The tribes are gathering. In Paris, Edinburgh and Dublin they’ll be streaming in this weekend, in boisterous good-humour, eager for play to begin. The Six Nations is about to kick-off again, marking, for millions of us, the turning of the year and heralding the advance of Spring. For rugby fans nothing lightens up the dark days of late winter like the intense sporting rivalry that the tournament embodies. When the whistle blows on Friday night in Paris hearts, swelled by hope, will lift and shared dreams of glory will seize the collective imagination.
The appeal of the contest is obvious enough to those of us who love it; the sheer ferocity of the encounters engages the senses like nothing else. It is not just the bone-jarring collisions, the sweat and grunt and often blood, that are so compelling; when a match flowers into a fast-running move with wonderfully skilful kicking, passing and catching that is when the beauty of the spectacle catches the throat.
There is much else to admire: physical courage and the admirable way in which players accept admonition and punishment meted out by the referees – so different from the petulance too often on display in football. But it is not just these virtues – which embody the spirit of the game – that are so appealing; there is something much deeper that binds the players and the fans. A bond forged by a tradition that stretches back five generations to the mid-Victorian era and which legitimises intense feelings of sporting patriotism.
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The Six Nations started out as the Home Nations tournament, first organised in 1883 for Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. It wasn’t until 1910 that France was invited to compete, and it took another 90 years until the sixth country – Italy – was invited in. So, in the beginning it was a family affair. The phrase Home Nations, somehow so redolent of the Victorian era, was in common usage in politics throughout the 19th century and tells us something about the way the four component countries saw themselves.
Even allowing for the incipient nationalist movements that were taking shape (leading to Ireland’s departure from the UK in 1922) the phrase captures the sense of kinship that people in all four nations acknowledged. And to a large extent still do. Commentators will use the phrase in coming days and – here’s the salient point – it never, ever, includes France or Italy.
Nothing binds nations together more strongly than the kind of unselfconscious cameraderie that is on display on match days in the Six Nations. It is an organic thing, a grassroots outgrowth from more than a 130 years of competition, something never spelt out but merely understood; national rivalries fiercely, but joyously, celebrated. At this level it utterly transcends politics and underscores how different are relations between our ‘home nations’ and everyone else in the world.
Not that rugby exists in a separate, politics-free, reality but the sport has shown – particularly in Ireland – an uplifting capacity to rise above the most trying circumstances. Brian O’Driscoll, the legendary Ireland centre, recently made an insightful TV documentary on the history of the Ireland team and how it continued to select an all-Ireland 15 even when the Troubles were at their height.
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At a time when cross-border authorities of any description were vanishingly rare, the Irish Rugby Football Union still selected Irishmen serving in the British military; JJ McCoy, a regular team member for five years in the 1980s, was a serving Royal Ulster Constabulary officer. He records that no one ever gave him any grief about his twin vocations and that he stood proudly for the Irish national anthem Amhrán na bhFiann without any sense of inner conflict.
McCoy is the Homes Nations word made flesh. An individual in whom the apparently irreconcilable contradictions of his multiple allegiances dissolved in the medium of his Irish sporting identity. There is no short-cut to this kind of relationship: it is the fruit of shared history. Few fans among the watching millions will feel that same sense of kinship with other, merely political, unions. The EU, for instance, which has barged its way, so unhelpfully, into the relationship between Britain and Ireland under cover of the ‘hard-border’ imbroglio.
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But the politicians’ squabbles over the detail of trading arrangements will not disturb the permanent sub-strata of fellow-feeling among the four tribes. For many of us Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England remain family; agreed we have our quarrels – that’s families for you – but the blood ties still count. Saying this is not to disparage the relationship between France and Italy and ourselves. They are honoured rivals too; but it is not quite the same.
And so to the prospects for this year’s tournament. For those who wish to see them in such terms there will be matches where current politics might give an extra edge to the game; Italy vs France, for instance, where this year the Garibaldi Cup will be played against a background of exceptionally poor relations between Rome and Paris.
And what about Ireland vs England? Saturday’s match between these two hardly needs a political dimension to enhance its importance; Ireland, their confidence sky-high after beating the All Blacks in the autumn, are clear favourites to retain the title this year. But carrying the ‘favourites’ tag is something Ireland have not always found helpful.
And if there is one predictable thing about the Six Nations it is the un-predictability of the outcomes. This year – with this autumn’s World Cup in Japan looming – all the teams will be looking to make a successful Six Nations campaign the launch-pad for an assault on the world title. Wales, France and Scotland are hardly make-weights (the same, sadly cannot be said of Italy). Any of them are well capable of beating Ireland or England. Wales, in particular, could be the surprise package this time round. For myself my heart is with England but, as an Anglo-Scot, I shall celebrate any victory by Scotland. In fact I find I can take pleasure in the success of any of the Home teams. Family life – it’s complicated.