Six Nations still rugby's best annual event
SHANE DE BARRA
OPINION: The Rugby Championship may have a better playing style and the All Blacks but the colour and passion of the Six Nations makes it a much more enjoyable tournament to follow.
Winters in the northern hemisphere can be hard work at the best of times. Sure, there's general enthusiasm when the first snow of the season lands but that slowly disappears once the crunch under your feet is replaced by the scramble to stand upright on concrete-enforced ice.
January is a particularly horrible month to be in the UK and Ireland. Christmas has left you broke, daylight is a rare commodity and the icy rains and gale-force winds seem to do nothing but line the pockets of con-artists disguised as gas and heating companies.
Of course, things ain't that bad there. Most people's problems tend to be First World in nature, but you go with what you know. At a time when people have the New Year blues sport is often the ticket to a better place, at least until the days get longer.
In the midst of such deep winters the Six Nations tournament has gone from strength to strength to retain its status as world rugby's premier annual event. Now before the howls of incredulity from Kiwis, Aussies and Saffers begin lets get one thing clear: this is not about the rugby itself per say, more the spectacle.
Before coming to New Zealand for the first time I could barely contain my excitement at the thought of watching the mighty All Blacks on their own turf. That they were playing my own country - Ireland - was simply a bonus. This was a chance to see a fabled team perform at the most iconic of rugby grounds, Eden Park.
Did the All Blacks show? Of course they did. In the end they walloped Ireland by 30 points.
You'd have thought the place would be bouncing? Think again.
If anything the whole experience was an anti-climax. On the field the All Blacks were wonderfully clinical but the Eden Park atmosphere was so bloody awful it felt more like watching talented surgeons perform open-heart surgery than an enjoyable evening at the footy. The experience was pretty much the same at other games I attended in Christchurch (v Ireland again) and Wellington (v Australia).
Sadly, this is the case for a lot of tests in Australia and New Zealand and it's a great shame. If the passion displayed on the field by the All Blacks was replicated in the stands then New Zealand really would have the greatest show on earth. At moment it's just bangers without the mash.
I'm not for one moment questioning the national loyalties of great players such as Richie McCaw and David Pocock but surely they, having played in Cardiff, Paris and Dublin, must sometimes wish their fans showed a tenth of passion that's displayed in Europe compared to what they generally do battle in. Visitors (and rugby fans in waiting) remember occasion more than styles of play.
To be fair, Argentina and South Africa don't lack spectacle but the Rugby Championship will need a collective effort from all unions involved if it's ever to come close to rivaling the Six Nations for international supremacy.
Through work and pleasure I've had the good fortune to watch international rugby in all of Europe's major rugby cities, except Rome (although I'm told it's great on test weekend). Yes, in most cases, the rugby may not be the kind southern hemisphere purists like to wax lyrical about but by God they know how to make an occasion of even turgid encounters such as Scotland v Italy.
One game I remember, Scotland v England in 2006, was a particularly tedious affair. No tries, no running rugby, just 30 men bashing the living hell out each other. Perhaps history between the two nations had a big part to play but I'll never forget the noise. The banging of drums, the yearning of the bag pipes, and the deafening chorus of English fans bellowing about their beloved Sweet Chariot before the Scottish faithful responded in kind. The Scots were still standing at the end.
And here's the thing; Murrayfield today is the worst of the Six Nations stadiums to generate an atmosphere in, yet it leaves any Australasian rugby stadium firmly in its wake.
There's no question the south holds the playing ascendancy. They have done since England's fall from grace post 2003. However, if SANZAR want to see how to put a show on they'd best look to Europe because it's not just the coin that's attracting southern talent north.
- © Fairfax NZ News