The Six Nations is like a good pair of jeans; it ought never to go out of fashion. The annual battles between rival tribes played out in front of our eyes are what, for many rugby supporters, make the game what it is. However, in a time when history is perhaps less fashionable than in generations past, so much more is needed to attract new fans, to grow the sport.
Disillusioned football supporters, parents and children alike, want to see top players bang in form. They crave the big hits, appreciate the scrummage and applaud disciplined, choreographed attacking play. So who, this year, might lay claim to the title of fans' favourite?
So far the one man who has most consistently stood out as a natural, threatening, truly world-class player is France's full-back, Clément Poitrenaud. While always regarded as a striking talent, he has repeatedly let himself down in the past by delivering moments of genuine horror.
His decision not to hoof the ball into touch in the Heineken Cup final, allowing Rob Howley to reach it and win Wasps the match, was potentially life-changing for Poitrenaud. But he is back, and seems to have taken a dose of solidity to complement his blistering attacking flair and seemingly panoramic vision.
A more important category, I am sure you will agree, is best prop. The French have long had a reputation as brutal, merciless scrummagers but the truth is that, since the late 1990s, they have not always been very good. Certainly, they very rarely give anyone an easy game but there have been times when we, as Guinness Premiership players, have wondered why on earth they kept picking the wrong guys. Now though, Marc Lièvremont appears to have got it right.
Perpignan's captain, Nicolas Mas, has been immense. Not a huge man, he is freakishly strong and has honed his (slightly, let us say, angular) technique over the last decade in the French Championship. The stability and forward momentum provided by Mas have been the rock on which this France team relied. He just goes to show that size is not everything.
Italy's home win over Scotland was not the best match of this Six Nations, but it was my favourite match. It had everything; two glorious anthems, wonderful weather, a monstrous forward battle and that feeling one gets when the underdogs secure victory having given everything to the cause.
Scotland were structured and well-drilled, but ultimately outmuscled. The Azzurri were ragtag and at times tactically naïve, but so committed and so ferociously physical that they seemed willing to die on that field. Seeing Scotland's prop Alan Jacobsen being held up near the line just seconds from the end summed up the whole day; those Italians were not ready to lose. It was an average rugby match but a magnificent spectacle of gladiatorial desire.
The biggest disappointment of the tournament for me was – you guessed it – the scrummaging, but only in one match. So much of the talk after England's game against Scotland was surrounding the shambles which had been made of the scrum that it saddened me. Repeated collapses followed not by sanctions but by one laborious reset after another made for a frustrating afternoon.
What we do not want is for officials to feel so under pressure to blow their whistles that an assertive guess is the best we can hope for, but a referee needs to be the boss so at some point calls have to be made. Of course, my views must be taken with a fistful of English salt but I know which front row I would have pinged.
Knowledge empowers decision-makers and that is what must be sought. This is not an easy task and not an exact science but the scrummage does not have to become the pit bull – unpredictable, uncontrollable and dangerous anyway – of rugby union. If those blowing the whistles (or not) commit to visiting clubs and talking to front-row players regularly, I just know the dark arts can become feared and revered again.
I hope that, by confiding in you the reader, I am neither obliterating ideals nor revealing myself to be rugby's village idiot, but the breakdown seems as big a mystery to me as it no doubt does to you. In truth, the tackle area appeared to sort itself out somewhat this time around. Whatever tinkerings the important men upstairs decided to employ, and however the assessors directed the referees to officiate, the results were promising.
There have been less men flopping over the ball and staying there while vigorously professing their innocence and displaying some sort of temporary paralysis, preventing them from even trying to wriggle to safety. The French, in particular, have managed to produce quick ball and the results have been wonderful.
So, long may it continue, and steadily may our sport grow. But not at the expense of the facets of rugby that form its heart; as long as there is a place on the field for a Poitrenaud, we'll need somewhere to heap all the gorillas who might otherwise get in his way. And what better place than a good scrum.Reuse content