Tough to view Six Nations from Down Under

Mon, Jan 31, 2011, 00:00

RUGBY: MATT WILLIAMSon why knowledge of the Six Nations’ rich history and European rugby in general has decreased considerably in his native Australia

GROWING UP in the northern suburbs of Sydney in the 1970s, the Five Nations was a huge event. There was a 60-minute highlights show on Monday nights and all my mates tuned in. The next day we would be out playing touch, trying to recreate the actions of great players like Andy Irvine or Fergus Slattery. Imagine a pack of Aussie kids doing poor impersonations of Bill McLaren: “Edwards to Bennett, Bennett to Gravell to Fenwick, JPR Williams hits the backline, passes to JJ Williams. A great Welsh try!” Almost 40 years later those same mates still try to copy McLaren’s inspirational tone. And they are still no where near the late, great Scot’s accent.

We watched in awe as Ollie Campbell and Dusty Hare kicked goal after goal in the “around-the-corner” style that was alien to us having been raised on the great Wallaby Paul McLean’s “toe-poking” action.

The French were deeply exotic to us. The sheer speed of their back play so captivating. We would pull out a map to mark the great players clubs – Dax, Agen, Toulouse. Our school flanker would grow his hair and hope it went blonde under the sun so he could get the coolest of nicknames: Jean Pierre Rives.

Europe was the heart of world rugby. Australians were banned from playing South Africa due to apartheid. The Wallabies had just lost to Tonga in Sydney and the Kiwis did not consider us good enough to cross the ditch on a regular basis.

Many a young Aussie backpacker would save a month of bar wages just to say they visited the great rugby cathedrals of Europe – the Parc de Princes, Murrayfield, Twickenham, the old Cardiff Arms Park and Lansdowne Road.

Those days are over. The Six Nations is not shown at all on free-to-air television in Australia. It hasn’t been for over a decade. Setanta broadcast the games for a few years and ESPN provide coverage now but most Australians are unaware of this. You have to dig deep to see live matches. Either trawl the internet or find a pub open at the ungodly hour of kick-off to sit with young travellers and hope no one recognises you.

There is a place in Sydney I used to slip into at 4am on a Sunday to see Ireland play. It looked like the bar in Star Wars. Strange creatures everywhere. One of whom was eyeing me up so I knew what was coming once the Dutch courage kicked in.

“Didn’t you used to coach Scotland?” Mate, if I coached Scotland do you really think I would be in this hovel right now? That threw him off the scent long enough to get through the 80 minutes in relative peace.

Uncle Rupert’s media machine does not deem the Six Nations popular enough. Murdoch’s Fox Sports (Sky’s equivalent in Australia) dominates the sporting landscape. As a result, knowledge of the Six Nations’ rich history and European rugby in general has decreased considerably. No one in Australia knows the players’ names anymore, like childhood mates would rattle off heroic figures like Gareth Edwards, Willie John McBride and Bill Beaumont.

I still get rugby people asking me about my time with Leicester because they are unaware Leinster exists.

The coverage in recent times largely mirrors American television. The priority being their own sports – the NFL, baseball and the NBA.

In Australia primetime is dedicated to the AFL, rugby league and cricket. These are Australian-populated sports or at least dominated by Aussie success stories.

Rugby union has few friends in the Australian media due to Rupert Murdoch’s monopoly.

The advent of Super Rugby has left its footprint but nothing sells like winning in Australia. Besides the ACT Brumbies initial success, the competition has been dominated by New Zealand teams, particularly the Canterbury Crusaders, and more recently the Bulls from South Africa.

The same applies to the Tri-Nations. Hence, the coverage has suffered.

I am convinced the Heineken Cup will eventually dominate the global rugby landscape much like the Premiership in England has attracted the best footballers in the world.

This will be down to the French. The Southern Hemisphere unions cannot compete with the Top 14 salary caps so it seems only a matter of time before all the best players in the world are drawn to France. The Australian rugby administrators are hardly keen to publicise this nor are the media as they want to keep the best players at home.

But it is inevitable. Agents will see to that. Matt Giteau is the latest world-class Wallaby to announce his departure post World Cup to either Bayonne or Toulon. Money talks, players walk.

In South Africa and New Zealand the attitude is less closeted as they still believe their domestic provincial competitions – Currie Cup and the NPC – are superior to all other tournaments.

All this combines to mask the beauty of the Six Nations outside Europe. There is a lack of appreciation just how difficult it is to capture a Grand Slam. There is no home-and-away system so each nation only gets one chance to get it right. This requires perfect planning, passion, skill and luck (lots of it). All at the same time.

As it is no longer readily available, there is no awareness in the Southern Hemisphere of the actual scale of the competition; how much money is pumped into the capital cities on match weekends, the millions of people who watch it on television and the logistical challenges associated.

The power of media ownership keeps all this under wraps.

The Six Nations is one of the great reasons why rugby continues to foster a unique culture of fraternity and camaraderie. It will be evident in the surrounding pubs of Twickenham and Cardiff on match day. Or just take a stroll through Ballsbridge on Sunday, February 13th.

I am proud to write that I am only one of three Australians to act as head coach in the Six Nations. My time with Scotland (2003-05) followed Alec Evans, who guided Wales to the 1995 World Cup, and Scott Johnston, also with Wales and now coaching the Ospreys.

I still believe it is the best tournament rugby has to offer. Superior even to the World Cup. It is a shame it has skipped a few generations in the Southern Hemisphere but watching the championship as a young boy burned the concepts of rugby into my soul. For that I am grateful. I carry those memories wherever I go.

It may be ignored Down Under but the Six Nations is stronger than ever before.