Ed Smith, writing in the February 2011 edition of GQ , extols the virtues of the long running Six Nations rugby tournament by beginning his argument thus :” I am sick of world cups. In prospect, they are over-hyped and over-promoted. When they arrive they are under-powered and underwhelming. World Cups are sport’s grey squirrels: once they’ve scuttled their way into the system, they dominate the whole ecosystem, killing off all rivals. Strangling more deserving competitions is what World Cups do best”.
Yes. the tournament which sees the world’s best rugby nations, plus Scotland and an assortment of minnows, puts them all in territory familiar to but one country, and has them duel it out in a test of strength, tactics, composure and temperament for a month is bad. Bad for rugby, and bad for the likes of the Six Nations and the Tri-Nations.
Which is presumably why those tournaments still exist and thrive more than ever. And why Mr Smith remains so moved by the Six Nations that he feels compelled to write a defence it does need.
Firstly, the World Cup is good for world rugby. It also has its place without diminishing the stature of the two major multi-nations tournaments. Go ask players who have just given their all in a Tri-Nations or Six Nations slugfest if it’s all okay because it wasn’t the World Cup and you will have a pretty decent clue as to what playing for one’s country still means to players.
The thing is, on a basic level, the rugby world needs the World Cup. Beyond having a showpiece spectacle with which to help market and grow the game, it is pretty much the most accurate barometer of where rugby is at the given point in time. You could compare November Test results all you like, there will always be mitigating factors diluting the significance and usefulness of the results.
The World Cup is as close to a level playing field as you can get when you need to rank nations. Yes, New Zealand’s success in consistent failure at the event could be said to diminish that meaning a tad, but that still leaves six other top nations whose worth can be accurately measured by their performances.
Seeking to praise the Six Nations by denigrating the World Cup reeks of a bitter petulance on the part of Mr Smith. It is all too easy to link that to the perennial southern hemisphere dominance of the tournament, the shining example of preparation, professionalism and composure displayed by England in 2003 remaining the only break with the pattern, yet this does not diminish the validity of the tournament.
The World Cup has its own growing legend and history. New Zealand always showing where the state of the rugby art is en route to the inevitable choke, Australia willing themselves through as far as acumen can without the backing of grunt, South Africa and the art of backs to the wall underdog grit, French, well Frenchness, Irish heart and Welsh gusto.
Not to mention the Pacific Islanders seeking to bruise a couple of bigger egos and reputations while they remain in the tournament, and the fairytale stories of Namibia making Ireland dig deep into their souls as a supposed walkover turns ugly.
The battle for the William Webb Ellis crown has its own charm, allure and a story growing every year.
The Six Nations has more history than the World Cup not because it is inherently superior, it is just a simple matter of that tournament simply having been around longer. In the same way that Super Rugby and the Tri-Nations build their story every year, and with each edition the World Cup grows in stature, acclaim and legend.
I cannot imagine Mr Smith would favour England having their 2003 win expunged from the record books because the World Cup is “under-powered and underwhelming”. If he is, good luck convincing Martin Johnson mate.