If ever there was a safe colour, it’s blue. Blue speaks of consistency, conservatism, safety and professionalism. Blue however, takes on an entirely different meaning when it’s coupled with a thistle over your heart. Particularly when done in the middle of England during the Six Nations.
There are a hundred reasons I could list stating why for me the Six Nations is the greatest tournament in the world. I could talk about the absence of prima donnas who flop to the floor and scream blue murder every time someone farts in their direction in hopes of securing a penalty. I could talk about players who listen to the referee and do as he says. There’s the unpredictability of a tournament where Italy can beat France and a country as small as Wales can win the Grand Slam. Probably more important than all of this though is the inclusiveness. Throughout the course of the tournament over the years I’ve seen Finns supporting the Irish, Indians cheer on the Scots and Canadians root for the Italians. And whilst for 80 minutes yesterday I was termed a “Jockanese infiltrator” surrounded by the Auld Enemy who proudly wore the Red Rose and sang God Save the Queen to the rafters all the while reminding me that my home nation was nothing more than a province of England and due to centuries of rape and pillage I was practically English myself, post match I was one of the lads, part of the crew and hugely welcomed by all.
Part of this was undoubtedly because I was watching it in the right locale. Derby isn’t a city famed for its rugby pedigree; indeed to hear anything about sport beyond the latest happenings at Pride Park is nothing short of a minor miracle in the city centre. As a result it’s tough to find a good place to watch the rugby, still moreso if you’re just as interested in Italy as you are England. Like every English town Derby has ‘sports bars’ but what this translates to is a promise to be able to see whatever football Sky Sports are showing at the weekend. Even Walkabout which should surely qualify as a rugby lover’s bar would rather show Manchester United on the big screen with useless commentary blaring throughout the place and leave those of us more interested in an oval ball off in one corner huddled round a widescreen trying desperately to decipher why the referee’s given a penalty as we listen to yet another opinion on why Wayne Rooney is a great sportsman.
Part of me doesn’t mind this. I like football as a game but the sport’s lost its allure for me over the years. Be it Redknapp’s taxes, Rooney’s temper, the aforementioned divers or really anything to do with John Terry, I can’t look on the Premiership as an admirable competition anymore. And this is to say nothing of the fans. Football’s greatest plus – its simplicity – is also its downfall for me. All you need is a ball and a couple of jackets for goalposts and away you go. For all we’ve heard about the inflexibility of 4-4-2 and the madness of Christmas trees over the years, there are no particularly complex tactics to it. Don’t touch the ball with your hands and get it in the opposition’s net as often as possible. Done. Rugby by contrast is quantum physics. Brian Moore may disagree but no one in the world truthfully knows how the rules of a scrum work. Rolling mauls, rucks, quick line outs and kicking for territory require explanation to newcomers that make football’s offside rule seem about as complicated as typing ‘porn’ into Google. The result of this is that the simpler game attracts simpler people, and many of them are loudmouthed, racist pricks. That’s not to say that all football fans are like this or perhaps even most. Many are fine upstanding folk. Some can read. But for all the trouble I’ve seen in football stadia around the world and in bars when the match is on, I’ve never seen the same at the rugby. The very fact that it’s inaccessible; the fact that you have to think as you watch means these specimens (and I’m loathe to call them ‘people’) don’t bother unless England are in the World Cup or chasing a Grand Slam at which point they’re widely despised by the rugby fans who watch regardless of who’s on form. One of my favourite rugby memories was watching England in the World Cup Final. There was a questionable tackle which the referee decided to ignore and as a result one football fan (identified as such by the three lions on his chest) took it upon himself to swear at the screen with a decidedly distasteful rant which would have been perfectly normal had Chelsea been on. The bar, packed with people of varying nationalities who had come to watch a sporting match simply glared at the perpetrator and this was enough to shut him up for the rest of the match, minus a quiet whinge to his girlfriend about how there was no ‘atmosphere’ in the place which was quickly drowned out by a rousing rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
I rarely watch Scotland play football both because lacking Sky and living in England my opportunities are limited and also because… well, they’re shite. Scotland in the rugby though, is an entirely different beast. They still lose most of their games, but the drama with which they do it is undeniable. The passion of the players is evident and the promise of every performance is enough to keep the tartan army coming back for more, despite the unlikelihood of success. Scotland have beaten World Champions, they have won tours in the South, and then they’ve celebrated that by losing to Italy at Murrayfield. It’s an agonising and yet addictive experience and everything is heightened when we play England.
The oldest international in the world is rarely an advertisement for sexy rugby, particularly when fought at Murrayfield. Dreich is a word often used by the Scots to describe the weather of Edinburgh – loosely translated it means ‘miserable’ – and this typically extends to the match where a sodden pitch and clinging mist ensure a metre-by-metre contest of the forwards for superiority. Yesterday was set to be no different. In the six times the two teams had met in Edinburgh since 2000, Scotland had won three and drawn one match. In all that they’d only scored two tries. Every supporter likes to think their home crowd is an extra man for the opposition to overcome, but Murrayfield itself is hostile to foreign teams and the acclimatised Scots can simply hammer away relentlessly in pursuit of penalties.
The result, at least to this fan, was no surprise. The English press are masterful at setting their team up as underdogs and with only two names surviving on the teamsheet from the same fixture two years ago, a new head coach and a captain with only one cap to his name, there looked to be no better opportunity in years for Scotland to win a famous victory. That wouldn’t really be in the spirit of things though. England win when it matters whereas Scotland win when the opportune moment is off taking a leak. So of course, the Scots played well, took the lead, showed some inventiveness and looked threatening at times. And England won, not least because their players appeared to remember that getting the ball over the tryline is a fairly good way of securing points. Such is the way of Scottish rugby.
So for a die-hard fan to watch his beloved team lose at home to their oldest rival whilst wearing a solitary blue shirt in a sea of white could be both painful and traumatic. Here’s the thing though; it was a great day. Truthfully I’d be nervous to do the same for a football match, particularly in town. I’d genuinely worry about getting beaten up. The rugby evokes different sentiments though, it attracts a different crowd. Regardless of who are playing and which nationality dominates the group, if I’m watching with rugby fans I’m watching with friends. The Six Nations is a tournament where patriotism is forefront but rather than divide us it brings us together in common purpose. Everyone is intensely aware of your nationality but no one thinks it matters. The spirit of competition is all. For that reason and many more, it is the greatest tournament in the world.