A Glorious Celebration Of Ancient Rivalries

Cornish Piskie

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If there is one non-football related tournament that I have found many football fans like to enjoy..... or at least celebrate England doing well in.... it's the Six Nations Rugby Tournament that starts tomorrow. As one person I used to work with told me, "I like to watch it because it's the only tournament that England are certain to beat Italy in."

For some rugby fans, to conflate the Calcutta Cup with the Battle of Bannockburn, or to view “Le Crunch” as a re-enactment of Agincourt is to recognise that the Six Nations is a competition steeped not only in its own 135+ year history, but centuries old enmities, rekindled by the oval ball.

Close your eyes and imagine some of the images the tournament had conjured up in years gone by: The smouldering figure of Martin Johnson framed by a penumbra of steam; the glowering Doddie Weir with his ears taped back, or Sebastian Chabal providing almost cast-iron proof that Neanderthal man didn’t entirely die out.

The surge of winter passion the Six Nations engenders resides as much in the love of rugby as the ambience it engenders. This concoction of home nations rivalries, spiced up with Celtic fervour, Gallic flair and a splash of Latin exoticism expresses less a European union, than the elemental fury of a tribal past.

Hear Men of Harlech thundering around the Principality Stadium and you can almost see Owen Glyndwr leading his murderous hordes across Offa’s Dyke. Hear the first strains of La Marseillase on a crisp February afternoon in Saint Denis and the Stade de France becomes a crucible of revolutionary fervour. The call to arms... “Aux armies citoyens” and as the French pack lines up, “Formez vos battalions” is the challenge, especially if there is a Grand Slam at stake.

Perhaps some of the truest gauges of the competition’s popularity come from those outside the fray. Former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said “You can have 40’000 Englishmen travelling to a match in Rome and only 10’000 of them are likely to have match tickets. The fact is, every country is so close to all the others that every match is a derby. There’s nothing more evocative than arriving for a match against Scotland than seeing the pipers playing, lined along the roof of Murrayfield Stadium. The Six Nations is unique. I love it.”

If this is the reaction of one excited Kiwi, imagine the intensity of emotion harboured by the combatants. All those memories of David Sole, quietly but with menace aforethought, leading the Scots out for their epoch-defining confrontation with England at Murrayfield in 1991, or of Brian Moore, England’s pitbull, savaging the French front row almost singlehandedly at the Parc.

Even the play assumes its own idiosyncratic character in a Six Nations setting. Fierce. Visceral. Socks-round-the-ankles commitment exemplified by Brian O'Driscoll, and a degree of chaotic abandonment that can produce highly unpredictable results. All that you think you know about rugby disappears among the crackling, stomach-clenching tensions of the day.

For the travelling fans there is the social ritual. Pub crawls through the Joycean hostelries of Dublin and Eurostar weekends to the bars and cafes of Paris. The BBQ atmosphere of Twickenham’s grassy car parks or a trip across the Alps to Rome, closer to the social delights of the city centre now, since the move to the Olympic Stadium from the charmingly quaint, but out-of-town Stadio Flaminho.

All the romance of this cross-continental carnival is mercifully preserved by the absence of excessive commercial gimmickry. Rugby fans are basically easy to please. Give them beer, food and a place to talk and sing and laugh and banter and who needs contrived atmosphere? They’ll create the real thing for themselves.

However you choose to enjoy the engagements, a compartment of your mind will doubtless return to the iconic images and sounds of the past. The Grandstand theme, for example, or a recollection of the late Bill McLaren wrapping his mellifluous Hawick vowels around another eulogy to the positional kicking of Gregor Townsend. British sports’ greatest ever commentator is so sadly missed.

This tint of sepia should never be lost. The Six Nations’ distinction as the solitary showpiece where, for example, 30’000 Scots can decamp to London for a weekend’s drinking and be welcomed by the Capital's populace, or those fabled Cardiff thoroughfares of Grafton Street and Princes Street, bedecked for days beforehand with red and white and dragon emblems, sharpens a beguiling sense of intense but friendly rivalry. Gavin Hastings said “I love the sheer brilliance of meeting up with old mates. The social side is immense.”

The southern hemisphere has nothing like it. Whilst their Rugby Championship arguably exhibits a higher standard of play, it is far harder for an Aucklander to flit over to Johannesburg or Buenos Aires than it is for an Englishman to sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in a Roman trattoria.

For all its raucousness, civility pervades. Any indulgence takes place firmly within rugby’s characteristic strictures of fandom. The fans police themselves conscientiously and considerately of local populations and if Englishmen smilingly taunt Scots wearing kilts and sporrans, they will still enjoy a friendly pint (or three) with them in the bars after the game.

80 minutes of blood and thunder give way naturally to handshakes and back slapping bonhomie, applause and commiseration. Whilst such honours as Triple Crowns, Grand Slams and Calcutta Cups bestow precious cachet, it is not the done thing to gloat. As Churchill once said, “Rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.”

The Six Nations remains a symphony in primary colours, a profusion of red, green and blue illuminating the chill of a northern European midwinter. It makes the bleaker days of winter worth going out into.

The tournament always starts in early February’s icy grip and ends when we’re getting ready to put the clocks forward. It is our blessed bridge to the promise of Spring.

I love it. Bring it on.
 
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