From its inception in 1822 to receiving roughly 8.5 million viewers every game, the Six Nations Championship has steadily become the oldest and most anticipated rugby union competition in Europe.
Transitioning from a British-only tournament to seeing England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France, and Italy cemented as the Six Nations taking part, the competition has witnessed many changes over the years as the governing bodies have attempted to grow rugby union on the national stage.
But why are France and Italy in the Six Nations? And how did the competition initially begin?
Six Nations History
The Six Nations Championships – or most accurately its predecessor – is the oldest rugby championship in the world, dating back to 1882 when the original four teams playing were England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.
A competition full of excitement and anticipation, the Six Nations has never seen a live crowd of fewer than 24,973 people as some of the greatest rugby nations in the world compete in the elite-level championships.
Scotland, Ireland, and Wales have competed in all 127 tournaments since its inception while England has competed in 125. England is the most successful country with 29 outright title wins, clinching 39 trophies altogether as teams used to share the spoils if the sides finished the competition tied.
This all changed in 1994 when the official ruling was changed, now points difference decides any ties alongside if teams are still tying on both match points and points difference, the team that scored the most tries wins the championship.
Home Nations Championship
The Home Nations Championship was the original national competition in rugby between the then-four nations of the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland).
With the inaugural series taking place in 1883, the Home Nations Championship lasted until 1983, France soon joined the championship to form the Five Nations Championship marking the official end of the Home Nations era.
Since then, the competition has blossomed over the years and became its current format as the Six Nations following the introduction of Italy in 2000.
Five Nations Championship
The Five Nations Championship consisted of England, France, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales with the first series taking place in 1910. Transitioning from the Home Nations Championship after the inclusion of France, the Five Nations lasted ten matches that were played between the 1st of January – the 28th of March.
Wales has won the Five Nations Championship the most times with an impressive 40 titles, this is a combination of 28 outright won titles and 12 shared. Interestingly, England has won the most outright Five Nations titles with 29.
When Did France and Italy Join the Six Nations?
France officially joined the Six Nations Championships in 1910 whereas Italy joined much later in 2000. This ended the original Home Nations Championships which consisted of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.
With France joining the championships, the title of the competition was changed to the Five Nations Championships. England and France dominated the Five Nations, causing many to question the quality of the competition. Italy was included in an attempt to raise the legitimacy of the tournament as the Azzuri were considered to be a strong side at the time, further helping raise the standard of the competition.
Why Did France Join the Six Nations?
France initially joined the championships in 1910 to challenge the top rugby teams in Europe whilst cementing itself as a credible rugby nation.
French players were also given the chance to compete on the grandest and oldest rugby platform at the time further enticing sides to join the Home Nations Championships.
After World War I suspended the tournament between 1915-1919, the competition’s format lasted for 12 years before brutality on the pitch and alleged professionalism resulted in France’s exclusion from the championship.
France was once again admitted to the championships in 1939 as a result of a successful agreement driven by the French Rugby Federation. France joined the tournament once again in 1942, recreating the Five Nations however, World War II forced the tournament to pause until 1947.
Why Did Italy Join the Six Nations?
Similar to France, Italy joined the Five Nations Championships in 2000 to challenge the top nations in Europe whilst cementing Italy as a credible force in the rugby world.
At the time, Italy was seen as a strong up-and-coming side with the potential to add further quality to a Five Nations that was being dominated by England and France. The inclusion of Italy also made sense as the national team was making huge progress and Italy seemed ready to join the five big European powerhouses.
To this day, England is the nation with the most titles 39 wins while France sits in third position with 256 wins. Unfortunately, Italy has never won this tournament.
Will the Six Nations Expand?
As a sport with arguably the second most popular events in Europe behind it, an expansion for the Six Nations could certainly be possible in the coming years as more countries look to compete at the top level.
South Africa has been strongly linked with joining the championships to create a Seven Nations competition, if the Springboks were to join, it would increase the value of the television rights for the tournament and improve the standard of an already elite competition level. The standard of the Six Nations is already plain to see as only Italy and Scotland have failed to win the Six Nations title in this era.
Another possibility for the championships could be the use of annual promotion/relegation play-offs that could allow lower-ranked nations the chance to challenge the world’s best. This type of competition would follow the standard set by football where second-tier countries such as Georgia and Romania could potentially end up facing Wales, Ireland, or South Africa.
Not only would this provide the sport with a fresh breath of potential matches but it would also allow the world to see the international players on the biggest stage in the sport, further fueling the excitement for rugby.
Who Might Be the Seventh Nation?
South Africa has long been considered the next logical team to join the championships if the sport’s federation decided to create a Seven Nations Championships.
In this case, the Springboks would likely become the seventh team instead of replacing the Italy side that has struggled to make an impact since its introduction in 2000. Currently competing in the Rugby Championship against Australia, Argentina, and New Zealand, South Africa could see their place taken by Japan in the Southern hemisphere tournament if they decided to join the Seven Nations.
It is also believed that the transition to the Seven Nations would suit the Springboks more as they would face countries closer to their time zone making kick-off times more attractive for the South African audience.