Skies are slowly brightening, evenings are getting lighter and the gradual appearance of flower buds breaking through the frosty ground make it possible to believe that spring is almost with us.
That can mean only one thing; it is nearly time for my favourite sporting event of the year: the Six Nations.
I am a very proud and, occasionally, long-suffering Welsh rugby fan and the first weekend in February has been marked on my calendar since the tournament finished last year.
For anyone not in the know (where’ve you been?!) the Six Nations is an annual rugby tournament in which Wales, England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy play one another each weekend between February and March and the team that wins the most games is awarded the championship and, if you romp home in all five games, the coveted Grand Slam.
Winning the Six Nations effectively makes you the finest team in the Northern Hemisphere or if you find yourself at the other end of the table, you are awarded the wooden spoon (soz Italy).
Wales finished second last year and coming off the back of a clean sweep in our autumn internationals I am beginning to feel, as ever, that brewing optimism we Welsh pride ourselves on.
So what can we expect from the Six Nations this year?
Well, this one certainly feels like there’s more at stake than ever as this September sees the start of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. This Six Nations tournament is the ideal opportunity for all the teams to set their stall out and show exactly what they are made of as the eight month count down begins.
I am quietly hopeful but still have a quite large knot in my stomach thinking of what the next few weekends will have in store for Wales.
I thought I’d compile a few survival tips for my fellow Welshies so we can get through the next two months with our heads held high and, hopefully, eternal bragging rights for years to come.
Everyone in Wales has an opinion on who should make up the starting fifteen.
Everyone in Wales also becomes an expert rugby coach from the month of February onward.
Will we miss Faletau and his broken arm? Who should start at number 10? Surely George North is a dead cert to start on the wing but how can we get him more involved in the game?!
These questions plague us over the entirety of the tournament and fuel nearly all conversations over a pint in the pub.
If you meet a fellow Welsh person over the next two months, naturally your first question will be ‘DID YOU WATCH THE GAME ON SATURDAY?’ and undoubtedly a two hour de-brief will ensue. Ensure you allow for such discussions by leaving the house two hours earlier than planned, just in case.
I already have my dream team selection in my head but Warren Gatland hasn’t been in touch to ask for my opinion yet- has anyone else had more luck getting hold of him?
2. Red is the New Black
I intend on wearing my red Welsh rugby top on repeat for the next seven weeks. If you haven’t found your daffodil/leek brooch please do so now, to save yourself the mad last minute dash before heading off to watch the game in the stadium/pub.
Has your jersey not been washed since November? Do so immediately so you don’t look like a wally when you’re the only one in the country not wearing your rugby jersey. Cardiff on a match day is like no other, a sea of red as thousands of fans descend on the capital and there’s a tangible aura of excitement which seeps into all activity leading up to kick off.
Surely you don’t want to be left out? Wash that jersey, don’t forget your daff and warm your voice up ready for a rousing rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. Or just prep your best ‘GWLAD’ so you’re ready for the chorus.
3. Steel Yourself
Being a rugby fan is tumultuous at the best of times and despite my best intentions, a tribal mania can occasionally take grip during the 80 minutes of play. Dramatic, I know. I never intend on swearing, bashing the table or throwing my drink in the air but sometimes, the moment takes me and I just go with it.
I know it is only a game but it is so much more than that.
I need to try and stay a little cooler, more calm and collected this tournament and use the old Welsh mantra of expect the worst, hope for the best.
I think an inherent part of Welshness is a sparky, often self-deprecating attitude and this immortalises itself when our national team play rugby. Your heart is in your mouth for the duration of the game as you will on the boys with all your might; sometimes it pays off and sometime it just doesn’t. Whatever happens, you’re still proud if not eternally frustrated.
Gird your loins, gang, it’s almost time to pray.
4. Be the Most Knowledgeable in the Room
Growing up in a house with two older brothers I learnt the offside rule before I could walk and became prepared to expect a Tombstone Piledriver following a surprise entry in to the wrestling ring at any given moment.
Therefore, I have always prided myself on my knowledge of sport rules, especially rugby. That being said, it is inevitable that at some point over the coming weeks, someone will want to explain things to me.
As I said earlier, everyone in Wales becomes a national rugby coach during the tournament while simultaneously revealing they have the credentials to be an international referee.
Some people will feel, undoubtedly with the best intentions, the need to explain why a decision went a certain way, an explanation that is neither warranted or requested.
Nah mate, you’re all right, I know it’s because he came in from the side of the ruck and no, that is not a penalty because he released the player on the floor and then stayed on his feet to win the ball.
So I implore everyone to remember, the presence of ovaries does not mean that I don’t understand the complexities of a scrum. If you know the rules, don’t hide it. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve been shut out of when rugby is the topic because there is an assumption I won’t know anything. Always be polite, always be assertive and speak up for yourself, friend!
“Actually, I think you’ll find it is an illegal entry, but good effort any way.”
5. Try and Enjoy
See what I did there?!
The end of this tournament will reveal who is looking in the best form for the upcoming World Cup.
It goes without saying that Ireland are at the top of their game, last year’s Six Nations champs, having beaten New Zealand and currently ranking number two in the world. Their style of play isn’t particularly exciting at times but they are excellent at clinically shutting down a game and for that reason, they are so darn dangerous. The Irish are coming to Cardiff this year and it will surely be a belter (and maybe a Championship decider?!).
Scotland can be very hit and miss; last year they were tipped for great things and Wales just out played them in the first game with three tries in the opening 10 minutes. Our fellow Celtic nation are just as passionate and a stirring rendition of O Flower of Scotland always gets the blood pumping, even for a neutral. They’ve got some great players and it will be interesting to see if everyone shows up this year.
France are as temperamental as ever. You never know which French team will show up and if indeed, they can be bothered with the tournament this year at all. I love watching the French play their exciting, expansive, running rugby, just as long as it isn’t against us, k?
Italy, oh Italy. The poor Azuri can’t get a break. Their form as been recurrently rubbish over the last few years and they have taken home the Wooden Spoon more times than they probably care to remember. It sadly isn’t about if you beat them, but by how much and with the World Cup just around the corner, surely they can’t afford another clean sweep of defeats?
That brings me on to England, always the pundits’ favourites despite having been inconsistent with form over the last two seasons. Similarly to France, which England will show up? The ones we beat 30-3 or the fellas who looked electric when Eddie Jones first took the reins?
I’d like to wish them the best and I know that on their day, they can be a hell of a team. I don’t really care, as long as we beat them. Darn, there’s that old tribalism rearing its ugly head again!
In the immortal words of the Stereophonics, as long as we beat the English, we don’t care.
And finally, Wales. Our gorgeous, lovely boys did so well in the autumn but still only have moments of reaching the creative running rugby heights that we managed back in our 2013 Grand Slam. I think the game has changed a lot since then; everyone is bigger, faster, tackles are more intense meaning our style of attacking play isn’t enough sometimes. That being said, our games in November showed that perhaps the odds are re-balancing, have we found a happy medium between incredible defence and that beautiful, creative offensive style that we fans have come to expect and love?
Time will tell.
So all that’s left to say is, whoever you are supporting this year, I wish you a happy Six Nations.
I for one will be either bunkering down not speaking to anyone for 80 minutes sat on the edge of the sofa or fighting my way through the crowds of Cardiff to get the best spot in front of a huge screen.
During the Wales v England game, my boyfriend and I have agreed to stand at opposite ends of the pub and we will reconvene only at the end of the game. The outcome will mean eternal glory or waves of endless misery. Either way, he may not come out of it alive- poor lad.
Enjoy, be safe, be proud, sing loud, try to remember it is only a game (pfft) and have an absolute blast.
Pob lwc, boys. The Welsh are behind you, always.