The beginning of February means many things: the start of the real winter here in much of North America, post-Super Bowl cleanses, just three weeks till spring training for baseball teams. But back in Blighty and parts of Europe, it’s when the Six Nations Rugby Tournament starts. That means one thing: Let the battles begin.
England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy compete every year for the Six Nations Championship Trophy, the most important Rugby Union tournament outside of the World Cup. During the seven-week event, fans consume enough ales and pies to feed the Australian public for a year.
The genesis of this competition dates back to 1883, when the “Home Nations” tournament (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland) was born. This was succeeded by the “Five Nations” version, where the Brits and Irish let the French in on their gambit, if only to provide a team of perennial whipping boys for the home nations to thrash every year. That worked well until the French got really good and won a lot. Enter Italy, in 1999, to complete the Six Nations format that we know and love today. Italy has finished last nine times out of the 13 tournaments since — but if they follow the pattern of the French, they will be dominant in 2031.
Each team plays all the others over the seven weeks of play, a format serving up tasty rivalries that have simmered for many years. Scotland vs. Wales = tasty. Italy vs. the Wooden Spoon (awarded to the last-place teams) = inevitably tasty. France vs. England = centuries of harbored tastiness. And any Home Nation team vs. England = 2,000 years of tasty bloody-minded nastiness. This all results in some wonderfully entertaining rugby played at some of the best stadiums in the world in front of some of the most ardently devoted patriots on the planet.
After the summer Internationals, including England’s famous victory over the world’s best team, New Zealand, everyone is back with a clean slate and hoping for winter domination. The action kicks off this weekend, with yes, tasty fixtures: in the Calcutta Cup, England hosts Scotland for the 120th time since 1872 at Twickers. Named after the first rugby fixture, played in India, the trophy has been won by England some 66 times, with the Scots winning 39 times and the rest being draws.
If you are lucky enough to watch any of these games in your local friendly establishment, this terminology guide might come in handy:
Grand Slam: Winning the Grand Slam means you have not only won the Six Nations trophy outright, you have also beaten all five other teams to a pulp. Everyone wants the Grand Slam, but it is not easy to do. Wales did it in style last year; ditto France three years before. England haven’t done it since their World Cup-winning year in 2003 and the Scots haven’t tasted that kind of glory since 1990, when it was the Five Nations. Italy need not worry about this just yet. Just win two games, lads. Walk before you can run.
Triple Crown: Winning the Triple Crown, where a home-nation side beats the other three home nations, is the slightly poorer cousin to the Grand Slam. What this obviously means on many occasions is losing to the French while dominating your Blighty competition. If you can’t win the Grand Slam, make sure you win the Triple Crown — and of course, give Italy a good pasting, too.
Sin Bin: This is where players are sent for 10 minutes when they do naughty things on the field, such as swinging a haymaker, gauging an opponent’s eye, spearing someone or worse, giving the referee back chat. With a player in the Sin Bin, you are down to 10 players, akin to a hockey power play. At the domestic rugby level, it is rumoured that players get sent to the Sin Bin on purpose to give themselves a breather.
Scrum Half: Arguably, this is the most important position in Rugby. Number 9, the Scrum Half is responsible for quarterbacking play during a scrum and is usually quick, agile and smart. Scrum half can also be a drinking game played by fans before a game, where you have to come up with phrases that rhyme with Scrum Half. Like Bubble Bath. Or Life Raft. Skin Graft. Foot Path. Steffi Graf. You get the picture…
Cauliflower Ear: You don’t want one of these – and definitely not two of them. Due to having your head frequently squeezed in a scrum between the thighs of beefy giants, after a few years your ears resemble that tasty vegetable. You look a bit silly, but people give you respect. “He must have been second row – respect, bro.”
Wooden Spoon: Italy or Scotland
Catch all of the action here on Yahoo Sports. Who is your money on? France? Wales? It all kicks off on Saturday!
By Matt Goff
Top: Pascal Pape of France, Jamie Heaslip of Ireland, Sam Warburton of Wales, Chris Robshaw of England, Kelly Brown of Scotland and Sergio Parisse of Italy pose with the Six Nations trophy. (Photo by Tom Shaw/Getty Images for RBS)
Middle: Sean Lamont of Scotland is tackled by Tom Palmer and Alex Corbiseiero of England during last year’s RBS Six Nations match between Scotland and England. The two teams play in another “Calcutta Cup” on Saturday. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Lower: The tournament isn’t just for the men’s teams: Fiona Coughlan of Ireland, Marie Alice Yahe of France, Sarah Hunter of England, Rachel Taylor of Wales Susie Brown of Scotland and Silvia Gaudino of Italy pose with the Women's Six Nations trophy. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images for RBS)