I remember watching England take on Wales at Twickenham with my father a few years ago. It was freezing cold, raining and a wonderful day out. From memory, Rory Underwood clinched victory with a try no more than five yards from our seats and Jeff Probyn took the Welsh scrummage to the cleaners. This may be inaccurate but I'd prefer nobody checked for fear of the romance being diluted.
Having asked the old man, he seems to think the price of the tickets was hardly more than the fish and chips on the way home. This, I suspect, is rose-tinted fiction but to assume it was a cheaper day out in those days is reasonable. The seats were wooden and tiny (even then I qualified as a wide load) and the pitch looked more like a cow field than a surface fit for international sport. Blokes chugged bitter from pint glasses made of glass and the floor was covered in pie wrappers.
Such behaviour today would, I'm sure, cause somebody in a health and safety office to slip into cardiac arrest. Wooden seats? Splinter risk. Chips on the terraces? Carbohydrate is the Devil's food. The experience now is more different than anybody could have imagined. Live, loud music from famous performers and lovely, wide seats. Snooker-table grass and fireworks timed with military precision. There is even a hotel attached to the stand should the 80 minutes at HQ not quench the rugby man's thirst for the Twickenham feeling.
The pyrotechnics and shiny hotel are not, however, the element to have evolved furthest. The game now offers more than we thought possible. The levels of physicality, pace and endurance have doubled and the amount of attention awarded to this spectacle makes it a global event. Every side is littered with celebrities inside super-tight jerseys cut to accentuate bulging muscles. So it is with a good helping of surprise that we find the team which perhaps best retains the traditional traits – passion, fire and a national anthem sung at maximum volume – as favourites to take the title. Ireland have grown together and are approaching their peak. The steadfast refusal to fiddle with the line-up has led to the emergence of a group so full of understanding that they drew with a fierce Australia last November and overcome the world champions, South Africa.
France, Wales and England are rugby nations so rammed with talent and grit that any could finish top. Martin Johnson has many players fit again and the English squad will be keen to prove wrong a long list of doubters. France, should they turn up for all five matches, could win this tournament at a canter but probably won't. It just doesn't seem part of their psyche to travel away to tough venues and win consistently. One-off contests seem to excite them enough but this competition perhaps requires just a touch too much concentration.
Wales will miss the presence of Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel, their two scrum-half firestarters. Having Stephen Jones, a special individual, or James Hook, a world-class talent, at fly-half means nothing if the service isn't right. This hole, in the modern era, is enough to rule them out.
Scotland, under the guidance of Andy Robinson, are on the brink of a renaissance. A well-deserved victory against Australia will give them confidence and they will face France on the first weekend with their tails up. One still feels, though, that in order to topple Ireland, they must rely on the Irish losing the plot and the Scots over performing. However, do not rule out a couple of significant wins.
The Italians, while unlikely to cause many upsets, are capable of one big one. Their front five is a match for any side on the planet and there is pace on the wings. Getting the ball from the first of these areas to the second is the conundrum to be solved. Like a good book, a rugby team needs somewhere to start, a plan for the middle and a means to finish. It is the body of Italy's side that must shine if they are to progress. I hate to say it, but a big scrum just is not enough.
So it is with great anticipation that England await Wales' arrival. The occasion will be something to behold. To be there, singing the anthem in a brilliant tracksuit before locking horns with the old adversary is the dream but this year, just like the last, I will have to make do with watching it from the comfort of my armchair, critiquing every movement with the old man and picking at my vinegar-soaked cod and chips. Who needs fireworks?Reuse content