With winter’s end in sight, hope always springs eternal for Six Nations

Even if skill levels have not always dazzled, anticipation and tension rarely disappoint

Even before a ball is passed or punted, the 2017 Six Nations Championship feels different. There is more potential intrigue than at any time since Italy's entry made it a hexagonal ball game at the turn of the century and a fresh sense of purpose in almost every dressing room. Just as Europe is ripping itself asunder politically, the Six Nations could be on the cusp of a gripping new era.

It may not feel that way to everyone on Monday morning but currently only the weather forecast is putting a dampener on expectations. Who would not want to watch a more energised French side pile into the upwardly mobile English? Or to be in Edinburgh and Rome, rain or shine, for the opening weekend’s other two compelling contests? The additional dimension of bonus points, at first glance, is merely a novel aside.

Of course, this season’s belated initiative can work both ways. Endless driven five-metre lineouts are hardly box office. Nor are endless scrum resets by sides seeking to run down the clock to preserve a losing bonus point. But hang on. What, in essence, is the secret of the Six Nations’ enduring appeal?

In one word, it is “optimism”; even if the skill levels over the years have not always dazzled, the anticipation and tension have rarely disappointed. Caring passionately, on and off the field, will always be the tournament’s leitmotif but the Six Nations, ultimately, is a patchwork quilt of mental picture postcards.

Remember Simon Zebo’s impromptu little heel-flick for Ireland against Wales four years ago. Bet you do. Want to see more of that? So, it seems, do the competition’s organisers.

Hence the reason for the bonus point experiment – for one season only, as things stand. The interest lies less in the practical difference it could make to the final table or the final quarters of games than the overall mental shift it is seeking to encourage. The game has moved on and sides who want to win World Cups down the track cannot simply plod their way through European winters as they used to. Winning the Six Nations title matters, of course it does. But talk to any coach and they will also talk about the importance of tempo, sharpening skill execution under pressure and the constant need to keep improving. Fair play to the Six Nations committee for embracing those positive ambitions too.

Not everyone sees it this way. There will always be some who, in a perfect world, would prefer to be living in 1967 (when, as it happens, France won the title). There is, admittedly, a risk of possible anticlimax if, say, England, became champions courtesy of a losing bonus point in Dublin (teams finishing level in the table will be separated by points difference and then tries scored) but other, brighter scenarios are available.

Imagine Scotland still being in with a sniff assuming they secure a four-try win over Italy, or Ireland requiring a four-try bonus at a seething Aviva Stadium in the final game? Is this artificial engineering or, rather, encouraging the all-court game required to win modern World Cups? If anyone should be feeling uneasy about this year's innovation it should not be Colonel Mustard from Tunbridge Wells but Joe Public in New Zealand.

In tandem with stricter sanctions for high and reckless tackles, it could also have the handy benefit of promoting the game to a wider audience and encouraging players to remember why they loved playing rugby in the first place. Mike Brown was reminiscing this week about Serge Blanco, the man who opened his attacking rugby eyes as a kid at Salisbury rugby club.

For me, a decade or two earlier, it was Phil Bennett, Andy Irvine, Jim Renwick and, slightly unusually, Dougie Morgan of Stewart's Melville FP. I loved the way the latter shouldered responsibility as both captain and goal-kicking scrum-half and generally tried his heart out. The modern equivalent would be Greig Laidlaw, whose intense pride in his Borders roots is precisely what Scottish rugby should be all about.

The moral of the story is that appreciating players from countries other than your own is key to the Six Nations' unique allure. And, gloriously in a Lions year, several of these extra-special individuals are emerging. Who would not pay to watch Stuart Hogg – the modern Irvine – or Maro Itoje or Conor Murray, all of whom could be once-in-a-generation players, or marvel at warrior kings such as Alun Wyn Jones, Owen Farrell and Jonny Gray? While France, sadly, will not have their injured diamond, Wesley Fofana, they do have Virimi Vakatawa, a Fijian flier par excellence, and a mean-looking pack.

Add it all together and the collective portents are indeed delicious. It would not be a complete surprise if either Italy or Scotland enjoyed an opening home win over Wales or Ireland.

No champion side since 2010 has conceded more than five tries en route; this could be the year that pattern changes. Think back two years when England needed to beat France by 26 points at Twickenham to clinch the title; they won 55-35, scoring seven tries in the process, in the most breathless of games. The all-time championship record of 75 tries, originally set in 2000, could well be threatened by mid-March.

As an aside, it is also a little-known fact that the percentage of successful conversions kicked in recent championship seasons, even with better ball technology, is actually lower than in 2000 and 2001 when Jonny Wilkinson, Diego Domínguez, Neil Jenkins et al were taking aim. That will give Messrs Farrell, Halfpenny and Jackson something to ponder, along with the 2019 Rugby World Cup seeding permutations prior to May's pool draw in Japan.

Argentina are presently ranked ninth, in the third tier of seeded nations, but France, Scotland or even Wales could slither into that precarious position should they perform poorly in the coming weeks.

Neither England nor Ireland can overtake leaders New Zealand but they may yet unsettle All Black supporters with an all-singing, all-dancing La La Land-esque finale in Dublin on March 18th. It feels unlikely there will be a grand slam this time, given the slim margins and rising confidence of Scotland, Italy and France. Never in Six Nations history has a country secured a clean sweep in two successive seasons.

For those who enjoy past portents, the past three Lions seasons have yielded titles for Wales, Ireland and Wales respectively. Given Ireland's enviable forward strength in depth and Joe Schmidt's attention to detail, that cosy Celtic sequence could easily be maintained. While England are increasingly tough to beat even when under par, they will need to replace the dynamism of the Vunipola brothers and Manu Tuilagi and the selfless energy of Chris Robshaw.

So, from an overall tournament perspective, what can go wrong? The weather, too many tentative TMO referrals, too many yellow cards, too few champagne moments? Plenty, in other words. But this is the Six Nations and, with winter’s end in sight, hope always springs eternal. Pro-remain or leave, Brussels hater or sprouts fan, there is still one fond European tradition that unites us all.

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