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Sexy Six Nations a healthy antidote to cheating footballers

Alan TyersMarch 23, 2015
England fell just six points shy of ousting Ireland © Getty Images

With a peak TV audience of 9.6 million for the thrilling last few minutes of England v France, Saturday was the day when rugby proved that this really could be its year. From football figures to broadcasters, comedians, and even Piers Morgan, the nation was gripped.

It was not, in truth, a fitting climax to this Six Nations. This year's renewal had been dominated by attritional, power-based, percentage rugby - nothing for the big three teams from the southern hemisphere to fear, and nothing like this glorious, nail-biting finale.

As Eddie Buttler wrote in the Irish Independent: "Through New Zealand eyes, used to admiring skills honed in isolation at the end of the world, this European championship is all a bit cluttered, heavy on contact but slow of pace. [After Saturday] the question asked by the southern hemisphere may well be "well, why don't you play like this all the time?" It's a good question."

Ireland lifted their 13th Six Nations title © Getty Images

Down in Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald noted: "When it mattered most, Ireland remembered how to entertain again. They had threatened to go through this Six Nations as austere automatons, respected rather than loved for their defensive frugality, but for one afternoon only they unleashed their buccaneering side."

Saturday felt like it could be the start of something special for rugby in 2015 - and it attracted the interest of sporting opinion formers not traditionally associated with the egg-chasing code.

Former Arsenal footballer Alan Smith said: "Can't help feeling I've been watching the wrong sport tonight. Rugby a thriller, football not quite so."

Match of the Day host Gary Lineker noted dryly: "If you were watching the drab finish in the rugby, you'd have missed a classic at Upton Park."

While fellow BBC mainstay Clare Balding said during the crazy third match of the day: "Most exciting match I think I've ever seen. Loving the quick line outs, fast passes and running rugby. England can still do this."

It wasn't to be, but this was the best possible advert for rugby in a World Cup year, and we might yet have another Olympics 2012 on our hands.

Britain did spend most of the lead-up to London 2012 moaning about the ticketing arrangements - another factor that looks to be in place for Rugby World Cup 2015 - but millions of casual fans were swept along by the event once it came.

Saturday felt like it could be the start of something special for rugby in 2015

Part of the joy people found in 2012 seemed to be a reaction against football. The modest brilliance of the likes of Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah was compared favourably against the cheating, overpaid, under-performing footballers who normally dominate our sporting news and consciousness.

Rugby definitely has cards to play in this area, as well. Part-time fans who are used to seeing footballers dive, feign injury and harass the referee find rugby a refreshing chance. There's the sense that players, and fans, are treated like adults.

As comedian John Bishop ‏said on Saturday: "Tomorrow I will be at Anfield with 45,000 guessing what's going on. [Now] watching rugby with replays and ref explanations for all #growupfootball."

Of course, there's a chance that England and Ireland will revert to their grinding type, that the home nations will be put in their box by the Kiwis and South Africans and Aussies, that the six-week World Cup - featuring plenty of savage mismatches like New Zealand v Namibia and possible non-events like Canada v Romania - will start to drag.

But if the home nations can produce performances, we could be onto something. Saturday proved that, played in the right way, rugby can still be a thrilling spectacle that unites the nation. Even Piers Morgan got it. As he said: "I'm actually finding rugby exciting. Astonishing."

He wasn't the only one.

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