It’s possibly not the first thing they teach you on induction day at a fast-food outlet: that the product is not very good for you. Equally, on the eve of the Six Nations championship it may not be the various marketing teams’ dream to have concussion and other assorted injuries highlighted as health warnings. Rugby, it says in marker pen, is a dangerous game.
Please do not be alarmed. It’s hazardous only for its participants, and to be honest they are conditioned, fingers crossed, to look after themselves. Pain and injury are sort of included in the deal, if not exactly written into their handsome contracts. They do their thing and all we have to do is sit back and enjoy them at work (followed, obviously, by a medium amount of ambulatory exercise to dilute the toxins released by victory or defeat and stave off the perils of five whole weekends of inactivity in front of the television).
England are the World Cup hosts (though some matches will be played at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff) and must shoulder the expectation that comes with putting on a show at home. Blame the London Olympics for cranking up the pressure on Stuart Lancaster’s team, but he’ll be telling his squad that the weight can also be a boost to their prospects.
It’s one of the little twists of the months ahead that while England will welcome the world in September, they open the Six Nations with a claustrophobic encounter against Wales under the roof of the Millennium Stadium. The World Cup can wait; there is business to attend to first.
England are denied the services of number 8 Ben Morgan and centre Manu Tuilagi, though it’s hoped that Tuilagi may recover in time to play some part – long-term injuries that seem to justify the health warnings. But every country will have to juggle their human resources, swapping those returning from the treatment table for those limping away. Morgan’s leg is in plaster; Billy Vunipola chooses the moment to rediscover his very best swashbuckling form.
The reigning champions of the Six Nations are Ireland. They are coached by Joe Schmidt, a New Zealander and master of detail, and now at work in a land traditionally defined by a sweeping brushstroke of defiance. The combination of Schmidt’s minute analysis and Ireland’s collective spirit is working wonders and they grow stronger together by the game. The retirement of Brian O’Driscoll was barely noticed in their autumn run of victories over South Africa, Georgia and Australia.
Jonathan Sexton has had to take care with the injury of the moment, concussion, while Conor Murray missed the run-up to the Six Nations with a neck injury. If fit, they should resume their half-back partnership; the guiding lights between forwards and backs, the brains and the boots of Schmidt’s Ireland.