It’s a curious anomaly that occurs during every Six Nations – teams and fans talking up their opponents. But what is the thinking behind it?

The race to become Six Nations underdogs

LET’S GET this one tucked away early. In 2022 only Italy can be described as true Six Nations ‘underdogs’. Seven years without a win in this fabled competition, the world as one sits in waiting for their next victory. It would not knock the world off its axis if any of the others beat each other.

And yet every year, it feels like five powers jockey for a position behind their next rival in the great expectation stakes. Before the Calcutta Cup showdown this year, England boss Eddie Jones called Scotland “red-hot favourites” – a move similar to those he used against the same opponents in 2016 and 2019.

And before France welcome Ireland in round two, les Bleus defence coach Shaun Edwards told The Ruck podcast of the visitors, “I think we’re playing against the form team in world rugby at the moment.”

It may not be a conscious choice by every key figure, but it’s a familiar sound. And fans cannot help but get involved. So why is it so attractive to be seen as the side up against it?

Former international cricketer Jeremy Snape, who hosts the Inside the Mind of Champions podcast and who has advised Eddie Jones, wrote of this phenomenon in broader terms: “These emotive stories of underdog success provide hope for us all. To dream, to fight to the very end and to overcome our most feared adversaries. But how do these fables become fact, how does the scoreboard end with such an unexpected result?

Six Nations Italy v England Preview

Italy are true Six Nations underdogs (Getty Images)

“When a team has nothing to lose they are a dangerous enemy. Unshackled from the burden of expectation they can play freely, creatively, even chaotically at times. This is an exciting place where you can break out of the shadows and harness that most powerful of motivators – proving people wrong.

“Contrast this with the favourites with their polished moves, their failsafe systems and their clinical precision. They have superstars who we expect to deliver, they have all the resources and no excuse. Being part of this dominant team is what we all dream of, but with this lofty expectation comes fear. The fear of failure and of falling, hard and fast.

“There is no worse feeling as a sportsman than being expected to win and experiencing that vice-like grip of tension as you ‘choke’. This is a fear worse than losing a game. It’s losing your reputation. So with this negative voice chirping away in the champion’s mind, the underdog has a chance to seize this moment of hesitation and win.”

Related: Momentum in the Six Nations – is it real?

The added layer to this – and one we can hear and read about soon after a Test ends – is one of coming up against some sort of bias, block or injustice. How good must it feel to triumph when there is so much stacked against us or the team who we rarely expect much from?

In a University of South Florida paper, entitled The Appeal of the Underdog (2007), Joseph A Vandello et al wrote: “If the desired outcome is to see an underdog prevail, we should be motivated to see underdogs’ actions positively – for example, attributing greater effort, tenacity or ‘heart’ to an entity perceived to be at a competitive disadvantage.”

So talking up the powers of opposition sides could well make any victory seem all the harder earned. And if the team who is vastly under-resourced (in terms of finances and/or, importantly, with playing personnel in our eyes) then that, my friends, is a story. 

But let’s go back to what Snape says of fear and pressure to deliver. It could well be that some are motivated to label others the favourites or the better side, in order to safeguard stars. 

“I’ve been doing a little bit of research around what we call ‘irrational performance beliefs’,” says Dr Darren Britton, a sports psychologist who teaches at Solent University. “There’s a real groundswell into the effect attitudes towards performance have on emotional responses to pressure as well as performance. 

“Think about when teams get given the favourite tag by another side. You often hear phrases go round about ‘should win’. Now, a phrase like that is kind of indicative of an irrational performance belief, alongside beliefs like ‘we must win’ or ‘we have to win’. Those are quite rigid, dogmatic attitudes to performance. And we know that attitudes like this are associated with unhealthy emotional responses, like anxiety in response to pressure. 

England Six Nations Squad

England captain Tom Curry looks dejected (Getty Images)

“There’s research to suggest that the more a coach says ‘it’s a must-win game’, the more it provokes an anxiety response in players, versus using more rational and less dogmatic language, like ‘we really want to win today’.

“You take that on to the logical next step and on and on and you are basically saying that performance in a game of rugby is akin to the other things in rugby that are must-have: like food, water, air. Take that to the Nth degree and think about how much pressure you are putting on the players by attributing performance on the field with life and death. It can only lead to unhealthy emotional responses and that’s not gonna help performance.”

So when some teams lob a favourite tag at the opposition, what can the intention be?

Britton responds: “It could be directed towards taking pressure off your own players. If you imagine a seesaw as a balance, on one side is pressure and on the other side is resources to cope with pressure. What a coach might be doing is to take weight off the pressure and then balance towards resources to take the pressure off, to perform better. And on the other hand they could be trying to add that pressure to the opposition. 

“You can imply that for the opposition, they should win, they must win, they have to win.”

Britton raises an interesting point about pressure. For him, all pressure is internal. He gives an example. If, say, your country’s fans are very vocally angry about the last result, Britton poses the question: Why would that be so bad for you? Ultimately, you want athletes to not build up dread about that in their heads. 

He does add that it can help develop a really strong social identity if you have that idea that it is us against the rest of the world. It might help the group define themselves, pull together, understand the need for hard work in the face of outside forces. It can also help calcify your group’s values. 

Have we seen the construction of colossal straw men to battle in the recent rugby past? Well, intriguingly, Eddie Jones’s England have also held workshops to predict a future slating. 

Related: Six Nations Analysis: Creating Chaos Through Ruck Speed

In his recent management book, Leadership, Jones wrote of 2021: “On the weekend before the game against Scotland, we used the concept of a pre-mortem. We all know that you carry out a post-mortem after something has gone wrong. But we chose to do a pre-mortem where we did a mock-up of the kind of headlines we would see in the Daily Mail if the game went wrong. “Rudderless England embarrassed by Scotland” was an example of the media flak we could expect if we failed to win.

“We had done a similar pre-mortem before we beat Ireland in 2019. Then, rather than using fictitious headlines, we did it with me verbalising the kind of media abuse we would cop if it all went wrong against the Irish. It’s not a new concept. But before the Scotland game I wanted the players themselves to work on this project rather than just listening to me.

“I wanted them to go away in groups, think about it, and come up with the answers as to how best we could avoid the fate of our pre-mortem prediction. All the research shows that, if they think about it themselves, rather than being told, the chances of them then owning and solving the problem will be much higher.

“Of course the pre-mortem turned out to be the truth. The only difference was that the long headline to the Daily Mail column by Sir Clive Woodward was far worse than we had predicted: “England’s dismal defeat to Scotland was the worst I have EVER seen us play given what was at stake… Eddie Jones’s men were bereft of ideas and it felt like a 30-point loss.” The Mail and Sir Clive are never slow to stir the pot, but this was a clear sign of the pundits’ and the media’s mood. They were out for blood.

fire near England hotel

Eddie Jones’s team has been hit with disruptions (Getty Images)

“The pre-mortem did not cause the result and I will use it again in different circumstances. You always need to review every possible outcome because, even when you’re flying, no project is ever complete. You are always moving – either out of conflict or back into conflict. At the time of the Scotland game we were trying to move out of a conflict zone.”

To interrogate this, you could point to an element of ‘what-if’ planning, or desensitising players to headlines, or at the creation of a ‘siege mentality’. Or it could be none of the above. A possible downside of such an approach, Britton tells us, is if what is written or said publicly about the players is ever used as some sort of performance indicator. 

Dr Daniel Lock is from Bournemouth University and his research background is in social identity dynamics as they apply to sports consumption. In his work he has looked at how spectators use the teams they identify with to understand the sporting landscape. 

Initially, he says, we are talking about how coaches try to construct expectations of their side in the public eye, as well as of their opponents. It’s a recognisable tactic within sport. 

But a second element is interesting. How do we – the public at large – relate to underdogs? 

Marketing the concept has some angles to it. There is not a Six Nations broadcaster who would pass up covering the first time Italy beat England. And there’s a reason so many sports movies are about the underdog triumphing against the odds. Maybe it is a tool that could help sell the sport as a whole, if you are lucky enough to catch lightning striking.

Scotland Six Nations Squad

Scotland fans celebrate the Calcutta Cup victory (Getty Images)

Lock tells us: “Think about the notion of the underdog in our culture. Think ‘Rocky’. There’s a kind of cultural position on underdogs and what they are. The second thing is, if you take the pure underdog, so you’ve got no vested interest. One team is expected to win, the other isn’t. That’s the context. When you’ve got no skin in the game, who do you support?”

There is a hope for some form of justice here, of wanting to level the playing field because one team is perceived to be so far behind. But there’s more, as Lock adds: “There’s also the idea around excitement. The underdog beating the dominant team is unexpected, it’s more exciting. And so there’s a third thing, if you talk in a purely marketing sense. 

“Why is the idea of the underdog compelling? Because it’s a story and people can get on board with stories. We know that there’s a lot of evidence that the best teams in competitions will have more spectators on average, they’ll have bigger media audiences on average, and so on and so forth. People bask in the reflective glory. So successful teams by and large market themselves. With a pure underdog effect, a big part of it is story. 

“Some teams use (sporting) ‘tragedy’ as a narrative to sell to people. Boston Red Sox is one of the better examples of that (having previously not won for so long and tales of a ‘curse’). A history of not winning can be a powerful narrative for people to get on board with.”  

What we all bring into things is a mix of historical knowledge – who has traditionally struggled and who triumphs more often than not. So do we really see England as an underdog after one loss? We have a lot of years of watching them to inform our view on that. 

There’s also an interesting phenomenon called ‘retroactive pessimism’. We can imagine a fanbase quite confident, then a bad result comes and they say, ‘Oh, I never really expected them to win.’ You can imagine that at play all Six Nations long! But it is helpful to consider if we keep hold of recent losses in our memory and use them to gauge our interest or optimism of the next match, or to shape a prediction.

Rob Kearney

Rob Kearney changed the narrative (Inpho)

What is rare is for someone to hold their hands up and be the front-runner. In a recent Six Nations special podcast for The Times, France No 8 Grégory Alldritt said that after two years of finishing second, he was determined to win the whole thing. As one PR bod within the game told us, they could not wrap their head around wanting to be the underdog always – it didn’t do the All Blacks any harm to be favourites for all those years, did it?

Of course, Lock and Britton point out that what is said in the changing room can be very different to what is said in the public domain. 

Former Ireland full-back Rob Kearney summed this up neatly on the Stronger With Sports show, when he said: “I can tell you from the inside, we don’t like being underdogs, we don’t like being favourites. It doesn’t matter, we just expect to win on any given week.

“The narrative between the public, the media and everything that’s on the outside is very different to what’s on the inside.”

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