The demise of the Springboks and tough years for Australia and Argentina has had more of an impact in the Northern Hemisphere than you might expect.
Former South Africa and Italy head coach Nick Mallett, speaking at the Accenture Analysis Team launch, believes that when it comes to exciting competition, the Six Nations had leapfrogged the Rugby Championship as the tournament to watch.
New Zealand rampaged through the 2016 Rugby Championship for a perfect six wins and 30 out of 30 points, which seems absurd in a competition featuring nations that have won seven out of the eight Rugby World Cups.
England’s title win with a game to spare last year meanwhile was the exception to the norm of tense finishes that the Six Nations has become famous for.
“As a competition, in terms of not knowing the eventual winner, it is definitely more interesting,” Mallett said.
“New Zealand have dominated over the last four years in the Rugby Championship. Last year they won it by the fourth game. Six wins and a bonus point in every single game was their record and when you get dominance in a competition like that, it’s not good for the competition.
“What really needs to happen is Argentina, South Africa and Australia need to take a step up, because New Zealand are not going to get worse.”
That elevated interest in this year’s Six Nations in particular however isn’t just down to the Rugby Championship’s demise. England and Ireland, but also France and Scotland, have all progressed since the 2015 Rugby World Cup was an all-Southern Hemisphere affair by the final four. Were the Rugby World Cup semi-finals to happen tomorrow, Mallett expects the make-up of teams would not be the same.
“In the Northern Hemisphere there has been real progress since the last Rugby World Cup. Four Southern Hemisphere sides made the semi-finals and I very much doubt that would happen if it was played now,” he explained.
“England are right up there as are Ireland, and those two have taken huge strides. You can argue that why this world record of consecutive wins has been broken by New Zealand, and is being challenged by England, is because they have not played each other since 2014.
“Teams like New Zealand have handled the transition from winning the Rugby World Cup, and England who under Stuart Lancaster gave first caps to a number of players have now reached maturity with a spiky coach in Eddie Jones, which has given them the competitive edge they needed.
“I also have always had tremendous admiration for Joe Schmidt, and Vern Cotter has done an excellent job. That is why I think the Six Nations is a very exciting competition, and more so than the Rugby Championship.
“I love the intrigue about the competition, going into the final round with three possible winners, like in 2014 when Wales, Ireland and England needed big numbers to win. That made for a fantastic final weekend.”
Signs that France are beginning to flicker into life under Guy Novès can only add to the drama. The former Toulouse boss highlighted at Wednesday’s Six Nations media launch how les Bleus need to take more of their chances, and the Accenture statistics from last year’s tournament reflect that.
“I don’t think teams like France or Scotland have regressed,” Mallett said when assessing the shape of the two strongest contenders to England and Ireland.
“Last year France were poor as Guy Novès tried to get the offload game going, getting the players to understand when to offload.
“The Accenture stats are really interesting because you’ll see they had the most offloads but also the most turnovers, offloading in weak positions when going backwards. In November they looked as though they had come to terms with that far better, and they played with real intensity and passion.
“Scotland in Vern Cotter’s final season will really play hard for him too.”
The team in the Six Nations that Mallett understands best of course is the Azzurri. Mallett spent four years in charge of Italy from 2007 to 2011, experiencing the highs and lows of coaching in the Six Nations first hand.
Italy’s historic victory over South Africa back in November was viewed as a turning point for Italy under new boss Conor O’Shea, only for a defeat to Tonga the following week to puncture their optimism.
“I know the Italians targeted that South Africa game. They knew the All Blacks game wasn’t an opportunity, but they thought the Springboks was a chance,” Mallett revealed.
“The big defeat to New Zealand therefore wasn’t a shock. Even prior to that game they were focused on the chance the following week against South Africa, and they took it. That win has to be put into perspective, because I don’t think it was very difficult.
“It says a lot more about how poor South Africa were at the time than how the Italians had improved. And that is borne out by the week later when without Sergio Parisse they lost to Tonga, unable to beat a side in a similar position in the World Rankings who you would have expected them to win against at home.
“Taking the New Zealand and Tonga results, one cannot see much improvement in Italian rugby. Without being negative about the win over South Africa, I’ve never seen a worse South African side. It was not as though they defeated a 1995 South African side with Francois Pienaar as captain, or a team led by Gary Teichmann or John Smit side coached by Jake White.
“Italy will always be competitive at home and they have a good chance against Wales, and they are always effective in the first two games before becoming less so because of their lack of strength in depth and the intensity of the competition.”
A highlight of that November period was undoubtedly the emergence of Giorgio Bronzini at scrum-half after just a few games of top flight rugby with Zebre.
Bronzini’s breakthrough, and the talent of Michele Campagnaro and Leonardo Sarto, show how much has changed for Italy in recent years. Whereas their undoubted strength was in the set-piece, their backline is now the focal point of their success.
“I still think they are the most likely wooden spooners, although Giorgio Bronzini and Edoardo Gori are two very good scrum-halves, and to have two of them competing is good for the side,” said Mallett.
“I remember when I had to call on Mauro Bergamasco, when at the time the next scrum-half in Italy available was a second division player who was playing on the wing for Roma. Things have really improved since then, with the fly-halves as well in Carlo Canna and Tommaso Allan.
“Having those half-backs to direct the game will get the best out of the Michele Campagnaros and Leonardo Sartos, because Italy’s backline is their strength at the moment when it used to be their forwards.
“Last year their scrum was one of the most penalised and they can no longer depend on that or their driving maul. Playing a more XV-man based game is more exciting, but I’m not sure the strength in depth is there to take them to a third or fourth place finish.”
Bottom spot in the table then seems to be settled. But what about the winner?
Will it be Ireland, bouncing back from a third-placed finish last year with a healthier squad to take a third Six Nations title in four years? Or can England continue their winning run and pull off what would be their best result so far in Dublin by toppling Ireland to make it back-to-back Championships?
“Down to the last weekend, England against Ireland… and I’m going to give it to Ireland. Just because Ireland will be at home. England have the most strength in depth, but Ireland deserve it.”
All roads seem to lead to the Aviva Stadium on March 18.
Nick Mallett is part of the Accenture Analysis Team during the RBS 6 Nations, providing fans with insight and analysis to #Seebeyond standard match data. Follow @AccentureRugby or visit accenture-rugby.com
Read Nick’s extended thoughts on the fortunes of the Springboks here.