Mark Keohane, writing for IOL Sport
There isn’t a heck of a lot I hate about rugby’s Six Nations. I have a lot of love for international rugby’s oldest and, for me, grandest tournament.
Of those irritations that could be interpreted as hate is the continued presence of Italy in a tournament in which they simply have never been good enough.
I have a soft spot for the Italians. Who wouldn’t?
How depressing must it be to prepare for a tournament every season knowing you are going to take a beating.
Former Springbok Franco Smith coaches Italy and former Springbok coach Nick Mallett also took charge of Italy for five years. Mallett managed one famous win against France but even he couldn’t halt the slide of one defeat after another.
Italy’s last win in the competition came in Round three in 2015 and since then the Italians have lost 22 successive tournament matches, which should read 27 matches by the end of this year’s tournament.
I hate that all the matches will again be played in empty stadiums because there is nothing that matches the atmosphere of an England versus Wales showdown in Cardiff or at Twickenham.
There is so much history to the 138 year-old tournament which I love and the tournament, despite the game turning professional in 1996, has always managed to retain the traditions that make it unrivalled in international rugby.
I love the fact that France are rejuvenated under Fabien Galthie and Shaun Edwards and are finally playing with potency and consistency that was absent in the past decade.
Last season’s Six Nations, which was completed late because of postponements caused by the pandemic, was thrilling because the title was decided in the final match. Eddie Jones’s England were crowned champions because of a superior points differential to France. Both teams won four from five matches and ended on 18 points. Ireland and Scotland were also close with three wins each.
Wales, under Kiwi coach Wayne Pivac, were awful last season. They won just the one game and I hate that Pivac felt the need to veer away from the structure and style that made Wales one of the best teams in the world under Warren Gatland.
Once again there are several South Africans playing in the competition. I love the fact that these players get to experience international rugby but I do hate the three-year project system that allows CJ Stander to be Irish and Jaco van der Walt and Duhan van der Merwe to be kilted Scots.
France have Bernard le Roux and Paul Willemse as their second-row pairing. Both were born and schooled in South Africa and Willemse played for SA under 21s before heading to France.
They have qualified because of residency and both have committed to France as being their home. It is very different to those players who are back in South Africa the moment their international playing days are over.
If I love the fact that France are a threat to the likes of England and Ireland, then I also love the fact that there is doubt around England’s perceived right to the title.
France plays England at Twickenham on the 13th March and whoever wins that match wins the title.
I won’t be missing that match, but I will be missing the sight of Nigel Owens with the whistle. The popular Welsh referee has retired from the international arena and I did enjoy his comments earlier in the week.
‘I will miss not being out there is one luxury I will have, which I haven’t been able to do since my first involvement in the tournament in 2003 … I will be able to jump up and down and cheer … I will also be able to shout and moan at the ref with millions of other people.’
You and me both Nigel.