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.
Wales have a New Zealander of their own in charge. Warren Gatland, unlike Joe Schmidt, tends not to tweak tactics according to the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition, but has spent seven seasons developing a Welsh style. The style is direct and high-tempo. It has carried Wales to three Six Nations titles, including two grand slams.
When the team is out of sorts, however, Warren’s Welsh way has been criticised for its unyielding predictability. But the Wales of 2015 will look very different from the team he first built back in 2008, and the coach may be planning to produce something radical in this special World Cup season. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that he’s working towards a peak in the autumn, rather than in the Six Nations.
On the other hand, he will also know that preparing for a flat performance against England is completely out of the question (a bit like asking the New Zealand All Blacks not to try too hard against South Africa).
Wales might find themselves, should the first game go well, astride a beast that they cannot fully tame. Of such uncontrollable charges – George North, say, in full cry – are wonderful seasons made.
There is a third New Zealander coach in the Six Nations. Vern Cotter has brought a singular forthrightness to Scotland and they are on the rise. Nobody will dare play at anything less than full throttle, either for them or against them.
A backline of Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar and Tommy Seymour helped Scotland to average more than 30 points per game in the autumn.
France, as ever, will be potentially strong and useless at the same time. Anything may happen: a collapse in the Six Nations and a soaring World Cup, or vice versa. Who can say? Certainly not the French. Only one thing can be predicted with near certainty: Italy will win neither of the year’s big tournaments. But their icon, Sergio Parisse, is too good not to inspire an upset somewhere.
So, sit back and enjoy. Knock yourself out, as they say. If you do, please follow the new concussion protocols. Rugby, we are reminded by marker pen, is a dangerous game.
Eddie Butler commentates on Six Nations rugby for the BBC
The Wales v England game kicks off the Six Nations tonight (Friday 6th February) with coverage from 7.30pm on BBC1