Written By: Karen Gasbarino-Knutt

We are just two weeks away from the start of the NatWest 6 Nations Championship (formerly known as the RBS 6 Nations).

Rugby fans the world over wait eagerly for the championship that occurs annually this bleak time of year between England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy. Beginning as the Home Nations tournament, it evolved to include first France and then Italy.

Talk has been rampant in recent years to branch out and include such up and coming teams as Georgia or Romania, and there are critics who question the involvement of the Italians, but for now Italy stays, and it remains the 6 Nations. 

Italy's story is but one the tournament boasts; they have proven their worth under the tutelage of boss Conor O’Shea. Their ability to see 80 strong minutes of game time has improved massively in the last year thanks to O’Shea’s leadership. Somehow, with his involvement, they seem to have moved away from the edges of the tournament; they’ve demanded, and received, respect. One might argue it is because O’Shea is one of Rugby’s favourite sons. He suited up 35 times for Ireland from 1993-2000, playing his professional oval ball for first Leinster and then London Irish until 2000. He then coached London Irish until 2005, when he famously moved to the Premiership’s Harlequins as head coach for six years, until he thought the time was right to move on to see Italy out of that wilderness between being a tier one or tier two nation.

There are so many "stories" in the tournament that make it unique and special to those who watch its entirety. Another is Italy captain and stalwart Sergio Parisse, set to increase his Italian record for most caps (he currently has 127). He's been the glue that has held the team together through so many changes in recent years. His leadership and heart are always an added bonus for those who have watched the tournament roll out in the last decade. At the end of each 6 Nations tournament over the last couple of years the pundits speculate if this is to be Parisse’s last. Surely at 34 he’s thinking about his post-playing days. But no one can question his fitness. Or his dedication. That's just another vignette...

We like our rugby heroes. What the 6 Nations offers those who know the oval ball are stories such as Italy or Parisse’s across all the teams.

Those in the know are aware of Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones record and great leadership of his home team The Ospreys, his country, and of the British and Irish Lions. We are aware of the difficulties the Wales PRO14 teams face and the decisions players are forced to make to advance their own game; Wyn Jones has been vocal about staying in Wales and helping rugby continue to grow there. Another story of heart.....

We’ve watched Chris Robshaw of England basically grow into and then beyond his captaincy, and we marvel that he still has so much to give his team despite being overlooked at key times in recent years. He consistency plays 80 minutes for the Harlequins and for England. He is truly one of the hardest working players on the field....

Scotland has encountered heartbreak after heartbreak since Rugby World Cup in 2015. They have just barely lost such key match ups. They've seen injuries that would seem to put them out, but they refuse to give up. Stuart Hogg, Grieg Laidlaw, so much honour, so much heart....

6 Nations is a tournament for the true rugby fan. It hearkens back to rugby’s roots through the various cups that are won and lost during the 6 week event, such as the Calcutta Cup between England and Scotland, which is played so passionately every year, or the Garibladi Trophy between Italy and France. Not to mention the game known as “Le Crunch” between England and France, which (as with the Calcutta Cup) carries elements of England and France's storied eons. Each match-up has its own history; each team has their own reason why they must take the victory. Each set of supporters is brimming with passion for all those reasons. 

6 Nations exemplifies the values of our game. The ads that run in the lead-up and during the championship speak of knights and chivalry, defending the land, the crown. There is so much passion, and it comes out in a variety of entertaining ways. In social media there will inevitably be banter between Wales supporters and BBC pundit Brian Moore (former England hooker and wildly outspoken and intelligent, he refuses to shy away from any argument or criticism). He and former Welsh back Jonathan Davies bring so much knowledge to their commentating, and their intelligent quips only add to the entertainment factor.

One of the more remarkable things within 6 Nations is that these players are out there defending the honour of their nation. They are serious about winning and aware that each move they make effects the World Rugby Rankings and their place within it. How many games are won or lost and by whom can skew the rankings so much your head could spin.

England could find themselves losing their tightly held second position with losses to Ireland (3rd) or Scotland (5th). Ireland and Scotland would dearly love to unseat England and will make it their goal. Scotland knocked at the door of the top 10 for so long that they will be loathe to lose their 5th place. Ireland and Wales were back and forth for so long within the top ten, swapping places at every turn, so that Wales will want to improve recent showings and step up, while Ireland will feel the need to stay put (or upset England). France had flirted briefly in the top 5 but now sit at 9. They’ll surely want to see if they can swap with Wales.

There is so much at stake for one tournament. Yet the true complication is that a great many of these players, out there fighting for their prospective countries, are also teammates Monday to Friday and every four years as British and Irish Lions. They are colleagues. Isn’t it absolutely remarkable that they've suited up with each other over the past 5 months only to stand opposite one another now? It’s one of the best reasons to watch. Their banter on and off the field add an amazing amount of excitement to the tournament.

This camaraderie is one of the signature values extolled in rugby. The amazing effect that is felt when the man who knocked you down is the one offering the hand up. That they clap each other off the field and after share a pint and a story. It's how rugby stands apart.

This is what the thousands of ex-pats love about their game when they head to the various pubs, bars, and clubhouses throughout Canada and the US for the 6 Nations. People who in their daily lives do not encounter folk from “home” gather in one space, all resplendent in their nation's colours, and cheer as if they were there at Stade Francais, Twickenham, Murray Field, etc….

Supporters politely banter with fans of the other team, but they’re all glad to see one another. Mark is an England fan who has been in Canada 7 years. He enjoys donning one of his many England shirts and heading to the Oakville Crusaders to watch 6 Nations, and will even go see matches that England isn’t factoring in. He revels in seeing fellow ex-pats and sharing a pint and some craic before the match and after. He says, “it’s great to be in an atmosphere that’s ALL rugby. Ex-pats from the different parts of the UK who support their own team, banter, taking the mick, but all unified at the same time.”

He remembers fondly a couple of years ago when a France supporter arrived with a wheel of French cheese, wine and baguette, enough to share with everyone, or the time the Welsh contingent burst into song as loud and as passionately as if they had been at Millennium Stadium, harmonies included. Always, even though it’s been a year since he saw many of the folks, he’s glad to head back for this bit of home. And yet, that’s only one aspect of what makes 6 Nations so special.

Whatever our reasons for tuning in, we in North America aren’t as fortunate to “find” 6 Nations on at every corner. We have to search for it. Luckily there are pubs and bars in most major cities who show 6 Nations and host events, as do many of the larger clubs for their own members and also members of the public. All are welcomed warmly and invited back. Crusaders does an amazing job welcoming folk into their tight fold, as I'm certain any club would. Those in the clubhouse love rugby, so they welcome anyone who wants to add their cheers to the atmosphere.

In the past few years, coverage on TV has been easier to find for us as well, though we pay a hefty price as we’re forced to subscribe to a specialty channel such as SportsNet World or BeInSports to find matches. Even if we are lucky enough, we probably would not see much of the before or after shows, which are key to firing up the passion. Last 6 Nations we got a bit more of that because it seemed that someone twigged in to the need to show those portions of the program – the interviews, the history, the pundits and former players weighing in. It’s about way more than the anticipation building up when you see the teams line up in the tunnels and explode onto the field.

With rugby growing in Canada and the US, with luck our access to this tournament and others like it will grow as well.

As for getting ready for February 3, I'm ready now. Writing this has lit the fire and I’m ready to see Scotland take their first 6 Nations championship victory. Unless England can get that Grand Slam…..or Ireland can commit the upset they’ve been knocking on the door of. Or……..let’s face it. No matter how it goes I am going to love it.

Bring it on!

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