The 6 Nations has thrown up a good few surprises so far: England beating Wales, Italy getting within a score of England and Scotland needing a dose of hara kiri to lose to Wales. France nearly blew a win yesterday against Wales but maybe that shouldn’t be so much of a surprise!
It’s all been in contrast to much of the Heineken Cup group stage where you can call at least seven of the twelve games every week with confidence. The two Italian teams will lose, Munster, Toulouse, Biarritz and Stade Francais will win if they’re at home, the Scottish teams and Newport will lose to the better teams in their group, Ulster will win at home and lose away, etc. Given next year’s schedule now, you could confidently call 75% of the games without watching a minute of rugby between now and the then.
Strangely, that predictability doesn’t show itself when you look at the clubs that have qualified for the knock out stages over the last few years. Eighteen different clubs have qualified for the quarter finals over the last four years so the problem of predictability doesn’t lie with the stronger teams. Instead, the difficulty is with the fact it’s very hard to see an Italian or Scottish team or Newport or Ulster getting out of a group any time soon. Sure Ulster had a better campaign this time but they still needed a miracle on the last day to have a chance of making the knockout finals and Stade Francais, who won that group, are generally regarded as one of the weakest group winners.
There’s probably not much that can be done about this in the short term, as the big issue is that Scottish and Italian rugby is lagging behind the other four nations. Italy has never had a team make the knockout stage and Scotland have only managed one (Edinburgh back in 2004) and I can’t think of another one getting close. It’s not just rugby either as football’s Champions’ League has a similar problem with English, Spanish, Italian and German teams (along with a few others such as Lyon) generally dominating the group stages.
Kicking the weaker countries out might improve the competitiveness of the competition but that’s obviously not an option. As usual with these problems, the only solution is the slow one of trying to improve the level of the weakest teams.