The Official Online RBS 6 Nations Store is open. The store has everything you need to get behind your team during the RBS 6 Nations, plus the store is now fully stocked with a much wider range of rugby merchandise.
Only one of the original line-up will be reappearing for the start of another RBS 6 Nations this weekend, the incomparable Brian O’Driscoll. He, alone, has stood the Test of time, back as good as new after missing last year’s tournament because of injury.
A few of the old soldiers who were there when the Five became Six in February 2000 are still soldiering on at club level, their international careers a thing of the past.
Mike Tindall, Jonny Wilkinson, Simon Shaw, Mauro Bergamasco and Scott Murray have still to hang up their boots along with another who made his RBS 6 Nations debut on the day O’Driscoll made his – England v Ireland at Twickenham on February 5, 2000.
Iain Balshaw, then lighting up the winter skies over Bath as a 20-year-old whiz kid, made his bow as a late substitute at full-back for Matt Perry on a day when Ireland took it on the chin, conceding 50 points in the process.
The following month, O’Driscoll proved none the worse for the experience in sensational fashion, three tries from the young centre giving the Irish a win in Paris then almost as rare as his hat-trick.
Craig Gilroy, the Ulsterman picked for his debut on the right wing against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday, was an eight-year-old at primary school in Belfast. Munster’s Simon Zebo, chosen on the other wing, was a year older.
At just turned 34, O’Driscoll will inevitably see this as his final attempt to put Ireland back on top of the heap.
His compatriot, Ronan O’Gara, may have appeared more often in the Six Nations but nobody can match the Dubliner’s record of 55 starts, one more than another long-distance Irishman, John Hayes.
O’Driscoll may have been superseded by Jamie Heaslip as captain but nobody in his right mind will question his supreme status, as reflected in a whole Himalayan range of mountainous achievements. A fourth Lions tour, unprecedented in the professional era, would be an appropriate finale.
The RBS 6 Nations kicks off with the grand old tournament about to be catapulted to an ever broader global audience. Not for nothing does the competition’s chief executive, John Feehan, describe it as, ‘a world-wide phenomenon’.
He can hardly be accused of exaggeration. The oldest annual international event in sport has long been televised beyond the boundaries of the six competing nations.
It is still crossing new frontiers with the number of countries showing televised coverage now beyond 160.
“A few take highlights but the vast majority show the matches live,” says Feehan. “Only three years ago we got 5,000 hours of televised coverage world-wide. Now it’s up to 20,000 and rising. There have been huge increases in the numbers following the matches on-line and through various social networks.”
The RBS 6 Nations now generates gross revenue of between £250m and £300m. As well as being the most popular annual event of its kind, it can also lay claim to be the most democratic.
The last four championships have produced four different winners – Wales (2012), England (2011), France (2010), Ireland (2009). That last happened before the Second World War – Scotland (1933), England (1934), Ireland (1935), Wales (1936).
Since the Five became Six with Italy’s admission at the turn of the century, the Grand Slam has been done eight times – as often as in the last 20 seasons before Rome’s welcome addition to the circuit.
If another Slam is won between now and the denouement of the championship on March 16, it will be worth more than ever to the winning Union.
Apart from playing for a prize fund of around £12m, the six competing countries will be guaranteed millions more as their share of revenue generated from all sources.
The tournament’s capacity for driving up income from television, sponsorship and so forth in defiance of the worst depression in living memory is a towering testament to its box-office appeal.
There is no rugby business like RBS 6 Nations business but then no other tournament comes anywhere close to matching it for tradition and historical rivalry.
The Calcutta Cup, for example, is the oldest trophy in the game, a symbol of Anglo-Scottish competition since 1879.
It was made out of silver rupees which was all the Calcutta Rugby Football Club had left some years after a group of British enthusiasts formed the club in the Indian city during the early 1870s.
They gave the Cup to the RFU on the understanding that the exquisitely crafted piece of silver wear would be presented to the winning team at the England-Scotland match in perpetuity.
Like many of those on both sides of the border who have taken a few blows in its name down the years, the Cup itself has taken its share.
Most were administered late on the Saturday night after the 1988 match in Edinburgh when one player from each back row – Scotland’s John Jeffrey and Dean Richards of England - took the trophy for a famous kick about.
Each was duly disciplined and the Cup, long since lovingly restored, will be up for grabs at Twickenham on Saturday as usual. Scotland have not won there for 30 years since Jim Aitken’s team came up trumps in a manner which left no doubt as to their superiority.
It turned out to be the stuff of dreams for Tom Smith, the Gala lock who marked his debut with the clinching try after Roy Laidlaw of Jedburgh had put the Scots ahead shortly after half-time.
Two more men from the Borders did the rest of the scoring, Gala’s Peter Dods with four goals from full-back and Melrose’s Keith Robertson, in the centre that day, with a drop.
Wales, as befitting their status, kick the jamboree off in defence of their Grand Slam against Ireland at the Millennium Stadium where the Irish have a habit of making themselves feel at home.
Munster and Leinster have won European Cup finals there and the national team’s frequent wins in Cardiff include the most unforgettable one of all, for the Grand Slam four years ago.
Ireland have won all but two of their Six Nations’ matches in Wales and now meet a home team anxious to show everyone that a run of seven straight defeats is simply too bad to be true.
France, imperious in their 33-6 walloping of the Wallabies before Christmas, start their quest in Rome on Sunday. Head coach Philippe Saint-Andre will not be short of motivational material, not after what happened the last time the French were in the Eternal City.
Italy’s epic victory, 22-21, came as a reassuring reminder of the championship’s enduring capacity to spring a shock when it is least expected.
It will surely happen somewhere, sometime over the next few weeks. Identifying the time, the place and the victim is the real trick…