This year’s Six Nations Championship has been as exciting as I can remember with the outcome in doubt right up to the final minute of the final game. I have been privileged to be able to watch all of England’s games this season but there were incidents and stories around the matches that have made the tournament all the more memorable.
First up Paris, and the French like to do things their way so despite the match being a 6pm kick-off we were picked up at 1pm for the coach journey to the Stade de France. For me, the Stade is the best looking stadium of the ones used in the Six Nations with its wide entrances and superb views from any seat. Unfortunately it is situated in an industrial estate with poor transport connections.
There was a bit of delay while our accreditations were sorted out but we eventually arrived in a huge hospitality area under the stadium about 1:45 giving the 1000 plus guests four hours for lunch. However, a mixture of good company, an extensive range of local fare and Wales v Italy being shown on screens around the room meant that the time passed surprisingly quickly.
The game was one of the best I had experienced in quite a while and the atmosphere during the last two minutes of the game after Fickou’s winning try was unbelievable. The Marseillaise, surely the best of the European anthems, resounding around the Stade de France as the home crowd celebrated a Gallic victory that has been all too rare in recent times, made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Surely there was no better place to be for a true lover of Rugby.
The post match function was held a mile or so away in a huge venue that looked like it might be usually used as an indoor riding arena. The England players were unsurprisingly downbeat having lost a game that was within their grasp but they could celebrate two new caps for Luther Burrell and Jack Nowell (now known as Luke following a slip of the tongue from the RFU President). What an impact they were both to have on the remaining games.
Temporary toilets had been installed decorated to look like a rugby clubhouse, but I was taken by surprise when amongst the club plaques on the wall I saw one from Holt RFC!
So on to Murrayfield for a game that England was expected to win but the state of the pitch was such that it could only help the home side. The Calcutta Cup was in attendance at the buffet lunch at the stadium where English and Scots were united in their support of Ireland as they watched them defeat Wales. During the game the crowd was as hostile as ever, booing and whistling whenever Owen Farrell lined up a kick, but the Scottish committee were as always friendly and hospitable and I felt that they were a touch embarrassed at the poor showing of their team.
The post match dinner was a little different in that the guests all sat down to eat straight after the game with the players joining us later, giving them more time to wind down after the game and to fulfil their sponsorship obligations. This meant that they helped themselves to a buffet which included tubs of ice-cream, and when Chris Robshaw made his captain’s speech he hinted that the RFU should also consider the same at their post match functions.
England’s performances in the first two games had ramped up the already huge demand for tickets for the two Twickenham internationals and the noise of the crowd during the game against Ireland was phenomenal. For the third time in four games England came from behind to take the lead but this time they hung on for a win that defined how far this young side had come. The effort that the England players had put in showed at the dinner afterwards where they all looked exhausted, with little of the usual banter being displayed. However, they managed a smile when they saw that heed had been taken of Chris Robshaw and they were served tubs of ice-cream as requested.
Over the following two weeks there was such an air of anticipation leading up to the visit of Wales, with memories of the thrashing in Cardiff a season earlier still painful. I was hosting drinks on behalf of Eastern Counties in the West car park and with the invaluable help of Russ and Pamela Clarke it was a tremendous success with members of clubs from Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk all dropping by for a drink and a chat on a gloriously sunny Sunday.
Prince Harry was just a few yards away having a private gathering with friends and it was interesting to see the reaction of the British rugby public. Yes, there were a lot of pictures taken with mobile phones but no-one tried to invade his party and after the initial flurry of excitement he was left alone to enjoy himself.
The RFU was determined to make home advantage count so every seat had an England flag to make the stadium a sea of white when the players took to the field. The noise level surpassed even that of the previous game with Twickenham shaking with the passion of the national anthem followed by Swing Low. As England got on top of the Welsh during the game so the home crowd got even more behind their team with players saying afterwards they couldn’t hear each other or the referee during the last fifteen minutes.
After the game it was back into the car park for more drinking and celebrating under the Eastern Counties flag but I had to leave early for the post match function. It was fascinating to watch the interaction between the English and Welsh players during the dinner; Mako Vunipola came to sit with his cousin Toby Faletau, Ben Morgan chatted with Rhys Priestland whom he used to play with at Scarlets, while George North spent time talking with Northampton team mates Tom Wood and Lee Dockson. Then there was the inevitable front-row huddle with Adam Jones and Richard Hibbard comparing notes with Tom Youngs and Joe Marler. It proved to show that the game is the same at every level with friends getting together after the match.
I managed a word with Mike Brown having spoken to him once or twice before and I asked him how much beating Wales meant. I can’t repeat his actual words but take it from me, the England players really wanted revenge for 2013 whatever the official line was before kick off.
So it was off to Rome for England’s final appearance in the unfolding drama of the Six Nations. Could they put Italy to the sword? Would France defy their poor form and beat Ireland? England did as well as most people had hoped putting fifty points past an ordinary Italian side. I watched the Ireland v France game in the bar of our hotel on a TV positioned so that we all had to crane our necks to get a decent view. Meanwhile, the England team had to go to the black tie post match function early in case the French won, so that they could be presented with the Six Nations trophy in time to fit in with the TV schedules.
The tension in the hotel bar for the final quarter of the game was unbearable. Grandees of the English game, including several former internationals, were shouting at the screen urging the French on, something that instinctively didn’t feel quite right. Wild celebrations sparked by a French try in the dying minutes were abruptly curtailed by the video referee calling a forward pass, but when the referee’s whistle signalled the end of the game and the tournament, I for one was happy to see the genius that is Brian O’Driscoll bow out of the game with a Six Nations championship.
Most satisfying was the game by game improvement in Stuart Lancaster’s squad and with fifteen matches to go until the Rugby World Cup you can’t help but see England as a credible contender. Roll on 2015!