The 6 Nations: England Expects (to come second or third)

[caption id="attachment_1834" align="aligncenter" width="599"] December 1845: A football game at Rugby School. Original Artist: By Smyth. (Photo by HultonArchive / Illustrated London News / Getty Images)[/caption]  

Enough ink and pixels have been wasted trying to claim that (or, more likely, ploddingly explain why) rugby’s better than football. Lot of nonsense about ‘gentlemen’ and ‘thugs’ and so on. A bit of that not-wholly-unfounded ‘pride in the jersey’ stuff. Disapproving mutterings about ‘sportsmanship’ and a great deal of shaking of heads. ‘Should never have let the French join in,’ et cetera.

It does make the pub better, though. No doubt about it.

Not that one necessarily wants a tellybox in the pub, but if a pub’s going to have a tellybox it’s better that it’s showing the rugby. Football, unless it’s the last round or two of a World Cup or unless one happens to have entered accidentally into one of those dangerous, flat-roofed venues with an angry dog chained up outside, is just background noise and abstract colour. One finds oneself watching it in the same way, with the same level of interest and for the same reasons as one watches the lights on the fruit machine. When the idiots’ lantern is showing the footer, it makes idiots of us all. It’s not quite as bad as the NFL, but it’s close.

Shrug off a February afternoon’s drizzle in the local boozer when the 6 Nations is on, however, and it’s a different matter. Every game matters, everyone’s attention is rapt and regardless of who’s playing there’s always a small gang of supports cheering good-naturedly in the corner. And, because there’s a slightly holiday-ish feel to the occasion and perhaps because the games are so brutal, everyone is scrupulously, assiduously, almost eerily polite.

Sports journalists this year are almost unanimous in picking Ireland to win and England to come second – and Italy to pick up another wooden spoon. Scotland are down to their sixth choice props and are deemed unlikely to fulfil the promise of the past year; France, they say, are a mystery and their new fly half almost woefully inexperienced; Wales have so many players injured that they can barely field a team; England, through injury or ill-discipline aren’t doing much better; and Ireland are all playing well, have only two notable injuries and are just too bloody minded not to win.

So say the journalists.

But as everybody knows, heart counts for a lot. A good crowd can seem to start the home team off with a ten-point advantage. More than a few games come down to a lucky bounce, an unlucky decision or a piece of unforeseen, unforeseeable individual brilliance. It’s all to play for, and a warm, welcoming pub’s the place to watch it all unfold.