Upon the eve of a sporting contest – indeed any contest un which life and limb may be at stake – it is not unknown for those directly or indirectly involved to turn to thoughts of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3 and the King’s famous speech to his troops on the eve of battle at Agincourt.
I do so today in the context of the vitally-important 2019 Six Nations campaign – in a Rugby World Cup year – beginning this Saturday (2nd February) – not by choosing to channel the Bard in support of England’s tilt at the title by straight going to Henry’s rousing call to arms upon St Crispian’s Day, but rather by reference to a passage a few lines before which can apply generally to anyone with the slightest part to play (or interest) in the proceedings of the next few weeks.
“ … Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart. His passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.”
For in that passage lies the essence of the Six Nations. It is not a proper European knockout competition for all-comers as some feel it should be in an era where World Rugby is desperately to break the cabal of the ‘First Rank’ nations and expand the game around the world.
There are logical arguments afoot that in development terms, with the growing strength of other European and Northern Hemisphere nations in recent years – not least Spain, Portugal, Germany, Romania, Georgia, Russia et al. – there should be a ‘second division’ aspect to it, perhaps with the added incentive of promotion and relegation.
I leave that issue where it stands for the time being because I want to address the competition as it is – a one-off, ‘closed’, quirky tournament in which both individual nations’ and the collective traditions built up over the past 140 years have established something unerringly compelling and unique, partly because of its long history.
It would be perfectly fair to say that – for the committed ‘live’ spectator who actually attends matches, whether home and/or away – the Six Nations provides an annual opportunity for fun and games, and indeed fond reunions with opposition fans (or indeed any fans of the tournament because, of course, with this particular rugby festival you can have just as splendid a time attending any of the matches that don’t involve your own nation as you can attending those that do).
This term logic decrees that the favourites to win must come from the three heavyweights Ireland, England and Wales.
Through a happy combination of structure, the cycle of sporting ascendancy and having a great coach (Kiwi Joe Schmidt) the Emerald Isle is in as good a place as it has been for a quarter of a century not least with two recent victories over the All Blacks in their locker.
They have world class players among both backs and forwards and an esprit de corps to match.
Of their many ‘players to watch for’ I would nominate Munster fly half Joey Carbery as the most exciting: a product of the Leinster academy, the Irish powers-that-be switched him to arch-rivals Munster this season in order to get him more ‘game time’ and he has been tearing up trees with his playmaking decisions and steadiness under pressure.
As understudy to the now 33 years old and waning (injury prone) talisman Johnny Sexton he is now the coming man – if and when he gets on the pitch.
England, of course, are consistent under-performers. They have by far the biggest player-base to choose from but under the stewardship of Eddie Jones have veered from winning without really impressing to their abject descent of 2018.
To be fair, past injuries to key players have been a major factor in their failure to push on and they represent a formidable obstacle to any opposition.
The opening clash in Dublin between Ireland and England should be an epic.
Their opening clash is with France, who (as ever) have some of the most creative and exciting players on their roster but can always blow hot and cold.
As with England, their biggest problem is their structure – in which the major clubs hold the balance of power over the national set-up.
I must declare an interest (or rather my husband’s) when it comes to Scotland, who often flatter to deceive. Their ‘sporting cycle’ has turned up a group of fine players recently and, with Gregor Townsend as head coach, they have been developing an all-action game that can trouble the very best.
Hopes last season were sky-high coming into the tournament but the team eventually imploded under pressure. This year expectations are soaring again but the nerves are tingling as our first game approaches.
Lastly, the whipping boys … Italy. They have had nearly two decades now as full members of The Club and yet – the odd upset aside – have never been in serious contention for the title. Frankly, if the authorities had known this state of affairs was likely to occur they might never have allowed them into the fold. However, we are where we are.
Not that they don’t ever produce the occasional world class player.
By common consent among those who follow rugby around the globe, one of the greatest rugby back row forwards of the last fifteen years – indeed one of the best players in any position – has been the lion-hearted and charismatic Sergio Parisse.
See here for an appreciation of his career by Andy Bull that appears today upon the website of – THE GUARDIAN