February 04 2012
The 2012 RBS Six Nations Championship gets under way on Saturday February 4 and the battle to be crowned Europe’s top international rugby team should be as gripping as ever. England travel north to face Scotland in a needle match at Murrayfield, one of several reruns of games played at the World Cup in New Zealand last autumn. England supporters won’t need reminding that their team’s contribution to that showpiece was marked by wooden performances on the field and buffoonery and boorishness off it.
The Red Rose army can expect a hostile reception in Edinburgh, including taunting reminders of the now infamous “dwarf throwing” contest in the Altitude Bar in Queenstown. What was meant to be just a few relaxing beers turned into a very expensive round for the England centre Mike Tindall, who was fined £25,000 for his antics, though this was reduced to £15,000 on appeal.
The low point on the pitch was England’s woeful display in the quarterfinal, in which they were outplayed by a hitherto demoralised and mutinous French side who had themselves managed to lose to Tonga in the pool stages. But England were almost as bad in their final Pool B game against Scotland, scrambling home by just four points. They will have a new, interim coach today and fresh faces in their line-up, but many punters will want to back the Scots on the handicap, with the bookmakers likely to award them at least a five-point start.
Sunday February 5’s match in Dublin involves Ireland and Wales, who fought out a spirited World Cup quarterfinal, with the Welsh deservedly triumphing by 22 points to 10. Scores of neutral fans were cheering on Wales as they disdained England’s unimaginative approach in favour of fast, attacking rugby. And there was a sense of injustice when they went down by one point to France in the semifinal, having been reduced to 14 men after their captain, Sam Warburton, was sent off for a supposedly illegal tackle in the 17th minute. The prospect of the Red Dragons taking their revenge on the perfidious French has warmed Welsh hearts, and the clash between the two in Cardiff on March 17 should be the tournament highlight.
Whatever your allegiances, you would be hard pressed to find a better or more atmospheric ground than Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. Unlike Wembley, or the Stade de France north of Paris, it is in the heart of the city centre; spectators can leave the ground and be immersed in a buzzing social scene that goes on long into the night. But what really makes Cardiff special is the passion of the home crowd, for whom rugby is the national game. The sound of 74,500 people singing the Welsh national anthem, Land Of My Fathers, never fails to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck – and it can prove an intimidating experience for visiting teams.
France, predictably unpredictable, start 7-2 favourites for the Six Nations on the back of their gallant one-point loss to the All Blacks in the World Cup final. They have the advantage of playing both England and Ireland at home this year but, with those celebrated fans roaring them on, I hope to see Wales beat France in Cardiff in six weeks’ time and win the championship for the first time since 2008 at 8-1 with Paddy Power.