Every January the rugby press is inundated with articles and blogs analysing the implications of Heineken Cup qualification for the Six Nations Championship. The fettle of the clubs in the former is read as symptomatic of their respective nations in the latter and what follows is an influx of opinion articles predicting the Six Nations champion as whichever country is performing most admirably thus far in European club matters. Such articles are tedious, their methods crudely over-simplistic and I am yet to be convinced that a strong correlation exists between Europe’s top club competition and its annual international tournament.
With a quick glance at the history books, the argument already starts to fray around the edges. In the twelve seasons since the Six Nations’ inception, only four have seen the winners of the Heineken Cup and the Six Nations come from the same country. Wales have never provided a Heineken Cup winner, yet won Six Nations Grand Slams in 2005 (when no Welsh province reached even the quarter final stage of the European Club tournament) and 2008. This year, floundering pundits will point to the qualification of three Irish provinces as evidence of the national team’s good health, yet in only four of the last twelve seasons have the Six Nations champions been the nation with the most representation in the last eight of the Heineken Cup.
The temptation for pundits is obvious: why should the success of a country’s clubs not carry over to the international scene? The answer is a whole host of reasons. Most obviously, clubs are not populated entirely by players qualified to play for that particular nation. With the likes of Isa Nacewa (Leinster), Sitiveni Sivivatu (Clermont Auvergne), Lifeimi Mafi (Munster) and Schalk Brits (Saracens) all adding foreign talent to their respective European sides, clubs simply cannot be seen as constituent parts of corresponding international teams. Granted, in many cases these expatriates operate in conjunction with a host of home-grown talent, but at times it is hard to ignore the match-turning input that a club’s foreign contingent makes. A third of the Ulster XV that humbled Leicester in round five, for example, were not of Irish blood. The impression clubs give of national form is further distorted by examples like Ben Morgan, an English forward plying his trade with the Scarlets in Llanelli, and Tommy Bowe, Ireland’s potent winger who plays for the Ospreys in Swansea.
Imported talent aside, though, injury and squad rotation often mean that club form cannot be used as a barometer for that of national teams. English fans who watched Munster overwhelm Northampton last weekend might take heart that Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood and Chris Ashton, variously unavailable for the Saints are all likely to start when England take on Ireland on 17 March. Those who think Ulster’s dismantling of Leicester makes an Irish victory all but certain at Twickenham when the national sides meet – an argument the Ulstermen who jeered a tongue-in-cheek rendition of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ that night might adhere to – may have forgotten that only Tom Croft and Ben Youngs from the Tigers’ lineup are likely to start for England in the Six Nations’ final fixture.
Observers who think that Heineken Cup rugby pre-empts the Six Nations also seem to be ignoring the often substantial role that contingency plays in rugby. With a change in the wind here or a different call by a referee there, an entirely different group of teams might have qualified for the last eight. In both rounds 1 and 2, final-play drop goals by Munster’s Ronan O’Gara brought the men from Limerick victory; clearly neither match was a foregone conclusion and without those victories Munster may not have qualified at all, let alone secured the top seed spot. In November, Edinburgh edged Racing Metro 48-47 in a thrilling game that evidently could have gone either way; a week earlier Glasgow had claimed a victory over Bath with a fortuitous last minute try. Of course the very nature of professional sport comes down to fine margins and although teams with more class tend to succeed in the long run, there are indisputably times when luck is needed on top of merit to secure a win. In a tournament where each team is afforded just six games to secure a quarter-final spot, there are English, Welsh and French clubs who might all argue that, but for a little misfortune, they could and should have qualified.
The simple fact is that for all of the passion and talent on display in the Heineken Cup, international and club rugby in Europe remain two very different phenomena. The lack of both ‘home’ and ‘away’ ties in the international arena can skew results at times (no Six Nations side can any longer feel safe when playing away, even in Rome) and the bonus point system, which brings an added level of nuance to the club tournament, is not present in the international championship. The difference in pressure between playing for club and country is even bigger than the difference in scale and much will come down to how well players with little international experience deal with such pressure.
Don’t get me wrong – a fruitful Heineken Cup campaign can put a country in good stead for the Six Nations, but nothing more; my point is simply that success in the former is neither a pre-requisite nor a guarantee of success in the latter. Ireland’s provinces have been playing well and French clubs have shown touches of brilliance in Europe this season but crucially, transferring club success to international dominance is not an exact science. The man who confidently predicts a Six Nations champion before the tournament has begun is a braver one than I. The impending championship, thanks to a host of new international players (at the dawn of a new World Cup cycle) as well as three new coaching setups, is even more difficult than normal to predict. So, when February 4 rolls around, count on nothing, expect anything and enjoy the spectacle that the 2012 Six Nations promises to be.