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Why Is The Six Nations So Important?

For centuries, the end of winter was marked by the four nations of Britain going to war with each other and/or with the French. The Six Nations is basically a continuation of that tradition, but with slightly less violence. It is more than the most prestigious rugby championship in the Northern Hemisphere. It speaks to the collective psyche of most of the nations involved. You do not have to be a rugby fan to appreciate it. Indeed, many of the people who follow it have never been to another rugby match.

How Does It Work?

It began as the Home Nations Championship, between England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. France was later added to make it the Five Nations, and more recently Italy to make it the Six Nations. Every country plays every other country once, alternating between home and away. The Champions are the team who wins the most games, with total point differential now deciding any draw. A team that defeats all the other teams is said to have won the Grand Slam. A Home Nation that beats all the other three Home Nations wins
the Triple Crown – in fact a rather garish plate, not an actual crown. The team that come bottom gets the Wooden Spoon – again not an actual spoon. A team used to have to lose all its games to get the Spoon, but that is now termed a Whitewash. This is the sort of pedantic point that separates old-school fans from people who get their tickets as corporate hospitality.

What Do I Need To Know About The Teams?

The Championship is wide open this year. Wales are the holders – indeed Grand Slam winners for the third time in a decade – but the erratic Welsh fared poorly against touring sides from the Southern Hemisphere in the autumn. Individual talent still matters, but since rugby union went professional, the decisive factors are money, fitness, bulk, and whether a country has a talent pool deep enough to find useable reserves for all key positions. More than ever, big is beautiful in international rugby.

ENGLAND

Traditionally the team to beat, and the favourites this year. Well-financed, with considerable strength in depth, but perennial management problems, the English are on a high after a famous victory over the mighty Kiwis. They are still generally viewed, even by their own supporters, as the most boring team in the world.

FRANCE

Possibly England’s only serious rivals at the moment, and their mirror opposites. The French are famed for innovative high-risk play that can be great to watch – use the expression ‘Gallic flair’ – but only when they are in the right mood.

IRELAND

A tough, unpredictable team, combining some of the strengths and weaknesses of the French – use the expression ‘Celtic flair’ – with old-fashioned Hibernian aggression. Given the chance, remark casually that Ireland’s strong provincial teams have coped well with professionalisation. The Irish are always the dark horses of the Championship, a good outside bet.

WALES

A small nation, in terms of population, wealth and average height, which nevertheless built a great reputation on the basis of passion for the amateur game, but which has lacked the cash to adapt to new commercial realities.

SCOTLAND

Had a great rugby tradition, especially in the south, but the grand old clubs did not have the resources to cope when the game went professional. Now a second division rugby power, the Scots can still surprise much stronger teams when they suddenly decide to re-enact Braveheart.

ITALY

Their inclusion remains controversial. For years their international sides seemed to rely on rounding up any Australian backpackers passing through the tourist sites and offering them a game. However, a win over Italy can no longer be taken for granted. Point out that France were similarly weak when first admitted to the Championship – it took them 43 years to win it – but they are now a rugby superpower.

Who Are The Names To Drop?

The Irish squad includes legends like centre Brian O’Driscoll, lock Donncha O’Callaghan, and fly-half Ronan O’Gara, but the last is giving way to the younger Jonathan Sexton.

French talent includes prop Nicolas Mas, scrum-half Morgan Parra, veteran wing-threequarter Vincent Clerc, and an enviable choice at fly-half, Frederic Michalak and Francois Trinh-Duc.

In a relatively young England side, the big question is whether precocious Owen Farrell will secure the fly-half position from Toby Flood.

Props Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones are the most easily-recognised of the Wales squad – they look as if they were genetically engineered to be Welsh forwards – but the Welsh have high hopes for their young backs, especially the gigantic wing-threequarter George North.

Italy’s one great player is captain Sergio Parisse, andwing-threequarter Sean Lamont is probably the best-known Scot.

What Do I Do If Offered A Ticket?

Go – it is a great experience, even if you do not understand what is going on. Do not wear team colours or rugby shirts – strictly for the kids and the day trippers. Regular spectators are the ones wrapped up warm in thick, practical clothes.

Carry a hip flask. There is no problem with alcohol at rugby matches – indeed it is practically compulsory. There is no such thing as rugby hooliganism: in rugby, thuggery is
where it belongs – on the pitch.

Although it was not always so, women are now definitely most welcome – and children are positively encouraged, but be aware that the atmosphere can be a bit…adult. They are not called ‘rugby songs’ and ‘rugby jokes’ for nothing.

Do not worry about not knowing all the rules – no one else does and they keep changing them. Just nod sagely whenever anyone shouts ‘The bloody ref must be blind’ and you will fit right in.

Maximum Bluffing Value

Complain incessantly about the uselessness of the team you are meant to be supporting, even – especially – when they are winning handsomely. This is the mark of the true rugby fan. Say that they have a pool of great natural talent but are being held back by
unimaginative selection, inadequate fitness training, poor coaching, out-of-date management, internal politics, and the fabled ‘old men in blazers’. Whatever you say along these lines will find a ready audience, and might even be true.

Do say: ‘All this defensive play is counter-productive – a fast, open running game means risk, but it’s also the way to get points on the board.’

Don’t say: ‘I miss Jonny Wilkinson.’

John Winterson Richards

 

 

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