In praise of the Six Nations
With the start of the 6 Nations this has got to be one of my favourite weekends of the year.
The first of 5 weekends during which all other social and professional responsibilities take second place to the duty of watching the rugby, the time when, each year, the dreams of a Triple Crown or even a Grand Slam can be safely nurtured. The tournament starts in the depth of winter but by its end we have reached spring. The sense of anticipation of future pleasure is immense.
While the rugby isn’t always the best there is still something special about the 6 Nations. It is so much more than just a sporting contest, epitomising, as it does, the ancient rivalries in this land and with its immediate neighbours. However in allowing us to indulge those rivalries, the 6 Nations championship also expresses what unites us a community of nations. A good game and a few beers cement friendships across national boundaries.
I first watched the then 5 Nations in 1971, a good year for a budding Welsh rugby fan as the team of Gareth Edwards, Barry John et al won the first of 3 Grand Slams in the 1970s. In those days the only Welsh games one could watch in England were those against England (and as England didn’t have a game that day) Scotland. For the other games it was necessary to wait for the highlights, a formulaic presentation I’ve never liked that much. Rugby, I always feel doesn’t lend itself to highlights, you need to see the whole match to really get a sense of the struggle. In any case if we had won they were too short and if we had lost they were far too long and painful.
Watching the tournament was, and still is, a great shared interest between my father and his three sons (even my mother has now become a supporter). Unable in those days to get any real tickets we relied on the “magic chairs” in our lounge to take us into the midst of the crowd at Cardiff, Twickenham or Murrayfield. For 80 minutes, in an early experience of male bonding, we might as well have been there in the flesh for the level of intensity there was in the room.
In later years we have had the chance to see the games live and to make our visits to the various rugby temples in Edinburgh, Paris, Dublin and latterly Rome. These trips have always been very special occasions. There is something about spotting the first red shirt at the airport or train station, about joining the sea of supporters emptying out of bars on their way to the stadium, the anthems, the Paris bar erupting into Calon Lan, the cultural activities planned for the Sunday despite the scale of the hangover one was nursing, the buying of the present to secure permission for the following year’s trip.
Pilgrimage is probably the word I would use to best describe the experience. While rivalries are great and passion for your team ever present, the tournament also represents a lovely culture of mutual respect between nations and between supporters. The 6 Nations is a community of interest, something we all share and something which, without any of its participants, even the English, would be seriously lessened. There is always a welcome for travelling supporters who, unlike the case of football, mingle freely in the stadium and in bars before and after the game. In the smaller cities such as Edinburgh, Dublin and Cardiff, 6 Nations’ games take over the city for the day and even in the bigger cities their impact is noticeable.
After the golden years of the 1970s Welsh rugby fortunes dipped and we spent nearly 30 years in the wilderness. For a while we continued to be able to beat England but, after a while, we couldn’t even do that. It didn’t stop each year, however, a sense of awakened optimism on the first weekend of the tournament and a belief that this might be the year where Welsh fortunes would be restored. Usually the end of the first game had put pay to those ambitions but hope never died and in 2005, probably my favourite of all the 6 Nations I have watched, was eventually vindicated.
So let’s raise a glass to the one of the world’s best sporting events and to the community of nations who make up the 6 Nations. It may not always be the best rugby in the world but it is certainly a very legitimate cause for excitement and optimism on a grey and windy February morning.