Six Nations rugby: The Super Bowl’s antithesis

super bowlYou might be forgiven—were you American—for believing that the entire sporting world pauses on its axis in awe as the brouhaha that is Super Bowl sweeps towards NFL Championship Sunday.

And in fairness, the reach of the biggest sporting event in the United States has a huge international audience. A global audience of more than 100 million people is expected to tune on the first Sunday in February as the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers meet in Super Bowl XLVII at the New Orleans Superdome.

The numbers rise still higher during the half-time show to match the glamour quotient. Last year, Madonna played a show-stopper, and this time round, it will be Beyonce, fresh from lip-syncing of the national anthem at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. There are even rumours of a Destiny’s Child reunion.

As for the national anthem at the Super Bowl, that honour goes to Alicia Keys, who has promised to perform it as if it were “a brand new song.” The mind boggles.

It boggles still more at the money. Tickets can cost $3,000 apiece, while host broadcaster CBS has claimed that the price of a 30-second advert during the event has reached a record high $4 million. Little wonder that, for many, the com­mer­cials have be­come an event in them­selves, with big budgets, ma­jor stars and dazzling visu­al ef­fects.

Add into the mix New Orleans’ famous Mardi Gras carnival season, plus some sibling rivalry—the head coaches of the opposing teams are brothers John and Jim Harbaugh—and the Super Bowl will bring a nation to a grinding halt as families gather across the USA to watch, eat, drink, and enjoy the moment.

Meanwhile, on the other side of The Pond, things are being done a little differently.

For while the padded up and helmeted Super Bowl heroes gear up to the predetermined rhythm of the broadcasters’ advertising breaks, its stripped down, Euro-centred equivalent is also kicking off.

It’s the opening weekend of the Six Nations Championship—the highlight of the annual rugby union calendar. From Wales to France, Scotland to Italy, the singing comes from the players and the fans, and there is nothing to match it anywhere in sport—even Beyonce at full belt.

The Six Nations is a competition where deep-rooted loyalties have been determined by the history books, with the English as the common foe. It may be hundreds of years since a king Edward or a king Henry strode into Scotland, Ireland or France, but an unspoken resentment still simmers.

And the singing of the crowd is the metaphor for these ancient rivalries. It is the kind of singing—patriotic, soaring, lyrical, and passionate—that hits the bloodstream like a dram of single malt in a strong coffee.

The Six Nations is also devoid of the multitude of ad breaks, food-stops and beer top-ups that litter every few minutes of the American oval-balled showdown. In a world where sport and broadcasting are dominated by the demands of sponsors, it comes as a breath of fresh air for television coverage to be structured around the match rather than the reverse.

While the Super Bowl can stop and start its way towards four hours, rugby’s internationals go at full tilt for under two. It’s exhausting stuff, with little respite: a non-stop 40 minutes, a 10-minute break, and the concluding 40-minute-plus stretch. Fans take a comfort break at their peril—the scoreboard will carry on without them. So no-one leaves their seats.

This is a sport of muscle and sinew, from scrum to line-out to tackle. The attack for a try may come from the ducking and weaving of the sprinting backs or the charging shoulders of the front row: and with not a protective helmet in sight.

But interwoven with the flat-out drama are moments when the hurly-burly ceases for a few oxygen-gathering minutes.

These are the moments when one man is called upon to slow his heart, shut out the roaring crowd and step up to kick at goal.

The ball is balanced, at just the right tilt, and steps are taken in careful measure, backwards and to the side. The target may be 50 metres distant, the angle may be acute, the opening narrowed to a half-closed window.

Years of practice are concentrated into these short seconds of stillness. The ball soars, the crowd roars, and all hell breaks loose once more.

One of the Six Nations’ chief joys, though, infuses both the sport and the supporters. One country’s finest may be cut to the quick by a last-minute drop goal, but they will line the field to shake hands with every one of their opponents.

For rugby is characterised by a camaraderie that rises above patriotic allegiances.

Imagine the scene. Best friends, one English, the other Welsh, sit side by side to watch their respective teams. They text their absent children. The Welshman’s daughter is following the match in a bar in Hong Kong at 2am. She was born and brought up in England, has an English mother, but stands shoulder to shoulder with her father.

The Englishman’s daughter, away for a girls’ weekend, is also watching and instructing her friends in the finer points of off-sides and penalties. One father-and-daughter duo shares its post-loss gloom, the other unites for a quick victory celebration. Then, in the blink of an eye, it’s back to the ale, to bit of post-match analysis, and on to fresh conversations.

And that is rugby’s Six Nations in a nutshell. The heat of battle gives way to a shake of the hand and a generous word, both on the pitch and off. It is one of those special occasions when sport moves beyond mere competition and rivalry to a unique shared experience.

Maybe it’s not so different from the Super Bowl after all.

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62 responses to “Six Nations rugby: The Super Bowl’s antithesis

  1. Well of course I can’t agree that rugby is better than football, especially when my team just won the SB, the greatest linebacker retired a champ., and the sore-losing younger brother showed his stripes. Very dramatic. But I do know rugby, and I was in South Africa during the World Cup recently (which was being played in N.Z.). They’re crazy about it, and I got into it. By the way, isn’t the Rugby World Cup a much bigger deal than this Six Nations? I mean c’mon, the Men in Black already! By the way #2: Americans like me who grew up in many cities of the eastern seaboard either played rugby or watched plenty of games when they were younger. I’m not sure if it is as big now (live out west), but when I was young there were semi-pro leagues who played everywhere from local parks to small stadiums (never the big venues though). I’ll tell you this: when I’m traveling I’ll watch a rugby game over a soccer game any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

  2. Fingers crossed, that rugby somehow keeps its current balanced relationship with commercialism- enough to support the sport and keep it moving forwards, but not at the, ahem, expense of the passion and soul that make it special

  3. Great Post, I have just started a blog myself
    and have begun by writing about the 6 nations. I really liked the comparison you have made with the SuperBowl really interesting stuff! Money is obviously huge with any sport and the commercial links but delving into the cultures of the fans and the differences there gives us plenty of food for though.

    Look forward to future posts.

    GV

  4. Great post – full of passion. I’d say that Beyonce’s performance at the Superbowl was the event as far as the rest of the world was concerned.! Me? I don’t know which two teams were playing, but I know B was there with the other two and I know what they wore!

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