It looks as if the proposal to play the Six Nations over five weekends with no breaks will be shot down. Let us hope so. It was advanced by the English Premiership clubs, for selfish reasons, and approved by the RFU, presumably to keep the clubs happy. The SRU has come out against it, and so, happily, has the WRU. More significantly perhaps, there’s no sign that players are in favour of the change.
England’s stand-off, George Ford, has bravely put his head above the parapet and said it’s a bad idea; player welfare will suffer. Those who remark that, in the knock-out stages of the World Cup the finalists will have played three matches in three weeks, miss the obvious point that three matches in three weeks, though a demanding schedule, is a lot less demanding than five in five.
Of course, there is the preceding pool stage in the World Cup, but, during it, most countries practise rotation, as they certainly don’t want to do in the Six Nations.
The Six Nations is a success in the present format. Let’s keep it that way. Indeed, though the All Blacks may be the number one international team, it’s evident that, setting New Zealand aside, rugby in the northern hemisphere is in a healthier condition than rugby south of the equator. Admittedly, the semi-finalists in the last World Cup were all from the south, but things look different now.
Australian rugby is in a bad way, even if the national team continues to hold its own. Their Super Rugby teams are having a dreadful season. One or two will be closed down.
Attendances are falling and the Union game still ranks third in popularity being League and Aussie Rules. Like Scotland for so many years, the Wallabies are having to run very hard not to fall behind.
The position in South Africa is even worse, and not only because last autumn South Africa lost to Italy who then went on to lose every match in the Six Nations.
Partly on account of the imposition of quotas, partly because of the weakness of the rand, a stream of players leaves South Africa every year for the Northern Hemisphere.
Even now you might be able to pick a stronger Springbok team from European clubs than from South Africa itself.
Players who move north earn more money while the ridiculously short three-year residency rule means that they needn’t abandon an ambition to play international rugby.
We have benefited from this, recruiting Willem Nel and Josh Strauss, as have Ireland with C J Stander. But our gain has been South Africa’s loss.
One consequence of the plight of Australian and South African rugby is that the Southern Championship can’t hold a candle to the Northern one.
Meanwhile comes the news that Kelly Brown has hung up his boots, or at least exchanged his playing ones for coaching ones. It’s sad to see him go. He may not have been a great player, but he was a damn good one, and I was sorry when Vern Cotter called time on his international career, prematurely I thought, and not only because if he was good enough to be in the Saracens match-day squad for another couple of seasons he was good enough to be in the Scotland one.
Throughout his international career he reminded me of something that Jim Telfer once said to me about David Leslie: that he could relax when Leslie had the ball because he knew he would do the right thing.
This week is Lions selection time and I fear that too many of the Scottish hopefuls needn’t wait for a telephone call or text; Twickenham is a black mark against them. It would have been a good match to miss, which is why Sean Maitland and Duncan Taylor may find themselves on the plane with Stuart Hogg. Taylor has two other advantages: he plays for Saracens and, having missed most of the season on account of injury, is fresher than most other contenders. Still, there’s always a silver lining. If there are as few Scots Lions as I expect, Gregor Townsend will take a stronger squad on our three-match summer tour.
It looks as if Sam Warburton will captain the Lions for a second time; at least that’s what the bookies’ odds suggest. Fine player though he is, I think this would be a mistake. You need three powerful ball-carriers in the back-row to have a chance of beating New Zealand and Warburton is primarily an outstanding defender, not attacker.
My own left-field choice as captain would be Peter O’Mahoney, the heart of Munster and the outstanding man on the pitch when Ireland so splendidly deprived England and Eddie Jones of their Grand Slam.
I hope I am wrong but I guess that Warburton will be captain and that there will be three times as many members of the Welsh team that lost at Murrayfield as there will be Scots.