Fabien Galthié raised a philosophical point ahead of the Guinness Six Nations – do you defend a title or challenge for a new one?
It was an interesting question, and one that Les Bleus will consider ahead of their bid to back up their Grand Slam in 2022 with another crown.
Since Italy joined the Championship in 2000, teams have gone back-to-back on five occasions: England (00-01, 16-17), France (06-07), Wales (12-13) and Ireland (14-15).
No team in the Six Nations era has ever managed back-to-back Grand Slams, with England coming closest in Eddie Jones’ first two campaigns in charge, when they won nine in a row before losing in Dublin as they tried to clinch a second successive Slam.
So as France prepare to embark on the defence of their crown or their tilt at another title, what does it take to defend the Guinness Six Nations?
We spoke to players from the three most recent teams to have achieved it:
England scrum-half Danny Care, who won the Grand Slam in 2016 and followed it up with a second title in 2017. England’s success came under Eddie Jones, who won his first 13 matches in charge leading into the 2017 Championship, including that first clean sweep.
Ireland hooker Rory Best, who won the Championship in 2014, finishing with Brian O’Driscoll’s final international match in a victory in Paris, followed by the 2015 title, won on points difference from England and Wales on the most dramatic Super Saturday of all. Best was also part of the Ireland team in 2018 that won the Grand Slam but then faltered in 2019.
Wales centre Jamie Roberts, who won the Grand Slam in 2012, and then followed it up with a Championship win in 2013 when they beat England 30-3 in their final game to not only deny England the Slam, but also to take the title from under their noses. Wales came into the Championship having not won a game since their slam, losing three times in Australia and four more in the autumn.
Talk us through the build-up to that second campaign?
Danny Care: “We felt on top of the world. It was our strapline, and (captain) Dylan Hartley set the tone early, it was ‘back-to-back’.
“We wanted back-to-back slams. Anything other than back-to-back slams, we said wasn’t good enough, which is mad when you think about it. Nobody has ever done it!
“We wanted to make history. It’s amazing to have that as a target but then when we didn’t do it and it was the final game, you think ‘Oh, that would have been cool’. It kind of takes away the feeling of how special it is to win a Six Nations anyway. It’s so hard to win one, but it’s so much harder to win a Slam.”
Rory Best: “We came into that second campaign in a World Cup year.
“We were looking at it from the perspective that we had won the Championship the year before, we felt we were really strong. We knew we had England and France at home which is always beneficial for Ireland teams. We wanted to go one better and win a Grand Slam after winning the Championship the year before in Paris in Brian O’Driscoll’s last game. We felt we were really well set-up to do it. That was our big driver.
“It was World Cup year and we knew we had France and Italy in our group, so it was the chance to lay down a marker for when we met later in the year. There were psychological points to be won.”
Jamie Roberts: “What stands out to me is that 12 months epitomises the highs and lows of sport. We won the Slam in 2012 off the back of a heart-breaking, single-point loss in the World Cup semi-final against France.
“We then lost eight games on the bounce. On a personal note, after winning, you are probably at your most vulnerable. We toured Australia and lost all three Tests by a collective 11 points. We lost all four games at home in November. It was brutal.
“We went into the Six Nations with confidence at an all-time low. Ten months previous we had won the Grand Slam. Gats (Warren Gatland) was away with the Lions, so he didn’t coach us, Rob Howley was in charge. First up against Ireland, we got tanked at home. I think we scored a couple of late tries to make the scoreline a bit closer but we were awful.”
What motivates you when you have already won a title?
Rory Best: “When I look at it, the big difference between 2015 and when we got the Grand Slam in 2018, it’s very hard to shift your mindset to go and achieve something bigger. In 2018, we probably tried to copy the winning formula from the year before. If you don’t quite hit those little highs, then you start to ask if you’re ready.
“In 2015, we weren’t looking at the year before and trying to track that because it would be good enough because we knew it wasn’t. That is the big difference when I look at defending 14 to 15 and then 2018 and not defending. You are looking to tick off those little landmarks along the way.”
Jamie Roberts: “We were just focused on winning a game after what had happened. There was loads of pressure, it comes on you pretty quick when things don’t go well.”
What are your memories of winning two in a row?
Danny Care: “It’s a strange old tournament, I don’t begrudge the two other ones we won but the slam in 2016 is one of the best memories ever.
“The feeling we all had in 2016 was incredible because of the painful memories a lot of us had from previous campaigns. To not do it the following year was hard to take, but when you sit back and have a beer with the lads, you think, fair play, we still won the tournament. But it’s happened to me a couple of times where we’ve won the Six Nations and lost the final game and it almost doesn’t feel right.”
Rory Best: “Probably one of the things we looked at afterwards was Jamie Heaslip stopped Stuart Hogg scoring a try late on. That turned out to be massive. We were watching this outrageous England game, thinking ‘Thank God England have decided not to defend today because they have scored enough points to win two Championships’.
“In the end, Rory Kockott kicked the ball off the pitch, we couldn’t believe it. Going out to lift that trophy at Murrayfield was outrageous. We had a lightshow on top of us. All the Ireland fans stayed in that near stand, and instead of it being a dead stadium, I don’t know how many Irish supporters were there but it felt like a lot, it felt like at least 10,000. It was brilliant.”
Jamie Roberts: “That England game, I’m not sure Cardiff has seen a greater day since. It had all the ingredients. England coming down the M4 going for the Slam. I remember coming down for breakfast at the Vale and looked around at the boys just relaxed, it was a game we were never going to lose.
“As a proud Cardiff boy, I wouldn’t be caught dead walking around the city if England had won the Slam at the Principality. I experienced it in 09 against Ireland and I vowed it wouldn’t happen again. It was such a special day.
“We would have been pretty happy if we had won the game, but to win it by 27 points was unreal. It was one of the best attacking performances I can remember with Wales. A lot of credit has to go to Howlers (Rob Howley). I think as a coaching group without Warren, it shows how well they adapted. It was special.”
What emerges from all three players is that context is everything. Finding the right motivation to keep striving for better. It is almost certainly why Galthié was keen to avoid talking about defending a title. If your ambition is to emulate what you have already achieved, it is impossible not to fall back to past performance.
In England’s case, the driver was that possibility of making history with back-to-back Grand Slams. For Ireland, there was unfinished business, and Wales just needed any sort of win.
In 2023, France have the same chance of history as that England side, as well as a home World Cup at the end of the year.
It is up to Galthié and his coaches to keep driving his players forwards to match those five previous champion sides, and maybe go one better.