This marks the start of the sport’s biggest year, with the Rugby World Cup hovering later in the calendar. Omens will be looked for; lines ready between to determine who will head into the World Cup with a bounce in their step fresh from their Six Nations exploits. But, for five weekends, forget the World Cup (and Brexit) and enjoy this unique smorgasbord of inter-European rivalry.
Mitchell ramped up the stakes ahead of England’s championship opener against Ireland by predicting Joe Schmidt’s side would try and “bore the s— out of us”. Of course, it was utter nonsense. Ireland’s tag as favourites is not due to boring the opposition into submission — they aren’t that person you know who answers everything with ‘uh huh’ — but because of their multi-layered, adaptable, risk-reward style of rugby which saw them last year win the Grand Slam and beat the All Blacks. Not a bad 2018 at all.
Schmidt’s Ireland are the benchmark. But again, as is the annual occurrence, there is this irritating white noise around the tournament. There seems to be a constant need in the corridors of power to snipe away at this championship on an annual basis in a mosquito-esque fashion.
Ignore those noises. For one moment, just pause and enjoy it. Schmidt labelled it “historically…the biggest championship” and noted how it was the “financial lifeblood of Irish rugby”, pointing to how it has been around long before the World Cup became a thing. Eddie Jones spoke animatedly in the build-up to this year’s championship over how, from the southern hemisphere, he had read and read about how the Six Nations was rugby’s greatest tournament. He used to doubt those bold assertions, but in his fourth edition, he now sees the logic behind the bold minkers.
Again the week running up to the tournament saw stories around promotion-relegation being mooted by blazers, this time in Los Angeles at World Rugby’s latest summit. The tournament, in this new pipedream, would be shoehorned into a new global annual competition called the League of Nations. It is worth so much more than being a sideshow — no wonder there is a growing feeling of angst and uncertainty from some corners in the international game over the strength of leadership in rugby’s corridors of power.
Closer to home, there are also concerns over the consistency of on-field decision-making and quality of referees in the championship. Jones spoke at the Six Nations launch over how the breakdown is policed differently from referee to referee and other figures are worried over how perceptions from officials change, erratically, from week to week. The coaches are preparing for this.
But still, any off-field concern will not detract from the on-field spectacle. The Six Nations is rugby’s only tournament where pubs blend into mosaics of rugby aficionados standing pint-to-pint with those February-to-March-viewers of the sport. Whether you are someone who has a deep affinity for the game, or idle curiosity, you will be treated to sensational individual and team sporting prowess.
The opening weekend begins with France against Wales in Paris and with that signals the beginning of the end for Schmidt, Warren Gatland and potentially Jones.
This will be Schmidt and Gatland’s final Six Nations with Ireland and Wales respectively as after the World Cup they will hop over the international dateline, back to New Zealand, and leave an indelible mark on this competition. Both will leave as Grand Slam-winners, but also having endured the mental strain of managing public expectation and constantly tweaking and evolving their teams.
Then there’s Jones. He is officially contracted until 2021 with England, but win the World Cup and he may decide watching cricket on the beach in Barbados is more attractive. Do not for one second rule out never seeing the trio again in the northern hemisphere’s premier competition, but enjoy them while they are here.
Gatland has boldly predicted that if Wales beat France on Friday evening his team will go on and win the championship. Wales have taken a stride forward over the last year and are bubbling nicely as Gatland gears up for one final throw of the dice in this championship. For France, well, God only knows. They will no doubt oscillate from the sublime to the ridiculous to the exhilarating to the infuriating.
Though there are four rounds following, the opening weekend of the Six Nations can steer the narrative for the rest of the tournament. Take Ireland; their three Six Nations titles under Schmidt coincided with winning their opening match — the other two campaigns under the Kiwi opened with defeats and ended without silverware.
“I think the championship is incredibly special,” Schmidt said. “I think it’s a mix of exhilaration, excitement, anxiety, trepidation, you know, you could throw a whole lot of almost paradoxical phrases in about how I see the first round of the championship.”
The opening game also signals Romain Ntamack’s first Test rugby foray as he steps out of his illustrious father Emile’s shadow. And Saturday’s first match of the double-header offers Gavin’s son Adam Hastings the same if he gets his chance from the bench against Italy — suddenly those wrinkles on your face are far more prominent after seeing sons of Technicolor greats make their Six Nations debuts.
Scotland are enjoying an ongoing, entertaining evolution under Gregor Townsend and will go into the competition with high expectations. They have a talented, multi-dimensional squad but do not for one minute underestimate the Italy side lying in wait on Saturday. They are far more advanced from those days as plucky underdogs, they are more than just a team of 14 players and Sergio Parisse and deserve to be treated as equals, rather than being patronised and symbiotically linked to the relegation debate.
After Murrayfield, the attention shifts to Dublin for Ireland-England. The hills above Aviva Stadium are covered in snow but in this clash of ice and fire, a white walker could stroll down to the ground and no one would bat an eyelid. These are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it matches, the type where your eyes become involuntarily dehydrated, that are made for edge-of-your-seat players like Jacob Stockdale and Manu Tuilagi. It is also a happy hunting ground for your masters of larceny like Josh van der Flier and Tom Curry. And it is a baptism of fire for Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly who start for their respective countries in unfamiliar territory at fullback. There will be little offered, but it will put the full stop on an opening weekend that will give a sign of what’s to come over the next four weekends. Throw Wales into the mixing pot and these are your three pretenders for the Six Nations throne.
Schmidt was expecting Jones to throw grenades in the build up to Saturday’s match, but both know this tournament needs no added hype. So for five weekends ignore the awaiting World Cup, rise above any TMO controversy or inconsistencies in decision-making and watch the protagonists take centre stage. Pack out the streets of Paris, Rome, Edinburgh, Dublin, London and Cardiff, sing the anthems and enjoy it. It will not disappoint.