The Six Nations in a Rugby World Cup year
In November it will be 20 years since England became the only northern hemisphere team to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, becoming champions of the world as well as the best outfit in Europe.
To date, it is the only time the Five/Six Nations-Rugby World Cup double has ever been achieved, despite England having had four attempts, France two and Scotland, Ireland and Wales one apiece.
But with two European teams currently sitting at the top of the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini in Ireland and France, and a strong set of results in the July internationals and Autumn Nations Series, can the north strike back and add to that 2003 success?
Coming just seven months out from Rugby World Cup 2023, this year’s Six Nations will certainly take on extra significance in terms of squad selection and as a barometer of form, but it doesn’t always follow that way.
We take a look at how previous Five/Six Nations champions in Rugby World Cup years have fared at the subsequent showpiece tournament.
New Year = New #GuinnessSixNations! #Welcome2023 #HappyNewYear pic.twitter.com/lQPBRALtj3— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) January 1, 2023
1987 – France fall just short
Coach Jacques Fouroux led France to their fourth Six Nations Grand Slam.
Les Bleus didn’t always play to their best or with the style that Five Nations fans had become accustomed to, but they were deserving winners and had the title in the bag with a round to spare.
Reaching the final of the inaugural Rugby World Cup probably matched their expectations given their form leading into the tournament; however, it proved to be a game too far and the All Blacks were crowned world champions after a 29-9 win.
For most of the 1980s England were in disarray and 1987 was no exception. A bottom-of-the-table finish in the Five Nations was then followed by a tame quarter-final exit at the hands of Wales.
Wales, like England, only won a single Five Nations match that year but were the only team from the British Isles and Ireland to make a real impact at RWC 1987, winning the bronze medal. Third place is still their best finish to date.
Five Nations winners: France* (Runners-up)
1991 – England and another near miss
England waved good riddance to the 1980s and were a side transformed under the new axis of Geoff Cooke and Will Carling.
Adopting a power-based game with Rob Andrew providing a steady hand on the tiller at fly-half, England claimed their first Grand Slam since 1980.
With a home Rugby World Cup to look forward to, confidence was high that they could deliver the goods on two fronts; however, a change of tactics in the final of Rugby World Cup 1991 proved their undoing and it was Australia who were presented with the Webb Ellis Cup by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Wales and Ireland were only spared the ignominy of finishing the Five Nations without a point to their name after sharing the points in a dour 21-21 draw in Cardiff.
Deprived of many of their star names following the exodus north to Rugby League, Wales’ struggles in the Five Nations were matched at Rugby World Cup 1991 and they failed to make the knockout stages. The defeat to debutants Western Samoa ranks as one of the biggest shocks in the tournament’s history.
Ireland, meanwhile, came within a whisker of upsetting Australia and making the last four – something that has consistently proved beyond them ever since – only for Michael Lynagh to break their hearts in a rousing encounter at Lansdowne Road.
A middling display in the Five Nations from Scotland gave no indication that they would reach the semi-finals for the first and only time at a Rugby World Cup.
Five Nations winners: England* (Runners-up)
1995 – Lomu destroys England’s hopes
Any fears that the 1995 Five Nations would just be a sideshow to Rugby World Cup that June were cast aside as England swept all before them, and in some style.
A third Grand Slam in five years was just reward for their performances while Scotland deserved to take the runners-up spot following their historic win over France in Paris.
Both teams would come unstuck at the hands of New Zealand, and Jonah Lomu in particular, at Rugby World Cup 1995, exiting at the semi-final and quarter-final stages respectively.
How steep was the fall from Wales, from champions to a whitewash – only their second ever – in 12 months. A change of head coach on the eve of Rugby World Cup 1995 made no difference in South Africa either.
Ireland at least made the quarter-finals, while France fell to the hosts in the semi-finals.
Five Nations winners: England* (semi-finalists)
1999 – Home Unions comfort in short supply
For all the world it looked as though England would claim the last Five Nations title on offer before Italy’s entry into an extended Championship.
However, in a dramatic climax to the tournament, Scott Gibbs’ bullocking run and try for Wales at Wembley denied them and handed Scotland the honour instead.
In truth, Rugby World Cup 1999 was largely one to forget from a Home Unions’ perspective with England, Scotland and Wales all falling in the quarter-finals.
Ireland, second-from-bottom with France in the Five Nations, did not even get that far after being shocked by Argentina in the never-to-be-repeated quarter-final play-offs.
From winning just the one game in the final Five Nations, France were a side transformed come Rugby World Cup, reaching the final following an unbelievable quarter-final comeback against the All Blacks. Again, Les Bleus had to be content with the bridesmaids role as Australia ended the decade as they started it, by lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.
Five Nations winners: Scotland (quarter-finalists)
Delve into the vault & re-live England's famous 42-6 victory over Ireland in 2003 #tbt https://t.co/HW2YgQXZm1— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) February 26, 2015
2003 – From Dublin to ultimate glory
Having gone so close in 1999 England suffered two more Grand Slam near-misses in the first two years of the new Millennium and then came second to all-conquering France in 2002. By the time 2003 came around, Clive Woodward was under pressure to deliver success and this time his team did not fluff their lines.
Wins over France, Wales, Italy and Scotland meant, that for the fourth time in five years, England only had one hurdle in front of them – Ireland away – having fallen against Wales at Wembley in 1999, Scotland at Murrayfield in 2000 and Ireland in Dublin in 2001.
Returning to Dublin, England were understandably cagey in the winner-takes-all match, but their second-half performance was one of the best halves of rugby produced in the history of the Championship.
Buoyed by that 42-6 victory and back-to-back wins against New Zealand and Australia in June, England were understandably pre-tournament favourites at Rugby World Cup 2003.
While never really at their best as a team during the tournament, England’s formidable pack, the kicking of Jonny Wilkinson, and the wizardry of Jason Robinson helped them become history-makers, although Australia took them to extra-time in the final before the deal was done.
After their humbling at home to England, Ireland’s fortunes nosedived, and they went from Six Nations runners-up to bringing up the rear at Rugby World Cup.
All the Home Unions and France made the last eight but of all the performances, Ireland’s against Les Bleus was perhaps the most underwhelming.
Six Nations winners: England* (Winners)
2007 – Pumas take down Les Bleus
Ireland were being tipped as favourites for the Grand Slam, having played well during the November tests with a stellar squad that had matured well together. However, despite having started strongly with a win against Wales, they crucially lost to France 20-17 in an historic encounter at Croke Park.
In what was a highly competitive Championship, France went on to lose to England and going into the final day as many as four teams still had a mathematical chance of getting their hands on the trophy. However, in beating Scotland 46-19, France had done just enough in their final fixture to pip Ireland to the title on points difference.
Confidence was high that France could deliver more silverware at a home Rugby World Cup but while Les Bleus’ quarter-final win over New Zealand in Cardiff will live long in the memory, it was book-ended by shock defeats to Argentina in the tournament’s curtain-raiser and then in the bronze final..
Ireland’s inability to match Six Nations form at a Rugby World Cup continued as they, like Wales – who were victims of a shock pool defeat to Fiji – failed to make the last eight.
England, who finished third in the Six Nations, managed to reach their third final despite a 36-0 defeat to South Africa in the pool phase. The two teams met again in the Stade de France showpiece and the Springboks came out on top, albeit by a much narrower 15-6 margin.
Italy managed two wins in the Six Nations in 2007 for the first time since their introduction and that was reflected by a decent Rugby World Cup showing. An 18-16 defeat to Scotland saw them fall just short of making the knockout stages for the first time in history.
Six Nations winners: France (semi-finalists)
2011 – Wales go fourth and then prosper
England won the Championship with four wins out of five but were well beaten in their final fixture away to Ireland, which proved to be a portent of things to come.
Martin Johnson’s side never really got going at Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand and exited the tournament at the quarter-final stage after a limp display against France.
Six Nations runners-up France defied the odds – having lost to Tonga in the pool phase – to reach the final and pushed New Zealand all the way in losing 8-7.
For Wales, a semi-final appearance at Rugby World Cup 2011 was a good return following a fourth-place finish in the Six Nations.
Ireland missed out on the last four, again, after a 22-10 loss to Wales, while Scotland’s ever-present knockout record came to an end. It didn’t come as a massive surprise, though, after a Six Nations where they, along with Italy, won only one match.
Six Nations winners: England (quarter-finalists)
2015 – Same old story for Ireland
Following a remarkable final round of matches that brought a glut of tries, Ireland were crowned Six Nations champions on points difference from England and Wales.
With England having become the first host nation to fail to make it out of their pool, the northern hemisphere’s chances rested on the rest of the Six Nations countries.
And having successfully defended the trophy from the year before, Ireland were being talked up as serious Rugby World Cup contenders.
But having breezed through their pool to raise expectations further, Ireland’s interest in the tournament once again came to a premature end when they were heavily beaten in the quarter-finals by Argentina in Cardiff.
Wales and Scotland suffered agonisingly close defeats to South Africa and Australia, respectively, while France came second-best to a rampant New Zealand.
For the first time in Rugby World Cup history, none of the Six Nations teams had made the semi-finals.
Six Nations winners: Ireland (quarter-finalists)
2019 – Wales and England fall just short
With a campaign built on superb defence, Wales claimed their third Grand Slam in 11 years.
Averaging just two tries per game, Wales never scored more than 26 points in any of their fixtures with the most resounding win of the lot – 25-7 win against Ireland – coming in the final round. It was a fitting way to mark Warren Gatland’s 50th Six Nations match in charge as Wales head coach and took their record winning run to 14 matches. England came in second with three wins and a draw.
On the eve of Rugby World Cup 2019, Wales briefly went to the top of the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini only to be replaced by New Zealand and then Ireland and confidence was high that they could make their first final. To lose 19-16 in the semi-final, to eventual world champions South Africa, was no disgrace.
For Ireland, another Rugby World Cup opportunity passed them by. A shock pool defeat to Japan gave them an unfavourable draw with New Zealand in the quarter-finals and when the All Blacks raced into a 22-0 lead, there was only ever going to be one winner.
England’s breathtaking semi-final win over the All Blacks left them 80 minutes away from glory but like in the Six Nations, they came up just short.
Six Nations winners: Wales* (semi-finalists)
Overall record – Five/Six Nations champions/Rugby World Cup
Winners (England, 2003)
Runners-up (France 1987, England 1991)
Semi-finals (England 1995, France 2007, Wales 2019)
Quarter-finals (Scotland 1999, England 2011, Ireland 2015)
*denotes Grand Slam