It’s still winter, yes, but on Friday night in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, the Welsh dragon awakens in the Valleys signifying the start of one of rugbys oldest tournaments. Fire will rise as the sides enter the field and Sam Warburton leads his men out to face Chris Robshaw and England. The next afternoon Ireland, in Rome, get their chance to begin their journey before win or lose, every newspaper in the country goes with an “Italian Job” sort of headline. It’s Six Nations time and Ireland, Wales, England, Scotland, France and Italy fight it out to be the best in Europe.
If Halloween and Christmas didn’t exist, I’d be ok if we had the Six Nations. The competition has long since held a place in my heart as it brings us from Winter to Spring creating visions of monsters, giants, and legends coming to Dublin and other rugby cities in Europe to do battle. It brings early mornings forced awake through excitement, and reading analysis in the newspaper for some insight and lines to sound sharp for the night out that follows.
Rugby sucks me in and consumes me. What first got me hooked was the team element, where you absolutely have to work as a unit to overcome the opposition, in a maul or scrum for example, even in a backline move… no relying on a fancy Ronaldo goal here. Everybody has to work as a team. The physicality is something I adore as well, and to add to that, shaking the mans hand at the end after you’ve been hitting lumps out of for the afternoon. It also helped that the Ireland team used to train in my school when I was a student. A group of us would go and watch them train on our morning break and gave us another option to focus our attention on, as they’d be outside the window in the French class after. Little things stick with you…. From far away it’s hard to make out who’s who, it’s just a cluster of people… except John Hayes, John Hayes stuck out among them for the size of him. There was also a snowball fight one day, Marcus Horan got caught a beauty on his head, and one photographer had a snowball down his shirt. It’s just that seeing heroes up close was exciting. We innocently interrupted Anthony Foley’s fitness session, the coaches didn’t like that, he seemed happy enough to attach a couple of seconds on to his rest period. Then there was the chat with Ronan O’Gara:
“What year are ya in, lads?”
“Jesus. F*****g c*** of a year.”
I’d be both nostalgic and excited at this time of year. Nostalgic for days that have passed listing off great players who have worn the jersey and passed it on when the time came. Then you also have excitement for what’s to come. Just to put it out there… will Italy finally beat England? They’ve beaten everyone else. In fact, I’d be happy for Italy to win all their matches, scoring a hundred points and a bucketload of tries after losing to Ireland and not doing enough to keep us from lifting the trophy.
I’ve seen some big days in lots of different places. I’ve seen Ireland beat France, and Brian O’Driscoll wear 13 for the last time as far away as New York, where afterwards on the roof top terrace, looking at the Manhattan skyline, the chalk board read “Thanks, Brian.” As well as our own legends, I’ve seen some of the greats of the game from other countries, like Jonny Wilkinson, Martin Johnson, Shane Williams and Sebastian Chabal up close on their visits, then, more recently, those who will be great. The fans come as well to bring some colour and craic to the city and will mean you’re met with several hundred kilts, dragons, daffodils, roses or berets – depending on the weekend.
There’s not much better than a seat in a stadium, breathing in the air and hearing the thump of a ball against a boot, or the impact of a big tackle. Freezing your fingers off and shouting for more from a plastic seat, when the players are blowing their lungs out. Nothing is guaranteed in this tournament and that makes it wonderful. We’ll shout and sing, we’ll welcome new people to these lands as they come in hope their people will defeat ours… Then, we’ll stand with them once the fight is finished because in rugby that’s just what you do.