Jamie O’Keeffe has asked me to write a sports column for his new venture Tramore Hinterland which is about life in Tramore and its environs. With that in mind, my first contribution is about a sport which has no presence in Tramore. This week: why the Six Nations is the business and you must ignore that Heino Cup tripe. The paper costs €1.50 and the stockists can be found on its Facebook page.
The rescheduled France-Ireland match on Sunday is the latest indignity heaped on the increasingly battered Six Nations championship, bringing back as it does memories of the debacle three weeks ago where the paying customers in the Stade de France first found out the game had been postponed courtesy of texts from family and friends back home.
Neil Francis wrote an excoriating article in the aftermath of the Rugby World Cup where he observed that punters were abandoning the international game with its cobbled-together teams and hopeless mismatches in favour of the freewheeling thrills of the Heineken Cup. And it’s easy to see his point. The Heineken Cup is, on the face of it, so much more vibrant than the Six Nations. Each yearMunsterandLeinster, and even to a lesser extentUlster, take on the Leicesters and the Toulouses of this world and come out on top. But it isn’t just ‘Leicester’ or ‘Toulouse’. New teams rise up each year, whether it be different clubs fromEnglandorFranceor whatever representative ofScotlandorWaleshas gotten their act together for the year. This rejigging of the cast of enemies stands in contrast to the monotony of playing the same old faces year after year in the Six Nations. Factor in the small matter of the regular success of the Irish provinces, and the venerable old Six Nations looks like the red-headed stepchild compared to the blonde homecoming queen of the Heineken Cup.
Yet look past the brilliant white smile and the platitudes about world peace, and the Heineken Cup looks more like a vacuous airhead. It’s remarkable how easy the brand name of the purveyors of intoxicating Dutch liquor has become associated in everyone’s mind with the European Rugby Cup. The Six Nations, on the other hand, has proven resistant to the toxic brand that is RBS. This is almost certainly down to the age of the respective competitions, and it is that age that still makes the Six Nations the more compelling contest. Far from finding the repetitive nature of the fixtures to be a grind, each year is akin to an extra season of a long-running soap opera. Can we make a dent in our preposterously bad record againstFrancewhich has seen us win only seven of our last forty Six Nations games against them? Will Greg Laidlaw be able to emulate his uncle Roy’s infuriating habit of scoring tries against us forScotland? How long can Wales go on getting the rub of the refereeing green in our clashes with them? EvenItaly- eachIrelandteam goes into the game living in fear that they’ll be the ones to lose our 100% record against them in the championship. As forEngland, if you can’t get excited playing them every year then it might be an idea to check into your nearest hospital to check for a pulse.
Most importantly, the Six Nations should endure even through fallow periods in Irish rugby. We can confidently predict this because, well, it has done before. Neil Francis would do well to see the success of the Heineken Cup through the prism of the success of Irish teams. WhenUlsterwon it in 1999, it was seen as a victory for the Peace Process, no less. WhenMunsterput together two wins in three years they had many supporters from the counties inLeinsterthat lie outside the Pale, people who rejected an affinity with theDublin4-types that dominated that province’s image. People like ‘Franno’. I wonder how many of those refuseniks rediscovered their latent love forLeinsteronce ‘Drico’ and co had put together their own two-from-three.
As things stand, the Irish provinces benefit not only from a slightly detached attitude toward the competition from the English and French clubs, but the generosity of those nations – the IRFU receives far more revenue from the collective Heineken Cup pot than it puts in, a philosophy in that most well-heeled of sports that would make Karl Marx blush. You could argue that the investment made by the RFU and the FFR in the periphery nations is a healthy thing, that no-one would want to watch an Anglo-French duopoly, and you’d be right. But should the English and the French elect to take the competition more seriously or, as they have threatened to do in the past, decide that they want a bigger slice of the pie to which they contribute the vast majority of the ingredients, and the long-run good of the game be damned, then the new armies of Munster and Leinster may find themselves having to subsist on thin gruel.
The powers-that-be would do well to suppress any sense of smugness they may have relating to the success of the Heineken Cup. The competition is delicately poised between being robustly competitive and a dreary turkey shoot. The Six Nations, on the other hand, has proven extraordinarily resistant to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Far worse things have happened in the competition’s history than one postponed match. In 1972ScotlandandWales, our supposed Celtic brethren, refused to travel toIrelandfor fear of being harmed by the IRA. In 2001 the foot-and-mouth outbreak meant no-one at all could visitIreland. The competition behaved as if these were minor inconveniences, simply ignoring the existence of the unplayed 1972 games and staging them later on in the year in 2001.
It’s important the Six Nations organisers hold their nerve. No bonus points, no two-tier tournament, no spreading the competition across two years, things that have all been mooted in recent times as panaceas for its ills. It’s crucial that the competition keep the links with its glorious past. To have the Six Nations step out of the shower and pretend that the last one hundred-plus years never happened would be the end of this particular soap opera.