Six Nations
Can Six Nations prove it's still Big Brother?
Tom Hamilton
February 6, 2016
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George Orwell's quote that serious sport "is war minus the shooting" has always been, incorrectly, linked to rugby. Rivalries these days in the Six Nations are a little different to the tournament's past of fluctuating socio-political tensions but as the latest incarnation of the championship comes around, it can never escape its underbelly of one-upmanship.

Even before the first ball of the Six Nations was kicked in anger, the first pint dropped in disgust, the first set of tonsils strained and the first face painted with a patriotic emblem, the word 'hate' had already been banded around. When asked about a comment from Sean Maitland, Scotland's New-Zealand born wing, that he was brought up to hate the English, Eddie Jones said: "Brainwashing is a fantastic thing. Goodness me."

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It was a dated view from Maitland but the sentiment was there -- it is a championship intrinsically linked to rivalry; its lifeblood stems off the annual battle for bragging rights all played out under the umbrella of competitiveness. Rugby goodness, indeed.

It is the Russian Doll of rugby competitions: the battle for the Triple Crown, the Calcutta Cup, the Centenary Quaich, the Millennium Trophy, the Giuseppe Gariboldi Trophy all play out as a sub-plot to the overarching goal of winning the main six-sided gong while dodging the scourge of the wooden spoon.

The tournament self-proclaims itself Rugby's Greatest Championship; cue guffaws from below the equator after a World Cup that saw the final four places divided between the quartet who form the Rugby Championship. The six teams vying for European supremacy will give that little thought -- Scotland coach Vern Cotter said "you can only play what's in front of you" -- but there will be varying takes on utilising the pain of last year as motivation or editing it out of history in an Orwellian 'Minitrue' fashion.

The head coaches line up with the Six Nations trophy
The head coaches line up with the Six Nations trophy© Stu Forster/Getty Images

For Scotland, Wales and Ireland it will be a case of building on various stages of 2015. Wales had just one uncapped player in their original Six Nations squad but have still managed to name a new-look side for their opener against Ireland on Sunday with one eye on 2019. But with an unchanged coaching team and an impressive record of securing Grand Slams in 2008 and 2012 -- the years following a World Cup -- they will fancy their chances of winning the title.

Ireland are expected to be their pragmatic selves, moulded by Joe Schmidt -- they head into the championship looking to be the first side to win three Six Nations on the bounce -- but they have a couple of new faces, a new leader with Paul O'Connell now retired from Test duty and Andy Farrell, the deposed England defence coach, in their backroom staff.

Scotland will make minor tweaks from their World Cup exploits that ended in quarterfinal heartache against Australia. With coach Cotter bringing in some added expertise to their backroom staff in the shape of Richie Gray and Jason O'Halloran, they will have far loftier ambitions than the ignominy of the wooden spoon they suffered last year.

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All three are relatively predictable in their approach but the great unknowns will be England and France. For England it's a case of same, same but different under Jones with him promising pragmatic, set piece-focused rugby arrowed purely on winning and little else. They are not here to make friends, personified in the appointment of Dylan Hartley as captain. But there is an element of doublethink about this England side: on one hand they pay tribute to the past but then say this is a fresh start. They are a new side yet Jones' first XV are all previously capped with just one player included who did not feature in the World Cup. Change comes in the form of Hartley.

And then there are France and Italy. Quite what Guy Noves will do with France only he knows. The dropping of Mathieu Bastareaud leaves a sizeable gap in their midfield but Jonathan Danty can offer prowess instead of the absent poundage. They will also will look to Sevens specialist Virimi Vakatawa to provide the unpredictability which was absent in Philippe Saint-Andre's reign. They will always fancy their charges as opposed to Italy, who are in no-man's land with Jacques Brunel set to leave his post as coach after the Six Nations. But optimism can be found in fly-half Carlo Canna, someone the whole of European rugby should hope can be their long-awaited heir to Diego Dominguez, for competition's sake.

Much has changed since the 'Super Saturday' that brought down the curtain on last year's tournament. But the teams know each other well, both from their domestic exploits and international run-ins, the annual hope and expectation is what drives the tournament. It comes down to winning but the championship also needs expansive, exciting rugby to help even up the north-south divide.

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The addition of the new faces helps give it that new dose of paint and while the rivalries remain the same, the annual meeting of the foes still ignites a passion few tournaments can muster.

"People talk about the Six Nations being the greatest championship in the world and that is because every game means so much to the fans and nations," Jones said earlier in the week. "If you don't get excited about it, you won't get excited about anything ... if you don't get nervous, you're not human."

Let battle commence.

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