This is the first time I’ve written for Andrew’s blog having been a regular contributor to the (now closed) Dale & Co blog. When I was asked to write a series of articles on the Six Nations I naturally wondered how to approach the subject given that many readers on this site are Americans who may not know much about the sport. Consequently, here’s a quick guide to what I’ll be writing about in the coming weeks.
First, contrary to popular belief, the USA and Canada are actually very good at rugby, ranked 16th and 14th in the world respectively which, given the lack of TV coverage, is very impressive. Most of the teams ranked above the USA and Canada have professional or semi-professional leagues, both countries played brilliantly in the last Rugby World Cup and they deserve your support. If the profile of the sport was to increase and they were to break out of being focused on colleges, the USA and Canada would make a huge impact on the game.
Second, it is true that rugby is a thugs’ game played by gentlemen (as opposed to soccer – a gentlemen’s game played by thugs). This is because until recently rugby was still an amateur sport and the culture of the modern game has retained the spirit of sportsmanship and players having a drink together at the end of the match. You generally do not hear crowds jeering opposition players, the referee’s decision is respected and the supporters mix together – hooliganism has no part in this sport.
Thirdly, rugby is complicated. The rules are such a minefield that barely a game goes by, even at the elite level, where even top players are not baffled by the rules from time to time. American football and rugby league were largely developed from a simplification of the rules of rugby union, to make them more spectator-friendly with more open running and fewer technical dictats. Read the basics of the game here.
The Six Nations Championship is a series of games between the home nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland – note, Ireland as a whole), France and Italy. Each team plays the others once, home or away. If a home nation team beats all the other home nations they win the Triple Crown, if any team beats all the others they win a Grand Slam, but the winner of the Six Nations Championship is the team that gets the most points (2 points for a win, 1 for a draw). Read all about the championship here.
There’s one extra bit of spice this year – the Lions Tour of Australia. In a tradition going back 125 years the British and Irish Lions are effectively the All-Star rugby team comprising players from all four home nations. As they only tour once every four years (rotating between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), these tours are on a par with the Rugby World Cup as the ultimate rugby experience, and many rugby fans will tell you that the Lions Tour is a far bigger event. Rugby supporters save for their entire lives to follow a Lions Tour and it has been labelled as “the last great sporting adventure”. The tour means that every player will have his hand up trying to be picked for the squad before it is announced in early April, so they not only want their team to win, they also want to stand out as individuals.
So what of the six teams this year? At this point I should declare my allegiance to Wales. When it comes to the Six Nations those of us who have lived in England all our lives tend to fall back on our celtic ancestry, so that makes me Welsh. It’s not uncommon to go into a pub on a Six Nations day and see dozens of people in red, navy blue and green declaring their Welshness, Irishness or Scottishness without hearing a single celtic accent. Those who support England tend to roll their eyes at us thinking it’s beneath them to play these irritating celts every year and, consequently, when a celtic team inevitably beats England we like to rub their noses in it, a lot, though we’ll all have a pint together afterwards.
Wales are the reigning Six Nations Champions, having won a third Grand Slam in eight seasons in 2012, but since then they’ve performed poorly. Some have put this down to key players being injured, others to a mental frailty caused by the pressure of the sport in Wales (it is huge – visit Cardiff on a match day and you’ll understand) but pretty much everyone except the Welsh management blame poor play by the first-choice Welsh fly half – an argument that will be proven one way or the other as he is injured for the duration of the championship. Welshmen dream of playing immaculate rugby, haunted by their achievements in the 1970s, with strong forward play and breathtaking back play that nobody can stop. Unfortunately, infuriating defeats all summer and autumn have left Wales in ninth place in the world rankings. The key man for Wales will be Dan Biggar – if he kicks the ball to the opposition as Rhys Priestland does you’ll hear ambulance sirens worldwide as Welshmen bang their heads against brick walls.
England came second in 2012 but a draw against South Africa and a win against World Champions New Zealand in the last year sees them in fifth place in the world rankings. England have traditionally been a boring team to watch but a team that manages to get victories by grinding the ball down among their forwards and wining penalties. The victory against New Zealand was never expected and it reminded us of England’s biggest asset – confidence: while Wales crack under pressure, England revels in it. The problem for England is that their team is inconsistent – they can play amazingly well one week and the next they’re all over the place. To win a Six Nations Championship you have to beat five of the top twelve rugby teams in the world back-to-back, so England’s consistency is key to their success. The key man for England? Manu Tuilagi. Tuilagi seems to hate passing the ball, but when he does, England win and when he doesn’t, half the team get shut out the game.
Ireland came third in 2012 but they are a force to be reckoned with. Their superstar player, Brian O’Driscoll, is back from injury and when Ireland play well they can beat anyone. Ulster is playing some of the best rugby of any club in Europe and if this translates onto the pitch for Ireland they could perform exceptionally well. They key for Ireland is to win the first game away in Cardiff as this will set them up nicely for the rest of the championship. Like England, Ireland have had consistency issues – they have tended to be big game players and have often suffered at the hands of teams they should have beaten while winning the tough matches. The key man is Jamie Heaslip, the new team captain who needs to lead this team that responds so well to good leadership and falls apart without it. If Heaslip plays well and is seen as a natural leader he’ll rapidly become the favourite to be captain of the Lions.
France go into the Six Nations as favourites (they usually are before every tournament) and they appear to have banished their inconsistency of old (which made England and Ireland look reliable). France are a team that likes to play with flare – they make wild but accurate passes and they attack with speed. There is an expectation of victory in France that can come across as arrogance until they win and remind you that they have a good reason to be arrogant. One of the flaws of the French are that they do not travel well – they lost to Italy in Rome two years ago, England are rarely intimidated by them in London. Luckily their record against Ireland is exceptionally strong and Wales haven’t won in Paris since 2005. The key man for me is Louis Picamoles, the Toulouse Number 8 who can score tries as well as defend.
Italy are the relative newcomers, first joining the championship in 2000. Since 2000 Italy have been the whipping boys of the tournament but there is no denying the progress they’ve made in that time with victories against Wales, Scotland and France, though they have never won away from home. The Italian forwards are agile and strong but their weakness has often been their back play – they have frequently been found lacking creativity in attack and they do not defend in the manner they need to which has led to some ridiculous scorelines (59-13 against England in 2011). Italy coach Jaques Brunel is building his team for the 2015 World Cup, so we should see some progress this year and the key man is Luke McLean – the forwards are not the problem for Italy, and as fullback, McLean needs to be launching the counterattacks.
Scotland lost every game last year and came bottom of the table, known as “picking up the wooden spoon”. If the Welsh have mental weaknesses then the Scots are practically stockholders in Prozac. They are actually far better than their results suggest (they were not only the only team to win a tour match last summer but they won all their matches, including against Australia) but they just don’t seem capable of translating good play in to victories in the Six Nations. A new coaching team with an emphasis on attacking play will hopefully light up Scottish rugby and make it effective again, but confidence is low. The key man for Scotland is flanker Kelly Brown whose captaincy needs to inspire, closely followed by head coach Scott Johnson, who needs to remind his players where the try line is.
Finally, you are invited to join the Dodge Fantasy Six Nations. Last year a member of the Dale & Co Fantasy Six Nations came second out of tens of thousands worldwide and won tickets to the Aviva Premiership Final at Twickenham. The game is hosted by ESPN Scrum which is free to join and follows all the regular rules you’d expect of Fantasy Sport. To enter click here, read the rules (it’s not necessarily the best players and the best performances that will get the most points), create your provisional team and once you’re all set join the Dodge League (league pin number 32297). If you played before your log-in will still be valid. If you don’t know your Richie Gray from your Chris Ashton then no worries as there’s a lucky dip option. No prizes for the league but the national prizes are pretty decent. Please ensure you enter your team before the deadline of 1.30pm GMT on Saturday 2th February – you have unlimited team changes until then. Good luck!