The Six Nations rugby tournament is one of the great sporting contests. In the dark, cold days of winter and early spring it gives us something to look forward to. The anticipation rises: most years there is no clear favourite, so every country – except Italy – can fantasise about emerging triumphant in March, as the seasons shift and renewal is upon us.
Legends abound of great drinking feats, of fellow feeling, a shared love of the contest, mutual respect, amongst those who attend the matches. Especially those who travel away. I’ve never done that, but I buy into the legend. It bears out what I see at Quins every time. Rivalries for sure, but respect and tolerance for the other side. Banter rather than violence. And a lot of beer!
Compare and contrast with the football, which I love even more, but also despair about. The greed, the hate, and the recent resurgence of racism. It’s awful. I’m steering clear of the debate on the latter on this blog. I’m in feelgood mode when I write. I’ll leave it to others to put the world’s ills to right. I remember bananas being thrown onto pitches as recently as the eighties. I thought things had changed. But some of the stuff on Twitter says no, it hasn’t at all. Football can’t cure society’s problems, but it could have a go at not making them worse. Fine hope. The way things are going at the moment, mostly because of the money, but also because everything is just so hyped, football will eat itself. Somewhere along the line, Michel Platini at UEFA, with his fairplay rules, is probably the saviour. Unless the big money teams crush him – and they might.
The rugby in this context is a retreat to decency and dignity. Notwithstanding the brutality of the game at times. On the whole, the limits are understood, and off the pitch, there is mutual respect, amongst teams and fans alike. OK, in the Six Nations, everyone else likes to see England lose. And sometimes that doesn’t feel good. But it’s part of the game. Rooted in the history of the UK and Europe. We can deal with it. Hopefully by winning!
So who will win the Six Nations this year? My money is on Ireland. They’ve blown it a few times in recent years, but their line up is so strong, even with the great Brian O’Driscoll injured. In the Heineken Cup, the truest test of Northern hemisphere rugby, the Irish teams, Leinster, Munster, Ulster, have been awesome. And the bulk of the Ireland team comes from those three teams. They know each other. They should gel and blow everyone away. Look at the back row: Ferris, O’Brien, Heaslip. Frightening. Unstoppable?
The French just beg the cliches. The most talent, the biggest enigma. Which team will turn up on the day, etc, etc. Well, they almost won the World Cup even when at each other’s throats. So if they stay switched on, they’ll be favourites to win the tournament. But I think there will be a couple of teams – maybe England one of them – that get under their skins and rattle them. Flawed geniuses, as ever.
The Welsh had a good World Cup, with some very good young players coming through. Without that Warburton sending off who knows what would have happened. Maybe they will sweep all before them, but they have a few key injuries at the moment and the brilliant Shane Williams has retired. Might be a “transitional” tournament for them – again.
Scotland I don’t have much of an opinion about. Brilliant scrappers at the breakdown, rubbish at finishing things off. Same for years. Will it be different this time? Edinburgh’s achievements in the Heineken Cup suggest things are getting better. We’ll see. First up, Calcutta Cup vs England at Murrayfield. Could be spicy!
Italy. Last. Again. No offence. Just the natural order except when Scotland have a stinker and vie for the wooden spoon. I wouldn’t expect that this time.
And so to England! Massive overhaul since the disastrous World Cup. Some young players brought through and some experienced hands who haven’t had the chance before. I’m excited by the Saracens midfield of Hodgson, Farrell and Barritt. And David Strettle back on the wing. As long as Charlie H doesn’t flake it again. And of course I’m so pleased for the magnificent Chris Robshaw of Harlequins, captaining England in only his second appearance. He will lead from the front. That spirit will be key to victory against the Scots.
It’s really hard to say how this England team will do. I think we will see a strong spirit and some adventure. But will it be enough against the more seasoned campaigners of Ireland, France and Wales? All of whom were forged in the furnace of the World Cup? So hard to say. I think they’ll do well, but maybe not enough this time around to win it. Maybe next year, with the added international experience.
So scores on the doors, George Dawes…
This is how I think it might end up. Bound to be wrong, but let’s see come March.
1st – Ireland
2nd – France
3rd – England
4th – Wales
5th – Scotland
6th – Italy