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.
Whatever happens from this weekend to the finale on St. Patrick’s Day, the six weeks in between will provide spectacular evidence of how the RBS 6 Nations has gone global as never before. It will be followed by more people in more countries than ever, consolidating its enduring status from Norway to Nepal as the most popular annual international event in world sport.
Average television audiences for the 15 matches last year worked out at more than 8,000,000 per game, a substantial increase on ten years ago. Figures released by the Six Nations’ commercial director Dave Kavanagh reveal that the BBC’s average peak audiences in the UK last year were up twelve per cent with a high of 9.5m for England-France.
The most startling increase is in the use of this site, www.rbs6nations.com. Website traffic figures have more than doubled in three years, from 2,226,715 in 2008 to 4,771,304 last year. More than half came from the UK, the best part of half a million from the United States of America, 300,000-plus from France, almost 300,000 from Ireland and a shade above 200,000 from Italy.
Commercially, the Six Nations under chief executive John Feehan performs annually at a level reached only by the World Cup once every four years. Gross revenue from television, sponsorship and ticket sales now tops £300m-a-year with a net profit from this year’s tournament of more than £70m this year to be distributed among the six competing countries.
The figures are being delivered in spite of the deepest post-war recession. ‘The Six Nations is what keeps Northern Hemisphere rugby afloat,’ Feehan said. ‘And remember this is all done over no more than 15 matches. We now have record television audiences and the numbers are so huge that they will be hard to increase. You can’t have a record every year.’
The organisers have managed the trick of taking the event world-wide while keeping the stadia full or nearly full. Last year’s aggregate figure of 911,448 represented 95 per cent of capacity and it would have been higher still had it not been for the Scotland-Italy attendance dropping to 42,464.
This year’s fixtures carry the potential to push the total into seven figures, not least because Italy’s temporary move to the Olympic Stadium in Rome already ensures all box-office records will be broken for the England match on Saturday week with a projected crowd of 65,000.
The Six Nations is different in so many respects, not least in its refusal to follow the common herd and adopt the bonus points awarded just about everywhere else, including the World Cup to the three major European Leagues. They will stay with the old-fashioned two points for a win, one for a draw.
‘In our case, the scoring system is tried and trusted,’ Feehan said. ‘It works exceptionally well, year in, year out. The Six Nations has gone to the wire every year and I think this is probably the most open championship of the last ten years. France would have to be marginal favourites with the Irish and Welsh not too far behind but I don’t have a clue who’s going to win it. And that’s the beauty of the Six Nations.’
Five different winners in five years may be asking for too much but not if Scotland meet Andy Robinson’s no-excuses attitude in demanding a winning start against England at Murrayfield on Saturday and following up with another in Cardiff eight days later. The smart money will be on the Scots reminding their greenhorn opponents of the harsher realities of Six Nations life.
So many Red Rose regulars have fallen victim to the inevitable post-World Cup cull carried out by caretaker coach Stuart Lancaster that Robinson will barely recognise this England line-up from the one he picked for his last match in charge at Twickenham, against South Africa in November 2006. Tom Palmer is the only man left standing from the starting XV, seven of whom have long since retired – Josh Lewsey, Ben Cohen, Peter Richards, Phil Vickery, Joe Worsley, Pat Sanderson and Martin Corry.
Far better England teams than the one at Lancaster’s disposal have failed to cope with Murrayfield as a number of distinguished captains headed by Will Carling know to their cost. The year before they reached the 1991 World Cup final, Carling’s England flew north supposedly to collect the Grand Slam only for Scotland to make it theirs from the moment David Sole and his team did their famous slow walk from the dressing-room.
History repeated itself ten years later in 2000, at least in terms of England falling at the final hurdle. Another Grand Slam awaited them, this time under Matt Dawson’s leadership while Martin Johnson nursed a broken hand. The denouement to that tournament, the first in the Six Nations, proved every bit as traumatic from an English perspective as the one a decade earlier.
It proved to be not so much a game of two halves as a game of two climates. A first half of spring sunshine having deteriorated into the predicted Arctic squalls, Scotland adapted to the conditions for an inspired Duncan Hodge to steer them home against an auld enemy numb in mind and body.
There is, of course, a first time for everything but if Scotland are to break out of their natural habitat of recent years in the bottom half of the table they will have to do more than use Edinburgh’s thrilling deeds in Europe to end a chronic shortage of tries and send England off to think again. Wales at the Millennium Stadium the following Sunday promises to be a more severe test, all the more so if the World Cup semi-finalists fall in Dublin this Sunday.
France kick the jamboree off against Italy in Paris with several sound reasons for thinking that new coach Philippe Saint-Andre will win the title at the first attempt. Three home matches is another reason to support the theory of a Grand Slam finale in Cardiff on March 17.
Nobody will be surprised should Ireland use their provincial success in Europe to make a winning start in avenging what the rejuvenated Welsh did to them in Wellington last October. Having changed attitudes since his elevation to the captaincy, Sam Warburton now faces another forbidding challenge – to show that his ambitious young squad can cope with high expectation and a few injuries.
The trick, as always with the Six Nations, is to spot the surprise result which invariably makes a mockery of any attempt to forecast the final pecking order. Nostradamus would probably be wise enough to give it a wide berth but here goes:
1 Wales, 2 France, 3 Ireland, 4 Scotland, 5 England, 6 Italy