Deputy Sport Editor Matt Hardy talks England’s Six Nations atmosphere, boring rugby and glorious Ireland in this week’s column.
“There was a lot of stopping and starting, nothing seemed to happen and the people around me kept saying how boring it was.” That was the one sentence review from a colleague after their first ever rugby match on Saturday.
This wasn’t just their inaugural jaunt into the Six Nations or an international stadium but into rugby full stop.
For a newcomer, as this colleague was, it didn’t make all that much sense.
England’s 16-14 victory against Wales was one for the purists, and one for those who enjoy reset scrums and elongated stoppages.
But it was also a game I would watch again, because I don’t always need to see a point per minute scoreline to be satisfied by the sport.
Six Nations balance
I love seeing angles cut by exciting backlines as much as I enjoy a rolling maul crashing over the whitewash. I love the art of a skillful line out move in the same way a dominant scrum gets me off my seat.
Rugby cannot be everything for everyone at the same time – no sport can be – but more must be done to advertise that.
It is why when Netflix’s Six Nations: Full Contact surfaced last month it was important to see a focus on props and back-rows as much as No10s and full-backs.
Fans must realise that it’s not always going to be a 44-43 scoreline, and that sometimes a 16-14 result can provide just as much skill on show and bang for your buck – albeit there’s few games that could justify a £150 price point at Twickenham.
We must, therefore, take what rugby is on the pitch – a place for all shapes and sizes to enjoy themselves in an incredible arena – and apply it philosophically to those in the stands.
Rugby will never be entirely brilliant, like every other sport, but new fans experiencing the game for the first time simply cannot come away under the impression that it’s always entirely dull.
And on that, the sport must do better.
If the odds weren’t stacked against Italy enough on Sunday for their match against Ireland in Dublin, the rendition of Ireland’s Call by eight-year-old Stevie Mulrooney almost put the result beyond doubt before the game even kicked off.
Their 36-0 win was a sublime result for a side most thought would struggle without their former talisman Johnny Sexton.
But amid the speculation over who would take up the mantle left by the veteran No10, Jack Crowley has performed impeccably.
He was a master manipulator of the French defences in round one as Ireland upset the odds to win against the pre-tournament favourites and he was equally as stable against the Azzurri.
In Crowley Ireland have found a long-term option in a position they’ve lacked depth in but their challenge now comes in replicating other nations whereby they have options that can fill in and challenge the 24-year-old Munsterman.
New Six Nations era?
For too long they relied on the brilliance of Sexton to make the difference for them, but in the 2023 Rugby World Cup the reluctance to replace him combined with the inexperience of the other options at the time played a significant part in their quarter-final exit.
Ireland are now favourites for the Six Nations title, and are looking to become the first team in the Six Nations era to win back-to-back Grand Slams.
But England are in the mix too as the other unbeaten side.
The Six Nations is looking competitive again, and that is helped by an England side who have won their opening two games in the tournament for the first time since 2019, but rugby still has a fan issue – as vocalised by my City A.M. colleague – and no matter the product on the pitch that will always loom as an issue for the game.