains, and charge straight from the tackle, that England got their act together and accelerated away. It still showed there are serious flaws in England’s on-field thinking process.

So all six teams are compelling to watch, even if it means early in the morning viewing.

The Six Nations has delivered on its potential after three rounds. Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Yes, we southerners have to reluctantly admit we do actually enjoy the likes of Jonny Sexton, Conor Murray, Elliot Daly, Leigh Halfpenny, Mike Brown, George North, Stuart Hogg, Dan Biggar, C.J Stander, Greig Laidlaw [before he was injured], Richie Gray, Joe Launchberry, Maro Itoje and Rory Best — especially in a British and Irish Lions season. And yes, this is a competition structure which works. That’s why it is disconcerting to hear of calls to turn it into a five-week tournament as it would free up space later in the year.

A dumb idea. Rest periods during a tournament are imperative, especially for a sport that is so high impact and so injury riddled. You only need to look at the Super Rugby competition to see the harmful effect of players having to back up week in week out, with only the occasional bye.

The battle fatigue is overwhelming, and with it comes poor performances and dreadful matches. As far as the Melbourne Rebels are concerned, it may even involve a season hangover as their first match effort against the Auckland Blues last Thursday night was diabolical; with several players basically giving up and carrying on as if this was a last round rather than opening round fixture.

Having a breather has its advantages. The ultimate example of a competition being ruined by officials clumsily tinkering away at it is Super Rugby. Once upon a time, it was a compact, exciting, vigorous event, which showcased everything that was good about southern hemisphere rugby. Now due to mindless changes made by SANZAAR it is a convoluted mess. Too many teams. Too many substandard players who are not up to the required grade. Too many meaningless games.

The competition draw — biased towards South Africa at the expense of Australia and New Zealand — doesn’t make any sense. It’s lopsided. No wonder Super Rugby crowd figures and television ratings have dropped right off. The Six Nations organisers should take note — and leave it exactly as it is because there is currently so much to lure you to the northern game and its vibrant match day atmosphere that comes when the players are relatively fresh and the tournament actually means something.

James Haskell and Dylan Hartley talk to referee Romain Poite about Italy’s innovative ruck tactics.¬†Ashley Western – CameraSport via Getty Images

Back to Spike. On match day, he flew from London to Dublin and then headed to the old Lansdowne Road Stadium, hoping to get a ticket from one of the touts outside the ground. “So I walked around, saying very quietly: ‘Anybody got a ticket? Anybody got a ticket?’

“Eventually, this woman came over to me and said: ‘I’ve got a ticket’. I replied: ‘How much?’ and she said: ‘Two hundred pounds.’ To which I spluttered: ‘What, two bloody hundred pounds! But, for that amount of money, I could get the most beautiful woman in Dublin.’ “Whereupon, she retorted: ‘Ah yes, but she certainly wouldn’t give you 40-45 minutes each way with a wonderful brass band playing in the middle’.”

Oh how I miss that great man. Unlike some influential rugby officials I know, Spike talked sense.

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