Adam Hathaway previews the Six Nations, wondering why people are worrying about the World Cup and doffs his hat to Premiership Rugby and a departed journalistic legend.
The Guinness Six Nations was launched at the swanky Hurlingham Club in south west London on Wednesday when the coaches and captains were all press ganged into doing press duties and the press were press ganged into listening to the platitudes.
Everywhere you look in rugby now the spectre of the World Cup looms but this is the Six Nations and the Six Nations matters every year. It matters a bit more than usual this year although you might not have realised it after talking to some of the participants.
By the time the tournament washes up on 16 March there will be a million hangovers, a couple of teams will feel better about their World Cup chances, a couple a bit worse and a host of pundits will be hoping their predictions have been used as fish and chip paper.
In 2003 Clive Woodward ramped up the pressure on his England team to go and win a grand slam.
They did it, finishing with their best performance under their old boss at the-then crumbling Lansdowne Road, and we all know what happened next. Woodward knew the Six Nations mattered then and it sure as hell matters now.
The launch was strangely subdued. Usually there is a bit of a gung-ho attitude going around, this is the biggest event of the year, so and so saying they are going to smash so and so, and all that. But this time around it was like being in the queue for Aquaman when The Favourite is on at the flea pit next door.
At this annual quotes-fest the coaches and captains do the rounds of daily papers, Sunday papers, websites, agencies, broadcasters from radio and TV and this year even the dreaded social media outlets got the chance to chinwag with the great and good.
If you were last on their rota then good luck.
If Joe Schmidt was asked once about Johnny Sexton being fit for the opening weekend or if Owen Farrell was asked his about his hand once they were asked about it a thousand times. No wonder their eyes were glazing over at the end of the formalities. It was all a bit hum-drum.
Sometimes at this event we get some incendiary sound-bites but no-one was biting this time – even Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland were not lobbing grenades at each other which was a bit of a shame. One year Gatland promised to turn England’s visit to Cardiff into a bloodbath and that was turned into back page headlines to preview the game.
The Six Nations matters big time. It is the last competitive Test action players will get before the World Cup and the atmosphere in Cardiff, Dublin, Paris, Rome and Twickenham will beat some of the atmospheres they experience in Japan.
Ask any Englishman who has played a game in Cardiff, ask any Englishman who has played a Six Nations game anywhere for that matter, and it is tough. But this year’s feels a bit lite – and it shouldn’t be.
The head coaches of England and Wales even went out for a curry together the night before the launch. The old tournament is upon us again but you got the feeling that some of the coaches had one eye on the World Cup later in the year even if only one of them would say so.
Step forward Mr Gatland who was the only bloke to admit he had to take into account the global shindig that is taking place later in the year. We are sure the rest are, but they weren’t letting on – but they should park the World Cup until later on, there is plenty of time and the Six Nations is a pot that needs winning whatever else is going on down the road.
Gatland told us this having revealed his training schedule for the next couple of weeks. It involves playing France on Friday, staying in Nice and then heading to Italy for round two. One eye on the World Cup or what?
“We’re going to utilise that opportunity and replicate what will happen in the World Cup,” he said.
“We are taking 31 with us to France and down to Nice and then across to Rome before we come back. It gives us a chance to experiment and we did that in the summer as well.
“The whole focus has been about having a good Six Nations but also looking ahead to the World Cup.”
Jones might be thinking like Gatland but he told us this.
“The only thing I know is I have been in four World Cups and the only thing that matters at the World Cup is how you are at the World Cup. So let’s just be sensible about it. How you are now does not affect how you are at the World Cup. What we are aiming to be is to be at our best now for Ireland, that is all that concerns us.
“It is not about making statements, it is about playing against Ireland and then we worry about the World Cup later.”
We are in the Jones camp, if he really is pitching his tent there.
Hang the World Cup for a bit – there are still six months after the Six Nations until it even kicks off, so just concentrate on winning what is in front of you.
Every time a player or coach tells us they are only looking at the next game the hack pack exhales a collective sigh and doesn’t bother to report it, but this time that is exactly what they should be doing. In Woodward speak, win the next game and everything else takes care of itself.
But the big stage will be unveiled at the weekend. Any coach who says they took the positives from a defeat or a narrow loss is talking out of their backside. The Six Nations is a big deal.
So lay a marker down, draw a line in the sand or whatever PR cobblers they come up with after games in the next few weeks the only thing that matters is winning the Six Nations. The old one game at a time mantra does have some resonance – for once.
Ireland are good enough to win the World Cup, so are Wales and so are England. Scotland are good enough to give it a right old rattle and France always come good at the big tournaments.
But they have got one chance to prove it. And that starts next weekend – this is serious business.
But the World Cup can wait. It is party time now.
The Premiership Cup does not get big licks, especially with the upcoming Six Nations dominating the rugby radar, but it still managed to sell out the Stoop on Saturday, 14,800, when Saracens visited to play Harlequins.
Saracens won that game, notable for a spectacular return to action for Chris Robshaw, 32-12, and the place was buzzing until Sarries ran away with it in the last quarter.
Northampton attracted 13,903 spectators as they hosted Leicester and beat them 47-20 and Bristol got 8,845 to watch them go down 12-10 to Exeter. Not a too shabby bunch of attendances there.
Next weekend, with all attention on Paris, Edinburgh and Dublin, there will be another round of Premiership Cup games for teams not involved last weekend.
On Saturday Bath face Gloucester, conveniently timed for a 2.15pm kick-off so fans can stay at the Rec and watch the England match, and on Sunday Sale and Newcastle plus Wasps and Worcester face off and they should get a decent number of punters through the turnstiles.
It almost seems like someone has almost thought about the fixtures and came up with the idea that nothing makes people come out to watch a game more than a local derby – so well done Premiership Rugby – and we don’t always say that. But they have delivered something on that score for a competition that might have been overlooked.
Bill Shankly, the former Liverpool manager, once said of his nearest and not-so dearest rivals “If Everton were playing at the bottom of my garden, I’d shut the curtains.”
That clearly does not apply to rugby union followers so congratulations to Premiership Rugby for picking up on that. Let’s hope they take a similarly sensible view on promotion and relegation.
There were about a million words written about Hugh McIlvanney last week following the death of the greatest sports writer of them all, aged 84.
None of those are as good as the millions of words he wrote in the papers as a reporter covering Muhammad Ali, George Best, Lester Piggott and the rest of his heroes.
They were his heroes but Hughie was a hero to aspiring journalists back in the day.
McIlvanney majored on boxing, football and racing but was one of RugbySpy’s idols as a kid growing up. He was one of the reasons we got into this ridiculous trade.
He was bloody good company as well.