Pre-championship phoney wars
January 22, 2014
The six captains line-up for the official photocall © Getty Images
The last ball of the 2013 Six Nations was kicked in anger 312 days ago, but in many ways it seems the tournament has never been away. It is still the last bastion of tradition that European rugby clings to as the domestic game continues to be fought over in the press, the boardrooms and just about every public outlet populated by those who love the game.
At the Six Nations launch on Wednesday held at the opulent Hurlingham Club in Putney, there were few mentions of its history outside of the last three or four years. References were made of Wales' recent back-to-back title wins alongside France winning a championship following a British & Irish Lions year, but such is the rapid nature of the sport, last year's tournament seems to morph into the next one.
There was much fanfare made of the launch. Some of the staff sported on a CSI Miami-chique approach with ear pieces and rapid, urgent discussions into sleeves or chins suggesting an unseen logistical infrastructure. Just about every rugby-related sponsor seemed to be represented while a sole Guinness bar stood lonely at the back of the reception hall with little attention paid to it, after all it was fully functional with the clock barely troubling 9.00am. At one point the conversation turned to whether the glass atrium under which we sipped our orange juice had self-cleaning windows.
Just about every rugby-related sponsor under the sun was represented at the launch - this year there's an official Six Nations watch no less, the players, as they were herded from photo opportunity, to radio commitments, to here, to there were just part of the event.
Anchoring the whole affair was the traditional top-table talk with the six captains but as is usually the case, it was a polite occasion. Sweet nothings were paid between the different countries alongside talk of respect. It was all shadow boxing.
For Wales' Sam Warburton the questions were focused on his fitness and just when he will be able to lead his country as they embark on a potential third-straight title. Warburton's calmness and presence belies his tender age of 25; this is his third Championship now as skipper.
England's Chris Robshaw had to field questions on last year's 30-3 capitulation to Wales as the replays were shown on the large screens behind him, there's no escaping last year until this year's page is written. The polite, contrite answer of "it was disappointing to fall at the final hurdle" was offered. He has had a year to get over the defeat; much has happened since then. But with an annual tournament, the anchor of most discussion is always on events 12 months previous.
The Six Nations coaches take their turn with the trophy © Getty Images
Paul O'Connell will skipper Ireland, his questions focused around his age and just how many more of the Championships he has in his body. He had to field similar queries about team-mate Brian O'Driscoll who turned 35 on Tuesday.
For Italy's Sergio Parisse, he has attended every year since 2008. The perennial underdogs are annually damned with faint praise over their power of their scrum with following talk immediately focusing on their ineffective backs. Last year's Championship was probably most important for Italy; it was the year they knocked over France and Ireland - their best return since they joined in 2000.
"Now things are different, we can play as a team and play rugby through our backs," Parisse said. "We beat Ireland and France and played good rugby, not just through dominating the scrum. Our objective is to continue in this way." He was probably the most forthright out of the captains.
The compere then turned to Scotland's Kelly Brown, who proceeded to steal the show. "Thanks for leaving the man with the stammer until second last so the pressure can build and build," he joked. France's Pascal Pape then answered his queries through a translator, explaining: "I'm sorry for my English... it is very shit."
It was all in good humour; every individual there representing a country talked the game of improvement.
But the time for talking is nearly over.
When a man wearing either blue or a reigning champion sporting red kicks off when Wales take on Italy on February 1, media duties will be done and dusted, sponsorship events ticked off, smiles for cameras strained - all the posturing will be done on the pitch. There will be respect, as is in the ethos of the championship, but it will be paid with power and that desire to win.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.