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Hello again Six Nations – how we have needed your timely return. These have been tempestuous times for rugby union, bubbling in a cauldron of existential crises and grim tidings.
To surmise the wretched mess in which the sport finds itself on championship eve: England’s Rugby Football Union has been forced to apologise amid uproar after foisting a tackle height law change on the community game without player or coach consultation; in France, the federation are seeking a new president after Bernard Laporte was found guilty of corruption.
Italian prop Ivan Nemer has been banned for six months after racially abusing international front row colleague Cherif Traore, while Glasgow Warriors wing Rufus McLean’s contract has been terminated after pleading guilty to domestic violence. And then there is Wales, with a union in turmoil after allegations of a toxic culture of sexism and homophobia, and a newly-installed chief executive with deep fears for the future.
All the while the spectres of brain injuries and financial worries sound a menacing rat-a-tat-tat on the window. If any PR crisis management specialists are finding life with the British royal family straightforward, perhaps this creaking institution could offer more of a challenge.
Yet buried beneath the muck is a tournament set to thrill. The next seven weeks promise so, so much. For all of the current ills, this remains a championship capable of stirring unique emotion, a blanket to succour at discontented winter’s end. Rightly or wrongly, come Saturday afternoon and the first warbling on the Principality Stadium terraces, much of what ails rugby union will be cast aside to revel in the rivalry of this grand old spring shindig.
For two of our six contestants, this is a chance to start, unexpectedly, anew. Wales and England are adjusting to new commanding officers, old faces back in familiar places and tasked with a quick turnaround.
Time has been tight for both Warren Gatland and Steve Borthwick but the new Wales and England head coaches they have moved to their tasks with typical efficiency, composure and clarity.
A lift from the autumn lows under the defenestrated Wayne Pivac and Eddie Jones is a virtual certainty, but will a new coach bounce either side into France and Ireland’s ruling class?
Such lofty expectations are surely premature, but the peculiarities of an early mean it is far from outlandish to suggest the northern hemisphere could provide all four semi-finalists at the World Cup in October.
Warren Gatland is preparing his Wales team for a tough Six Nations opener against Ireland (David Davies/PA)
As ever, a balance must be struck between not wishing to show a hand too early and the need to build winning momentum. This might have to be most keenly managed by the hosts, coming off an unbeaten year but embarking again with an odd, perhaps unjustified, sense of pessimism. A World Cup apotheosis is the ultimate goal – but if Fabien Galthie’s side hit their straps in this tournament they will be tough to halt.
Italy made great strides of their own in 2022, with wins against Wales and Australia proof of an emerging generation that could take Kieran Crowley’s side to new heights. A settled Scotland could be contenders if they can at last find that elusive consistency.
The consensus view is that the competitiveness of the championship makes the path to a Grand Slam bumpy, but should Ireland get past Wales on the opening weekend, Andy Farrell’s side will fancy their chances; France and England must travel to Dublin. But who would rule out Gatland engineering an immediate upset, or an England reborn under Borthwick spoiling the St. Patrick’s weekend party?
Perhaps, then, this is the perfect time for the prying Netflix lens, with the producers of hit documentary “Drive to Survive” tasked with working their marketing magic on a Six Nations series to air next year. Hopes are high in the upper reaches of the organisation that this can bring the audience boom that CVC hoped to deliver when investing in the sport, though early squabbles over access do not augur well.
A criticism of the producers’ work in Formula 1 has been a perceived need to manufacture storylines to make up for a lack of compelling drama; there should be no such issues here.
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