The Six Nations is just one week away and you can almost hear rugby fans around Europe salivating.
The competition may be the scourge of English and French clubs who lose some of their best players for two months as Europe’s premier rugby nations duke it out for northern hemisphere supremacy, but for the fans, nothing comes close to international rugby in February.
The Rugby World Cup spikes interest sporadically, while the Rugby Championship has recently become rugby’s equivalent of a Harlem Globetrotters tour for New Zealand, full of highlights but little in the way of meaningful competition.
But in the Six Nations there lies balance, or at least some semblance of it. The pendulum may swing heavily towards Ireland and England this year, but there is enough intrigue this season to at least make the competition interesting.
Can France replicate the style of play they showed against New Zealand at Twickenham? How will Wales, Scotland and Italy fare under new coaches? Can England run the table again? Can Ireland win their third title in four years and snatch the trophy back off their fiercest rivals?
A lot of these questions will be answered within the first few weeks, some inevitably over the course of the first weekend, but for the moment, the Six Nations remains the most interesting and competitive annual tournament in all of rugby.
The Rugby Championship triumvirate of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand may lay longstanding claim to being among the very best teams over the course of the last decade, but the Rugby Championship offers more answers than questions.
Seasonal concerns vary and include ‘how will Coetzee fare in his first full season? Will Cheika and the Wallabies challenge after making the Rugby World Cup final? Will Daniel Hourcade and Argentina claim any big scalps?’
Those questions were asked and were definitively answered last season, but the most realistic question was ‘will New Zealand win and by how much?’
You could make a similar argument about England heading into this campaign but 12 months ago the biggest question was ‘can Ireland make it three wins in a row?’
Joe Schmidt’s side failed in their quest and ultimately won just two of five games, but the beauty in the Six Nations is that every game counts.
There’s no ‘we’ll try him out against Fiji and see how he fares’ (as we often see in the November internationals) or ‘we’re going to rest him on the weekend because we have a big Champions Cup tie the week after’ (as seen in the various leagues around Europe).
There is no resting or trialing players, or circling big games in the Six Nations, it’s a frantic pace from the very first kick of the very first game.
The Six Nations have found their winning formula in competition. With the exceptions of World Cups and the Olympics, and major football tournaments like the Euro’s, international sport has become increasingly trivial.
European football fans constantly bemoan international breaks. International basketball just doesn’t move the needle the same way that the NBA does, and in Rugby League the NRL is a bigger deal than the Rugby League World Cup.
Rugby is a rarity in that the international game is more popular and more beloved by fans than the club game, the problem for European rugby organisers is that they can only deliver their product over five match weekends.
Professional rugby is already a scheduling minefield without adding any more games to the mix, but nevertheless, the opening weekend of the Six Nations is when rugby gets catapulted to the forefront of the sporting spectrum and when people in pubs across Europe start asking questions like ‘where’s Johnny Sexton? Or what happened to Manu Tuilagi? Is he injured or something?’
The Six Nations seasonally attracts its large share of casual fans and armchair experts, but even for rugby’s most avid followers, it’s a time of year that is met with huge anticipation.
If England lose against France their Grand Slam aspirations are immediately shattered and France are instantly among the favourites to win the tournament. Similarly, if Ireland lose to Scotland, their tournament chances take a serious beating while Gregor Townsend instantly achieves what Vern Cotter couldn’t in five games last season; a win.