England’s Freddie Steward hopes ‘special’ Six Nations can repair rugby

England finalise preparations for Six Nations opener

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Every year at the start of February the Six Nations Championship takes its devotees by the gloved hand and leads them through a blood and thunder wonderland. Seven weeks later it drops them off, a layer or two lighter, countless memories richer, into the warmth of spring.

It is in many ways the sporting sunlamp to the overlong northern European winter, an annual banishing of the clouds. This season the gloom is not just calendar-related though. There is a brooding darkness hanging over the game itself. 

Never before has rugby union needed a rousing Six Nations quite like it does now. Crises over its safety, its governance and its finances have put the sport under the most uncomfortable of gazes.

The big kick-off comes at the Principality Stadium where Welsh rugby is in the dock over the toxic culture at the WRU and Delilah is off the playlist. At Twickenham, in a season which has seen Wasps and Worcester go to the wall, the English rank and file will gather in open revolt against the RFU over the decision to use them as guinea pigs in an experiment to lower the tackle height.

Meanwhile on Sunday the champions France begin their defence with their Federation in turmoil too after the resignation of president Bernard Laporte after he was convicted of corruption. There is disquiet everywhere it feels like in this winter of discontent.

“It has been a rough ride,” acknowledged England full-back Freddie Steward. “Over the last couple of months there have been lots of things going on – but the Six Nations will be a reminder, I think, of what rugby can do for the community. 

“It brings everyone together from all those countries regardless of the results. It will be a brilliant time to get everyone back together. The Six Nations is always the tournament as a young lad. It’s the big one.

“I remember just sitting in the living room with dad and my two brothers in front of the fireplace with the fire going looking forward to it. It’s the one tournament that everyone loves so to be involved in it and to represent your country in it is special.”

No-one knows that better than Ireland’s captain Johnny Sexton. This will be his 14th – and final – Six Nations. “It’s such a great tournament,” said Sexton. “It’s so hard to win. You look at how many titles Ireland have over the last 20 or 30 years and it’s not too many. It’s a special thing when you can achieve something in the tournament.” 

It is a championship that usually, along its course, gives something to everyone – even Italy had their moment last year with their emotional win in Cardiff on the final weekend. For New Zealander Warren Gatland, back to coach Wales this season, there is no doubt as to the Six Nations’ billing.

“I think it’s the best tournament in the world from an historical point of view,” said Gatland. It is not so much the rugby which leads him to say that but the occasions themselves, joyous outpourings – and thirsty beer pourings – which make for a cross-border rolling river of fun.

The rugby itself has historically been uneven with the commitment born of the rivalries masking the deficiencies in technical merit but this season should be compelling. Coaching changes promise a bounce in Wales and England while this edition features the world’s top two-ranked teams for the first time.

“In the 90s we had two or three teams that were in the top six in the world; now we have two teams in Ireland and France who are leading world rugby,” said Scotland coach Gregor Townsend. “The truth is that every team has improved in the north over the last ten years.

“The Six Nations is at a higher level than ever before.” Time then to see it in all its glory. Seven weeks of helter skelter rugby cannot solve all of a sport’s problems but it can certainly make it feel a whole lot better about itself.

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