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133 years of the 4, 5 and 6 Nations Championship: Can Ireland complete its first 3-in-a-row?

Most back-to-back champs have not fared well when they try for a third straight Championship.
Feb 7th 2016, 6:20 AM 5,948 6

IF YOU ENJOYED rude enough healthy to somehow see you through the last 133 years of rugby, you might at least expect to be able to casually throw around the phrase: ‘I’ve seen it all now!’

Sorry, old-timer, but you haven’t.

Sports thrive on competitiveness, but tournaments as short as the Four, Five and now Six Nations are ripe for cycles of domination when a special crop of talent comes through at once or one setup discovers a serious competitive advantage in preparation.

Andrew Trimble Player of the Champions in 2014, Andrew Trimble will hope to repeat that form to help Ireland to a third straight crown. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Yet here we are, 133 years on from England’s crowning moment in the inaugural Four Nations and, despite outright back-to-back Championships being claimed 18 times, nobody has ever managed to go one better.

After dramatic successes in 2014 and 2015 – just Ireland’s second successful defence of the title – that is the weight of history against Joe Schmidt’s squad this year.

Even a hefty push to second place after a double is something of a rarity. The more regular occurrence is that teams suffer a loss early on and never quite get back on track. France’s foul habit of following up back-to-backs (in 1967-8 and 1997-98) with wooden spoons must have gone a long way helping the phrase ‘you never know which France will turn up’ become coined and cliched.

Rugby Union - Five Nations Championship - Wales v France Philippe Bernat-Salles celebrates in 1998 Source: EMPICS Sport

We are of course excluding shared Championships and dealing in outright victories here. England dominated the first four years of the Four Nations tournament, but with in-fighting and unfulfilled fixtures rife between the ‘home nations’ the ’1885 Championship was marked incomplete and the founders of the sport were pushed to a share of the spoils by Scotland in 1887.

That moral victory for the Scots would mark the beginning of their own period of dominance when they won an outright or share of the Triple Crown every other year in the six years between 1886 and 1891. Good times!

Until recently, the teams who have come closest to completing an outright three-peat (as absolutely nobody said in any of the three centuries straddled by rugby union) did so unknowingly, narrowly missing out one year and then going on to dominate for two years afterwards.

Rugby Union - British and Irish Championship - Wales v England This merry bunch of Welshman denied Scotland a third straight title in 1905. Source: EMPICS Sport

England followed that path after sharing with Ireland in 1912, Wales did it in 1964. France swung into that same decade as champions, shared a title with England and secured two more before England and Wales came back to the fore.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that England really began to show a thirst for outright dominance. They came mighty close to a three-in-a-row at the beginning of the decade, but before their 1991-2 back-to-back, they fell at the fifth of 15 hurdles when a Tony Stanger try gave Scotland a 13 – 7 win in the 1990 Grand Slam decider.

Source: RBS 6 Nations/YouTube

A decade later, England slipped into second in 2002 after topping the pile in 2000 and 2001. Then France took hold of the 21st century, settling for second as Wales took a Grand Slam before putting a double together in 2006-7.

The curious thing about the lack of three-in-a-rows, is that this Championship is designed to even itself out over the course of of two years.

Teams see an advantage or struggle in a given year. In Ireland’s case, we like to think odd years give the best hope of a Championship because England and France have to come to Dublin. Other nations may see three away fixtures as their weakest hand. But once you win a Championship both ways, what’s stopping a side starting over?

Rugby Union - Five Nations Championship - Ireland v England They boys of '48 Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

Of course, each instance has its own particular set of explanations. Rugby is the ultimate team game and a minimum 15 component parts must be working at peak potential to climb above four other nations with muscle memory of winning the title.

In Ireland’s case, 1948-9 was an incredibly special group of players. Telephone linemen, undertakers, a Presbyterian minister and med students combining to deliver a rare Grand Slam that was the first of three Championships in four years.

1950 was the one that got away. A two-day trip to Paris in late January got the campaign off to a losing start, but unlike ’49, there was no big bounce-back. Only a 3- 0 loss in Twickenham a fortnight later and Jack Kyle’s men ended the campaign as the final leg of a Welsh clean sweep.

Rugby Union - British Lions Squad To Tour Southern Hemisphere Jack Kyle starred for the Lions between Championships in 1949 and 1951 with Karl Mullen as captain. Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

Perhaps the looming shadow of that year’s Lions tour also had some influence. Against back-to-back champions, the three teams on the island of Britain undoubtedly had plenty to prove. Plus, today’s five-week tours aren’t so much a picnic as an impromptu bag of cans compared to the epic four-month, 30-game game tour Karl Mullen led as captain in 1950.

A Lions tour may be the backdrop for the battle of the coaches when Ireland host Wales today, but 2017 is nowhere near the mindset of a modern professional rugby international.

This Irish squad can point to double figures of injured players that could help their cause today. However, after topping the pile in 2014 and 2015, they are in as good a position as anybody – ever – to claim a third successive Championship.

Ireland

15. Simon Zebo
14. Andrew Trimble
13. Jared Payne
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Keith Earls
10. Jonathan Sexton
9. Conor Murray

1. Jack McGrath
2. Rory Best
3. Nathan White
4. Devin Toner
5. Mike McCarthy
6. CJ Stander
7. Tommy O’Donnell
8. Jamie Heaslip

Replacements:

16. Sean Cronin
17. James Cronin
18. Tadhg Furlong
19. Donnacha Ryan
20. Rhys Ruddock
21. Kieran Marmion
22. Ian Madigan
23. Dave Kearney

Wales

15. Gareth Anscombe
14. George North
13. Jonathan Davies
12. Jamie Roberts
11. Tom James
10.Dan Biggar
9. Gareth Davies

1. Rob Evans
2. Scott Baldwin
3. Samson Lee
4. Luke Charteris
5. Alun Wyn Jones
6. Sam Warburton (capt)
7.Justin Tipuric
8. Taulupe Faletau

Replacements:

16. Ken Owens
17. Gethin Jenkins
18. Tomas Francis
19. Bradley Davies
20. Dan Lydiate
21. Lloyd Williams
22. Rhys Priestland
23. Alex Cuthbert

Referee: Jerome Garces

Kick-off: 3pm, RTE 2

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From a South African farm to captaining Munster: The rise of CJ Stander

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Sean Farrell

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