Rugby’s 6 Nations Championship is contested each year over several weekends during February, March (and sometimes April) by the international sides of France, England, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.
Originally held between the four United Kingdom countries England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, France joined in 1910 and Italy joined in 2000.
Each team plays the other five once per season with home advantage in alternate seasons (eg England hosted France in 2003, and so France host England in 2004), giving a total of 15 matches per Championship.
The 6 Nations Championship Trophy is presented to the team who earn the most points during the season, with 2 points being awarded for a win, and 1 point for a drawn match.
If two or more teams finish the Championship with the same number points, the winner is decided on match-points difference (subtracting match-points ‘against’ from match-points ‘for’ in all Championship matches). If there is still no winner, then it is awarded to the team who scored the most tries during the Championship.
If after all this a winner still cannot be decided then the Championship is shared between the teams.
If in winning the Championship a team also wins all of their five matches, they are given the title of ‘Grand Slam’ winner.
There is also the title of ‘Triple Crown’ competed for each season, which is awarded if a team from the 4 Home Unions (England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) beats each of the other 3 Home Unions.
When the English rugby team travelled to Swansea on a dreary day in 1882, few could have realised the importance of the occasion. The game, in which England beat Wales by two goals and four tries to none, sparked a festival of rugby that has since become the pride of the northern hemisphere. Known in the early days as the International Championship – with only England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland competing – it was far less organized than the modern tournament.
There was no points system, for example. Instead, teams were judged simply on whether they won or lost.
Before the turn of the century the Championship was marred by disputes and three times (in 1885, 1887 and 1889) it could not be completed. Indeed, even after 1900, it continued to be a source of controversy.
England and Scotland were the most successful teams in the early days, but by the mid-1890s the Welsh had developed an impressive side and a new system that would alter the face of the game.
This “four three-quarter” system came into its own in 1893 when Wales became champions for the first time, winning rugby’s “invisible trophy”, the Triple Crown – beating all three other home nations.
Their success showed the other Home Union sides that the six backs/nine forwards game would no longer be effective against the Welsh system and four threequarters became the norm at national and club level.
By 1900 all of the four Home teams had found success at a game that was rapidly growing in popularity.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Wales were the team to beat. Unbeaten at home between 1900 and 1913, they won six outright titles before England staged a revival that coincided with the 1910 opening of the RFU’s new home at Twickenham. The very first international at Twickenham brought England success over Wales and heralded a golden era for English rugby.
Four becomes five
France did not join the fray until 1910 and, despite their later dominance, they struggled at first to achieve any notable success. They did however, coin the phrase ‘five nations’. In their first four years of entry, the French won just one game – a one-point victory over Scotland in 1911.
The outbreak of war in 1914 saw the tournament put on hold until 1920 and the inter-war years were dominated by England as they swept to nine championship victories, including five Grand Slams.
Scotland collected their first Grand Slam in 1925, with an emphatic win against England at Murrayfield. In 1926, Scotland became the first Home Union side to defeat England at Twickenham after England had won the Grand Slam (winning the Triple Crown AND beating the French) five times in eight seasons.
France continued to struggle and in 1931 the inadequacies of the French game’s administration and the discovery that a number of their players had been paid at club level, forced them to pull out of the tournament. Due to this, the championship became an entirely domestic affair for eight years and France rejoined in 1939-40, with the outbreak of World War Two delaying their re-entry for a further eight years.
Rise of the French
War again meant the curtailment of the championship in 1940. But when it resumed in 1947 it marked the beginning of a new rugby order.
In the early post-war seasons, Ireland hit the front, taking three outright titles including consecutive Triple Crowns in 1948 and 1949.
France shared the title in 1954 and 1955 and the “Tricolores” won it outright in 1959, driven by stars such as the inspirational lock forward Lucien Mias, fullback Pierre Lacaze and flanker Francois Moncla. They were champions for four years in a row from 1959 to 1962 and in 1968 won their first Grand Slam.
The 1970’s brought mixed fortunes for both the Championship and the teams. In 1972 the tournament could not be completed after Scotland and Wales refused to play in Dublin because of the escalating political problems. And the following year the tournament finished with a unique five-way tie – every country having won and lost two games.
For Wales, however, the 1970s will be remembered as the golden era of Welsh rugby. They finished the decade with three Grand Slams and one Triple Crown and were led by legendary players such as fullback JPR Williams and scrum-half Gareth Edwards. The Welsh side were absolutely unstoppable. Only an outstanding French side prevented them from adding to the three Grand Slams achieved in this decade. England struggled throughout the 1970s and most of the following decade – their only relief being Bill Beaumont’s Grand Slam winning side of 1980. Instead, it was France who dominated, winning the title outright three times, including two Grand Slams in 1981 and 1987.
In 1984, Scotland won their first Grand Slam for 59 years and Ireland scooped the title 12 months later. They have not won it since.
England and France share the 90s
The dominance of England and France during the 1990’s brought criticism that the championship was not offering a high enough standard of competition. The response was to bring an end to the historic format by asking Italy to join in 2000.
In a Celtic revival 1999 saw Scotland take the championship and Wales finished third, having defeated both England and France and in 2000 and 2001, England claimed the tournament – but only after losing their final games against Scotland and Ireland respectively.
…and then there were six
Italy, meanwhile, started the newly christened Six Nations championship superbly in 2000, winning their opening game against Scotland in Rome, and in 2007 had their best tournament yet finishing forth with back-to-back wins against Scotland and Wales.
France then entered a purple patch winning in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2007 with only England in 2003 (their world cup winning year) and Wales in 2005 suceeding to break up what would have been a significant period of French domination. In fact in 2007 they only lost once, against England.
Wales put a poor world cup well and truly behind them by winning the grand slam in 2008 and not to be outdone Ireland won the grand slam in 2009 the first time since 1948. Wales hosted Ireland in Cardiff on the last round of play in 2009 with a Triple Crown on the line as well as knowing a 13-point win would be enough to retain their title. Drama ensued as with Ireland leading 17-15 at the death Welsh stand-off Stephen Jones missed a 50-metre penalty from halfway.
The 2010 Six Nations belonged to France as they won the Grand Slam for the first time since 2004. Les Blues were rarely untroubled opening up with an 18-9 win over Scotland before defeating Ireland 33-10, Wales 26-20 and Italy 46-20. France had already won the Championship going into their final game with England after Ireland lost their second game of the tournament to Scotland hours earlier. But despite being pushed by England, who scored the only try of the game, France came out on top 12-10 at the Stade de France to win the Grand Slam. Ireland’s 23-20 loss to Scotland in the final game of the campaign not only denied Ireland the Triple Crown but saw Italy receive the dreaded Wooden Spoon for the third year running.
The 2011 Six Nations could have brought England their first grand slam since 2003 but Ireland beat them convincingly in the penultimate game of the tournament leaving Wales a slim chance of taking the title if they had beat France by a wide margin in the final game later the same day. France, who had lost to Italy earlier in the competition, beat Wales, and England took the title, but the edge was taken off the win by the manner of the loss againt Ireland. Other notable events were Italy’s first win against France and Brian O’Driscoll moving ahead of Scotland’s Ian Smith (78 year-old record) as the championship’s all-time leading try scorer with his 25th tournament touchdown early in the second half.
The 2012 tournament was a tail of two teams, firstly how the favorites Wales completed the grand slam in style, their second in 5 years and the second for their Southern hemisphere manager Warren Gatland (a new record) then secondly how the England team was completely rebuilt into a competitive outfit by temporary manager Stuart Lancaster in a matter of months to come second and only losing to Wales by one score.
The 2013 tournament came down to the last game with England chasing a grand slam and Wales looking to win by an 8 point margin to take the championship. Wales did it in style in front of their home fans 30 – 3.
Brian O’Driscoll signed off his glittering international career with a second RBS 6 Nations crown in 2014 after Ireland held on to edge out France 22-20 in a thriller in the Stade de France in the last game of the tournament. For only the second time in 42 years, and in the same ground that saw the Ireland centre burst onto the scene with a hat-trick 14 previously, the men in green emerged from France with victory but they had to earn it the hard way with a final French try attempt being disallowed due to a forward pass judged by the TMO.
The 2015 tournament went to the last day with Ireland, England and Wales on six points with France on four. Wales were first up and they struck an ominous blow, not just moving to eight points but also boosting their points difference with a 61-20 triumph in Italy, George North grabbing a hat-trick. With a 20-point gap to bridge, Ireland did enough in Scotland – Paul O’Connell among the tries in his final RBS 6 Nations game as Joe Schmidt’s side won 40-10. Attentions then turned to Twickenham, where England needed to beat France by 26 points or more to deny Ireland back-to-back Championships. A high-octane encounter kept everyone entertained, with 12 tries in total, but a 55-35 win was not enough for the Red Rose and Ireland celebrated.
In 2016, England had secured the championship in their penultimate game against Wales and in the final game of the tournament England were pushed all the way but eventually came through for a first Grand Slam since 2003 with a 31-21 win over France in Paris.
England were winners again in 2017, with Ireland and Wales capturing the title in 2018 and 2019 respectively. England reigned supreme in 2020, while Wales took home the title in 2021.