Six Nations can help lift rugby’s gloom and show what the game can really be

<span>Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

There are dark clouds hovering over rugby at the moment. It has not been the best of times of late by any stretch of the imagination but the Six Nations provides an unbelievable opportunity to focus on the very best of our game as we pull back the curtain and welcome a wider audience to the sport.

This is not to diminish from the problems engulfing the sport at the moment, which have to be treated with the utmost seriousness, but the Six Nations can help lift some of the gloom. It is a championship incomparable when it comes to any other sport on the international stage. It has a rich history and the proximity of the competing sides makes it such a captivating couple of months. Tens of thousands of supporters will migrate across five weekends, mix together and make such significant contributions to the spectacle.

Related: ‘Nobody was listening’: Wales kick off Six Nations under a cloud of scandal

This weekend we’ll see them at Twickenham, in Cardiff and in Rome. In Twickenham the pubs will be packed by 10am, there’ll be thousands of supporters making their way to the stadium, singing songs, pouring into the stands, desperate for their teams to win but embracing the sense of togetherness.

That’s before we even get into the competition, how tight the airspace is at the top end of it and, as much as it’s an annual cliche, how this is shaping up to be the most competitive Six Nations in history. We can rejuvenate and be super-proud about what our sport is, what it can produce and celebrate the championship’s ability to expand into a wider audience. It has got me excited and none of it is manufactured, it’s just what the tournament brings.

We have got the No 1 side in the world in Ireland, a France team who won the grand slam last year, considerable excitement around Italy – as much as since they joined the competition – a new era dawning with England and the return of Warren Gatland with Wales. We’ll get tripped up trying to predict results, as we do every year, and that is the beauty of the Six Nations.

This may be cliche number two but round one is so important because very few teams go on to win the title having lost their first match. Steve Borthwick will be aware that both Stuart Lancaster and Eddie Jones managed to beat Scotland in their first matches in charge of England and he will recognise the importance of following suit.

Steve has spoken about the non-negotiables – things like workrate, fight, making every part of the game a competition. Those are things that can be introduced quickly because he really hasn’t had much time in the job and with England, with players from so many different Premiership clubs, it can take time and the starts of recent campaigns have been far from ideal. He has also spoken about freedom, which is something you would not necessarily associate with England of late but I desperately hope that is what we’ll see.

Steve Borthwick takes on Scotland in his first game in charge of England.
Steve Borthwick takes on Scotland in his first game in charge of England. Photograph: Matt Impey/Shutterstock

They might have had only 10 sessions together but Steve will know that if you can change the way that players think then ultimately you can change the way that they behave. That will have been the biggest influence from the coaches so far because I know that the players had felt constrained and restricted when they want to play with pace and fluency. Just look at the back five of the scrum. That is a dynamic combination who can cover plenty of ground – something Steve repeatedly made mention of this week. The backline is highly skilled too. They are not going to try and play like Harlequins but under Nick Evans maybe there will be a tendency to play what is in front of them. If there’s an overlap 30m out, perhaps the first instinct will not be to kick the ball.

Six Nations championships tend to have a slightly different feel to them in World Cup years, mainly because the sport’s administrators are trying to align Test matches with how they want the tournament later in the year to play out. World Rugby had a shape-of-the-game meeting last November with all the key stakeholders, tournament owners, chief executives of the unions and a whole load of world-class coaches and referees. Those messages have been crystalised: they want a spectacle, they want space to be utilised and they want safety.

We’ve got a laser focus on what our game wants to be, how it’s managed and what it looks like. A big part of that is speed of the game and we need to get the ball in play for longer. The directives have come that scrums and lineouts will be given the hurry-up – not to the detriment of safety – and there will be shot-clocks. The hope is that it will be translated into a more attractive spectacle later in the year but the beauty of the Six Nations is that either way, with so many closely matched sides, we can guarantee tension and excitement.