It has its own strange ways, its peculiarities, its laws unto itself, but for a few weeks in the coldest depths of our winter, rugby union has always shone clearly. The Six Nations championship offers simple comfort. This year is no different – there it is, as ever, glowing with the rivalries of old. Everybody wants to beat England; everybody fears the French; the Welsh are… oh my saints, look how big they are – and that’s just their wingers. The Irish would conquer Jupiter if only they could convert the form of their top provinces, Ulster, Munster and Leinster, into a sustained international campaign. Isn’t it about time Scotland mounted a challenge for the title? And when might Italy make a breakthrough?
The observations and the questions seem as relevant as ever. It is the lot of the English to be the scalp of the season, and with the Rugby World Cup to be hosted next year in the country that invented the game, there is going to be no reduction in the desire of the other five nations to stop England in their tracks.
In a way, it is all born of respect – impossible though it would be for the Celts to admit it – for the potential of the side under construction by Stuart Lancaster. The England coach is looking to build a side that understands the complete game – playing fluent, attractive rugby while accepting what’s realistic when everyone is trying to knock lumps out of you.
In short, England have to shake off caution, but not be cavalier. They will not be short of fuel for their flame. At some stage they will force themselves to revisit what happened to them last March in Cardiff, where they found themselves for the final game of the Six Nations, one victory away from the grand slam. The day turned, instead, into a heavy defeat, 30–3, at the hands of Wales, who put in an inspired performance, with Justin Tipuric the perfect link between Wales’s large forwards and even larger backs.
Wales scored more than enough points to take the title for the second year running. A third, consecutive grand slam this year would be a first in the history of the Six Nations and on paper should not be beyond the realms of possibility for a team still young and in the habit of peaking for this very championship. But here, the Six Nations runs into trouble, because all is not well by the rugby fireside.
The professional game in Wales is in serious trouble, the four regions – the Newport Gwent Dragons, Cardiff Blues, Ospreys and Scarlets – finding themselves in protracted dispute with their governing body, the Welsh Rugby Union. It’s a knock-on from the disruption caused with the clubs of England and France declared they were withdrawing from European competition at club level. With new TV agreements to support a more assertive stance against a rugby establishment that likes to make all the deals, the clubs revolted. And the English Premiership invited the Welsh regions to join them, with a view to playing in a new Anglo-Welsh league and a new European cup.
What, by way of reaction, must Ireland and Scotland think of these Welsh regions, happy to abandon the Celtic League – otherwise known as the Rabo Direct Pro 12 – and slope off to an Anglo-Welsh league? Ireland, moreover, have a separate issue with Wales, the matter of the dropping of the venerable Brian O’Driscoll on the 2013 Lions tour to Australia.
The man responsible, Warren Gatland, a former coach of Ireland and the current coach of Wales, lit one of the social-media infernos of the year by leaving out Ireland’s most revered player for the all-important third, and victorious, final Test in Sydney.
To throw another grievance into the mix, Italy are also asking a question about which league they should choose to be the nursery ground for their Six Nations players. At the moment they pay for the privilege of competing in the Celtic League and are seriously suspicious of the merit of this entry fee.
With grievances at every turn, the situation should be ready-made for France, rich beyond measure, to take their customary advantage of the fatigue of others, the delayed reaction that follows a Lions series, and win the Six Nations. But France finished bottom of the table last year and do not seem overly concerned about stirring themselves before the World Cup. That’s only next year. But France are in no hurry. And with- out Thierry Dusautoir, their injured captain and wing forward, they may not have anyone to give them the hurry-up on the field.
So, which of the six nations might discover harmony within the turmoil? England have a World Cup ahead and the vile memory of last March’s thrashing by Wales to expunge. Comfort from the Six Nations this year may not be as simple as usual, but the championship should be fiery – and therefore as warming to watch as ever.
Eddie Butler commentates for BBC Sport All Six Nations matches will be on BBC1 and Radio 5 Live or 5 Live Sports Extra. This week: Sat 2.15pm, 5pm 5 Live; Sun 2.45pm 5 Live Sp Extra.