If you were one of the sharp-suited head honchos at CVC Capital Partners, the private equity megalith that has ploughed £365 million into the Six Nations, you might be wondering whether you had got your money’s worth. Sure, all the games are sellouts, from the Twickenham all-day piss-up to the gathering of the clans at Murrayfield to the joys of the Stadio Olimpico because, frankly, who doesn’t want a weekend in Rome? But the rugby’s another matter. It wasn’t the interminable scrum resets at Twickenham that did it for me, nor the endless water breaks, nor the turgid first half, but the shambles the next day in Italy’s forlorn battle with Ireland.
Rugby has always had a capacity to point both barrels at its feet, take aim and pull the trigger. But this was something special: when the young Georgian referee sent off replacement Italian hooker Hame Faiva midway through the first half for dangerous play (questionable), leaving Italy with 13 men for the rest of the match thanks to an obscure technical rule about the scrum, it effectively killed off the game, no matter how pluckily the Italians played (and they had pluck to burn). I love rugby, but I switched over to Muppets Most Wanted at that point, because at least you didn’t know what was going to happen.
Now surely rugby can take a look at itself. There are rule changes aplenty to think about: limit the use of the caterpillar ruck, shorten the penalty advantage, tidy up the scrum and ideally reduce a penalty to two points. But longer term, there are structural changes that could breathe new life into the tournament. And make European rugby seriously competitive.
In February the other six nations rugby tournament kicked off with some interesting first-round games in what is known as the European Rugby Championship. Romania beat Russia, Spain thrashed the Netherlands, and Georgia were held to a draw at home by Portugal. Spain won their next two games, away to Russia and at home in Madrid against Romania. The hapless Netherlands were spanked by Georgia and Portugal. Things then got tricky because Russia were chucked out. This weekend Spain host Portugal in the Iberian derby.
All in all, it’s been a well-contested championship. So here’s a thought: no more Six Nations but a proper European Rugby Championship with two divisions of five and one up one down. Play eight rounds of matches, home and away. Every game matters. In Div 1 would be France, England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland; in Div 2, Georgia, Italy, Spain, Romania and Portugal. Great away days there for the first team to be relegated. Wales or England might be nervous about trips to Tbilisi and Madrid should things go wrong. This would in time be a real tussle for the powers of the northern hemisphere. You can bet it won’t happen, because not one of the Six Nations is going to vote to put itself at risk. But without something like it, the game will start to wither.
As millions of cricket-lovers will have been asking, how is it possible that a one-time elite athlete should die at 52 of a heart attack? How is it possible that someone so full of life is no longer alive? Crazy diets? Certainly. Caning it a bit too much? Well, possibly. But maybe it’s just bad luck. As Logan Mountstuart in William Boyd’s Any Human Heart says, it’s all down to luck – ‘That’s all our life amounts to in the end.’ And Shane Warne, being the inveterate gambler that he was, would have appreciated that more than anyone.
As a feel-good story when we need one, hats off to Norwich full-back Brandon Williams, who was about to thump the guy who fouled him but saw it was Brentford’s Christian Eriksen, so gave him a hug instead.
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