It is hard to overstate the importance of the Six Nations when it comes to selling rugby to the floating voter. This year's tournament is only two weekends old and yet already it is catapulting the game into the collective consciousness faster than you can say the words Louis Rees-Zammit.
Wales' 25-24 triumph at Murrayfield and France's victory in Dublin not only maintained the early trend of away success – for the second time in three years there have been four away wins in the opening two rounds – but the games were scattered with enough drama to satisfy even the most casual armchair fan. If England's dismissal of Italy was routine, Jonny May's spectacular airborne score was another snapshot of how the Six Nations can elevate the game's media profile to new heights.
It sets things up beautifully for round three later this month, with England suddenly bound for Cardiff to meet a revitalised Wales team who, against all predictions, sit two from two. At 17-3 down against the Scots late in the first half such a prospect seemed remote but the enduring appeal of the Six Nations lies in its capacity to tease and test the soundest of assumptions.
There is also a thought-provoking lesson here for those who claim the tournament does not necessarily need the oxygen of free-to-air coverage. The private equity firm CVC is acquiring 14.5 per cent of the competition’s commercial rights as part of a £365m five-year deal, with the existing television contract shared between BBC and ITV expiring at the end of this season. It is a lot of much-needed cash but at what precise cost?
Imagine if Scotland v England on the opening weekend had been behind a pay wall, witnessed by a fraction of the 8.7 million audience who watched it on ITV. Ditto Wales’s gripping comeback on Saturday in front of a BBC tea-time audience. Selling out to CVC and a pay-per-view future may make business sense but it risks eroding precisely the shared magic ingredient that gives the Six Nations its enduring widespread appeal.
Wales's new shooting star Rees-Zammit – or "Rees Lightning" as he is already being dubbed – is an ideal case in point. The 20-year-old from Cardiff has already been catching the eye in the Premiership with Gloucester without nationwide fanfare but the two tries and the assist that broke Scottish hearts have now elevated him to a whole new audience. "A star is born," suggested the great Jonathan Davies and it was easy to understand his enthusiasm.
Like Cameron Redpath for Scotland the week before, Rees-Zammit just looks a natural at the top level. The kick ahead for his second try, in particular, was a wonderfully flowing skill executed at full pace for a touchdown with echoes of JJ Williams or Gareth Edwards. There was also the brilliant long banana kick that, along with Wales's lineout excellence and defensive spirit helped to exploit the opportunity granted by Zander Fagerson's second-half red card.
It is easy enough to say Wales’s wins have come against sides reduced to 14 men but, equally, Wayne Pivac’s side have won the try count both times and, with their injuries easing, look re-energised after a shaky autumn. Whatever half-back and midfield pairing they choose it is also worth noting Wales have won both their opening two Six Nations game on only five previous occasions; they have subsequently gone on to collect the title four times in 2005, 2008, 2012 and 2019.
Something for England to ponder, then. They were relatively comfortable 24-13 winners in Llanelli less than three months ago but, despite their six-try win against Italy on Saturday, have yet to fully convince this year. Eddie Jones, for one, is taking nothing for granted. "Wales is always a different game down at the Principality. It's about developing the right mindset to play down there. We'd also like our set piece to be more dominant and we'd like to be better at taking our opportunities when we create them. They'll be the two areas we work on. There's nothing wrong with the skills or ability of our players but sometimes little indecisions can cause the attack not to be as sharp as it should be."
The try bonus point on Saturday, at least, keeps Jones’s side in the title hunt. They won the title last season despite a slow start in Paris but France’s hard-earned first win in Dublin for a decade has cemented them as the team to beat as they prepare to host Scotland.
Ireland, by contrast, have lost both their opening championship fixtures for the first time this century and must now go to Rome to face a youthful Italy side showing signs of improvement. Jones – “They could mature into a pretty handy team” – is among those who believe the idea of ditching them from the championship should be resisted. - Guardian