Evolution, Not Revolution: How The Six Nations Has Changed Since Its Inception

It's 20 years since the first staging of the expanded championship and plenty has changed
06:55, 21 Jan 2020

Stick the kettle on, put your feet up and treat yourself to a video from the first Six Nations at the turn of the millennium. The first major difference you’re sure to notice is the square picture and that line of static permanently dashing across the bottom of the screen, but beyond the monitor’s dimensions and the stray shot of static, the rugby is a bit different too.

In the age of Six Nations giants - see England’s Maro Itoje or Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale - it is perhaps understandable to assume the players of 2000 were significantly smaller than their modern-day counterparts, with their bulging muscles and elite training programmes. And it turns out the were.

Today's forwards are on average around two centimetres taller, with backs around 5cm taller, and players across the field are five kilograms heavier when comparing the Ireland team gearing up for this year’s Six Nations with the players turning out at the 1999 Rugby World Cup. The fact that professional rugby was still in its relative infancy back in 2000 helps to explain those differences.

It is hard to put an exact number on the definition of players though, even if we can assert that there is a marked difference in tone between 2000 and 2020. The heavy cotton jerseys of yesteryear have given way to a super-light synthetic material that won’t forgive you for letting go over Christmas as its forerunners did. And while players today are more muscular and more substantial, the hefty sleeves of the 2000s gave the impression of abrupt shoulder angles. While today we can see the definition of the upper arm as it slopes inwards from boulder shoulders, the sleeves back in the day hung directly towards the earth, giving French second row Olivier Brouzet the terrifying appearance of a looming human fridge, more so than any of today’s locks.

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In terms of the spectacle itself, there are a few key pillars of today’s game missing from that first Six Nations. Chief among them is the much-maligned ‘caterpillar ruck’ currently in vogue – a conga line of forwards behind each ruck to preserve a scrum-half’s time and space before a box-kick – which is conspicuous only by its absence from the 20-year-old footage. Indeed, the art of the box-kick is almost non-existent by comparison, with Peter Stringer running back three paces before putting boot to ball while his Ireland side field a lineout on top of their tryline after a few piercing phases of French attack.

Kicking for field position retains its foothold though, with Ronan O’Gara leading the way with savvy grubbers and chips behind defensive lines.

The ruck is somewhat cathartic viewing for those currently campaigning against the Wild West breakdown in which 120kg monsters launch themselves at almost vertical angles. There are no would-be jacklers with their heads level with their knees. In the 2000s, if you weren’t on your feet, you were on the floor and out of the game. Indeed, it is strange now to watch back as four to six forwards can stand bolt upright, watching as the scrum-half fires the ball away post-melee. Get to work, right?

There have been occasional rule changes over the last 20 years, with a raft of alterations in 2006 having been specifically aimed at adapting to the faster nature of the game.

"Players are fitter, stronger and quicker and therefore the referee's decision-making time gets shorter and shorter," then-referees' chief for the International Rugby Board, Paddy O'Brien told the BBC.

"We wanted to go back to a blank page because we don't believe the laws are keeping up with the modern game. If you read the law book and then watch a match, the game on the field doesn't really reflect the laws. So either you blow the whistle all match and send the spectators out of the ground, or you adapt the laws to the game as it is."

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While there is no doubt that the pace of modern Test rugby in full flight outstrips that of the first Six Nations, the older game is a more fluid entity when viewing the bigger picture. Yes, modern defences cut down the time fly-halves are permitted to find their runners, and carriers meet tacklers at frightening levels of G-force, but the time from ruck-to-ruck and whistle to set-piece during the first Six Nations makes for refreshing viewing. A scrum that resets from a disallowed try to engagement within 30 seconds? Wouldn't that be nice?

There can be no doubt rugby union has become bigger and badder over the last two decades, with athleticism and skill, in particular, enjoying sharp rises during the 2010s. If the 2019 Rugby World Cup final taught us one thing, it is that power still wins the day. And with England's Kyle Sinckler, new Welsh call-up Louis Rees-Zammit and the human TNT stick that is Italy's Jake Polledri, we are set to witness even more power and box-office moments of magic as rugby continues its perpetual evolution.

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