For the vast majority of rugby fans, the build-up to the Six Nations begins right after that last turkey sandwich has been consumed. Fast-forward 6 weeks and grassroots rugby clubs across the country are struggling to field teams, as players’ go AWOL at Twickenham or the Millennium stadium (insert preferred national venue here, being half-English, half-Welsh, these are the only ones I identify with), watching the big screen in the pub or, ideally, putting some much needed funds back into the club coffers over the bar.
So what have we seen so far?
As well as the inclusion of bonus points (of which five have been awarded so far – welcome to Merit Table rugby, lads), we've had a record-breaking England squad enjoying victories fifteen and sixteen in a row, a resurgent Scotland revelling in their new attacking style, and Irish and Welsh sides that are every inch as aggressive as their protagonists appear.
Away from the Home Nations, Italy remain the rank outsiders – though not without some moments of flair – and France are still very much in the thick of it, after narrowly missing out to England and scraping victory over Scotland in the last ten minutes of the game.
The above tees up the tournament nicely for a dramatic conclusion.
When it returns this weekend, England will face Italy in a bid to get victory number 17.
Achieve that (if they don’t then, like WTF!) and the following weekend’s game v Scotland will be even more massive than usual.
If England win, they’ll equal the All Blacks’ world record of 18 wins on the bounce. And that’s the last thing the Auld Enemy will want to see happen. If you’ve got plans that don’t involve watching the game on Sunday March 11, change them.
It’ll be the game of the tournament…Especially if the Scots turn over Wales at Murrayfield this Saturday.
Scotland are potentially in contention for the Championship, or at least a top 2 finish – you wouldn't have predicted that 2 years ago! They’re getting better each game, and with Ireland already a prized scalp in the 2017 series, confidence is running high.
Stuart Hogg personifies this confidence, and is definitely putting himself in line to be the Lions’ first choice at 15.
To my mind, though, he’s not the player of the tournament so far. That honour belongs – at long last, I’d argue – to England scrum half Ben Youngs.
He’s a funny one, Youngs. When he’s not on form, he’s flaky at best, but on his day there’s nobody better to have at the back foot. It seems that under the controlling influence of Eddie Jones, Youngs has backed himself and evolved into a calmer, more self-assured, mature and confident player and, dare I suggest, an England captain in the making?
Indeed, Youngs typifies Eddie’s England.
Let’s not beat about the bush – the boys in white were in most parts, dreadful against France. They made hard work of a game that really shouldn’t have been that tough, and there were quite a few squeaky bum moments for the fans.
Yet, when a team can beat another of the top 10 teams in the world on an off-day, that’s the mark of a great squad that believes in itself. Indeed, watching the game live may have been somewhat nail-biting, but if you sit and watch it again you’ll observe that England’s defence was organised and controlled, with its impenetrability rarely in doubt.
It wasn’t pretty, but with defence like that, England deserved to win.
Another star of the tournament so far, at least to my mind, was Youngs’ oppo in that encounter v France. The French scrum half, Baptiste Serin.
He is one of the least aggressive-looking players in world rugby, with his slight build, gangly limbs and floppy hair, but if anyone were to prove it’s the fire inside that counts, he’s your man. At 22, he’s definitely one to watch.
So who will win this year’s tournament?
Well, England are justifiably favourites, and nobody will have an easy ride against Eddie Jones’s side.
A Grand Slam and a world record for successive victories are well within the grasp of the boys in white and they sure as hell know it. But if anyone’s a threat to England’s glory, it’s Scotland. And if they want to make a mark on the world of rugby, that encounter on March 11 will be just the opportunity.
The 2017 series is a thriller already, and it’s only going to get more intense…