Six Nations rugby contest a unique pleasure

Magnifique: the fans make the Six Nations unique. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Magnifique: the fans make the Six Nations unique. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THE prospect of shifting the Six Nations in the calendar reared its head recently, as it seems to every few years. There is some merit in the idea. If the Six Nations is the pinnacle of European rugby’s pyramid should it not star at the back end of the northern-hemisphere season, just before the curtain falls?

“Move the Six Nations.... my arse,” said John Feehan, the Irish chief executive of the umbrella organisation, when the idea was put to him by an English journalist. Those weren’t his exact words, you understand, but they capture the sentiment expressed pretty well. By way of justification Feehan pointed out the following salient facts about Europe’s premier tournament.

Over a four-year, 60-match period the Six Nations Championship raises something in the region of £1.2 billion in revenues, which equates to about £300 million every single season, which (almost) makes it an annual World Cup, only there are just 15 matches rather than the 48 of the World Cup. And the European nations don’t have to give World Rugby a giant bung every year.

In an era of sporadic interest in live sport, the Six Nations average attendance is 72,000, with the vast majority of empty seats from ticket-holders who could not make it on the day. The grounds operate at 98.5 per cent capacity and ticket touts, invariably gobby Essex geezers, do good business outside pretty much every venue. Even Italy, who used to struggle to fill the old Stadio Flaminio (32,000 capacity), now have them packed into Rome’s Stadio Olimpico (70,000). Heaven knows where they could play if the team actually won a few matches. The tournament is broadcast in 170 nations and another 40-odd take an online feed.

In an era when huge numbers of channels are being viewed on a multitude of devices, the Six Nations still draws record viewing figures of 15 million in the UK, Ireland and Italy, not counting the millions more in France. There are reckoned to be another five million in the UK alone who watch the action online via the BBC’s iPlayer. Feehan did not reveal how many fans across the planet hooked up to an illegal feed but we can safely presume hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more.

The Six Nations is the glue that holds together rugby in the north, the oil that ensures the big wheels turn and the golden goose that funds the entire shindig because without those annual eggs of income the European game would quickly be bankrupt. It may not always produce the best rugby in the world but it is improving and more teams are playing more enterprising rugby than ever before.

The gap between the northern and southern hemispheres looks to be narrowing. Wales and Ireland beat South Africa in November, France, England and Ireland beat Australia, Scotland and Wales clung on to the All Blacks’ shirt tails for an hour.

Whatever the state of the rugby, the tournament boasts history stretching back more than a century and, perhaps above all else, it has thousands of travelling supporters who add colour, money and character. It is they who lend the tournament its unique atmosphere. It doesn’t happen elsewhere. It’s inconceivable to travel from Cape Town to Wellington or from Sydney to Buenos Aires for a long weekend.

In the Six Nations fans mingle with opposition fans and exchange pleasantries, banter and the occasional surreptitious swig from a hip flask. There was a shriek of protest when it was even hinted that they might be segregated at some point in the near future.

On the playing side, England, Wales and Ireland forge ahead, as strong as they have ever been, or close to it in England’s case. Scotland are improving, albeit from a lowly base, and they still have work to do.

France and Italy are currently becalmed in international rugby’s equivalent of the Horse Latitudes. These two nations need to improve but Italy are proof of how difficult it is to grow the game from the top down and France’s national team are hindered by the all-encompassing hegemony of its fantastically wealthy Top 14 league.

Most French fans would prefer to see their Top 14 club lift the Bouclier de Brennus than witness Les Bleus triumph in the Championship, which is just one reason they rarely do.

For all the familiarity that comes with annual competition the tournament retains an element of the unpredictable and while Italy have yet to beat England, it will happen one day, and probably when least expected.

This season the competition is given added spice by the World Cup that pitches England and Wales into Pool A and, let’s not forget, also throws France, Ireland and Italy together in Pool D. There are psychological edges to be won and lost as well as points and bragging rights.

But for the next seven weeks of competition all the focus will be centred solely on the tournament that was pointedly tagged: “Rugby’s Greatest Championship”. Which is just as it should be. ✱