In six days time, one of the greatest rugby tournaments in the world will begin. Train, plane, boat, and bus journeys have been booked, jerseys ironed, hats and gloves dug out jacket pockets along with old ticket stubs. It’s a competition that brings an element to the game that not many other competitions can.
As a kid, I remember waking up on Saturday mornings and immediately looking forward to the games of the day. I’d sit chewing a Tayto sandwich and absorb as much as possible about every player. Not much has changed.
I remember studying England when they played in Twickenham, just before they became champions of the world, and trying to calculate how they swept teams aside so easily.
Comedian Tommy Tiernan tells an anecdote of how people enjoy seeing England being beaten “in things such as sport…and war!” and while true, as an Irishman, I was forced to respect the way England went about their business. True, sometimes they failed to win the Slam, but so has every other team at times.
I remember the Bull crying in Croke Park, and thinking for the very first time, that sport truly does transcend above all else. People often say that it was a day for history books, but I believe that doesn’t even come close to describing the occasion.
I was never the quickest kid on the pitch, but that didn’t stop me trying to emulate Shane Williams on Sunday mornings, trying to step and twirl out of tackles while running full belt. Gravity was the only defender needed in those days. Tripping up became the tackle.
Offloads on Sunday mornings would drive underage coaches all over Europe demented. Why pass normally when the French can do it one handed? Not to mention hookers becoming quarterbacks at lineouts like Ibanez.
Who can forget that final day of rugby three years ago, when it all came down to points difference. If ever there was an exhibition day for the tournament, that was it. Unless you were French, English, or Irish you were treated to an absolute belter of a game to top it off.
Unthinkable moments happen in the Six Nations: last minute wins; underdog victories; fingertip catches for last gap tries. And I’m sure this year will be no different.
England’s chances of a Slam are being talked down by Eddie Jones, but as Conor O’Shea pointed out in his humorous manner, they’ll be tough to beat. When you have characters like Owen Farrell in the squad, losing does not become an element in the equation.
Ireland will have one eye on the title too, and a Paddy’s Day decider in Twickenham is being heavily tipped as the decider. Irish players are in flying form at the moment, with three provinces involved in European quarter finals. Schmidt is a man who can take that form to the next level again.
Scottish fans will be more excited for this tournament than ever. The reigning Five Nations champions are on the up under Townsend, and Finn Russell has stated they’re no longer happy to just target home games. Expect a big tournament from the Scots.
Wales will be heading into the tournament without the likes of Faletau, Biggar, Davies, Warburton, Ball, Lydiate, Webb, and Williams. Whereas Gatland has strength in depth, any team in world rugby would miss those players and it will prove to be a mountain to climb. But this is the Six Nations and stranger things have happened.
France are a shambles. With new coach Brunel taking the reigns he will be lookong to put his stamp on the team, and Ireland will be privately pleased they face France first. Odds are they’ll be unsettled and unbalanced and, as a result, undercooked.
And finally, Conor O’Shea’s Italy. Personally I can’t wait to see what tactic is employed this year to give them the edge. Who can forget the almost comic responses from Poite to bewildered England players. But on a serious note, O’Shea’s influence is bearing fruit, which can be seen through Treviso’s European campaign this year. I expect them to manage two wins this year, and would love to be surprised with more.
I’m unsure if French children grow up with the same fear of the wooden spoon as Irish children, but I predict French players this year will feel its sting. They will struggle against structured and organised attack, and new combinations will mean lapses in defence and poor communication in attack.
To all those travelling abroad for games, and to those who have managed to secure tickets by hook or by crook, my advice is to enjoy every second. You may forget the game, but you’ll never forget the craic. You may as well take the Monday off too while you’re at it.
The Six Nations is my favourite annual international tournament and, in my eyes, next Saturday and the Tayto sandwiches can’t come fast enough.