The Six Nations: 'It's a wonderful thing'
January 27, 2014
Phil Vickery during an England career which spanned 73 caps © Getty Images
The Six Nations is what you grew up with; it's something a bit special. As always there are little undercurrents of expectation, under-dogs and under-performers but none of us know who'll win. As far as the actual product, European rugby is in a good position at the moment; it's all bubbling away beautifully.
The Five Nations was a big part of my childhood and always inspired me. I remember watching the likes of Mike Teague, Peter Winterbottom and Wade Dooley when growing up, those were my first memories of the championship. The Grandstand music used to boom out in our kitchen while we crowded round the only TV in our house down in Kilkhampton. It was a special time.
For England now, I think they are in a good place. There are still quite a lot of unknowns in the three-quarters but the England pack is in good shape. They're developing and moving along nicely but, although outside the nine/ten area is not concerning us yet, there's also no one that really sticks their hand up saying 'I am the kiddie, come and get me'. There are plenty of options but I hope this Six Nations helps them nail that down.
At tight-head I have faith in Henry Thomas to provide back-up to Dan Cole. On the loose-head side there's good strength in depth and while there isn't a huge amount behind Cole with Davey Wilson missing, sometimes you have to be forced to give others opportunities. Thomas has great credentials and is showing everything you want to see from someone growing up and coming through the ranks and I hope he gets his opportunity.
Anthony Watson will be one player hoping to stake his claim for regular England selection this year © Getty Images
If that comes against France then I can empathise with how he'd feel. I have mixed memories of playing in the Stade de France as you're generally crapping yourself whenever you play over the Channel. I remember the high-pitched squeal in the stadium. When you have the ball there are boos and when France had it, it was like the atmosphere lifted and their team came alive.
The first time I was named in an England squad was against France in 1998. I remember thinking 'Jesus Christ, don't let me get on that field'. I didn't know any of the lineout calls as the Leicester mafia wouldn't let me in and I was thinking 'please Clive don't put me on' - thankfully he didn't. It was a key learning curve though for me. We lost the game and I remember Neil Back afterwards. Disappointment was not the word and it made me realise how serious it was to play for England.
I'm a proud Englishman and I really admire Stuart Lancaster for what he's done for the team. He's just a normal guy, and that's not meant in a bad way, but you can approach him and he talks a lot of common sense. He reminds me a lot of Warren Gatland - they are just both sensible people who don't try and create layers and layers of bullshit. Rugby's a simple game - I managed to play it which shows just how simple it is - and they seem to get it.
At the end of the day Lancaster will be judged on results but what he has done is bring back an identity to the team. Sometimes you have to be careful with that as playing for England means a different thing to every individual but he has managed to connect the England team with the fans and ultimately that is vitally important. He's done that beautifully.
But let's cut the crap, rugby is about winning games and first up for England is France who had a terrible 2013.
I was speaking to Philippe [Saint-Andre] last week and I love the man. He's a good man and boss and if his team can play with the emotion and passion he showed as a player, they wouldn't have any problems. They have plenty of talent and a strong back-row but for me, the man who faces the biggest challenge is Pascal Pape. He needs to bring all those egos together and sort out whatever problems they have.
They are an unpredictable team and in terms of the whole championship I think England will end up scrapping it out with Wales for the top spot.
But if I was looking for a team outside of those two, and if I was a betting man - I'm not because I value money too much - I'd stick a cheeky tenner on Ireland. I feel there might have been a bit of magic dust sprinkled on that team courtesy of Joe Schmidt and they will be a bloody handful. No one doubt's captain Paul O'Connell's ability and while he isn't the fastest in the world - if you've never had speed, you don't miss it -he is a fantastic player and leader.
Paul O'Connell - 'one of the championship's finest players' © Ireland
He will go down as one of the championship's finest players and it was always an absolute privilege to run out in it.
The Six Nations is a really special tournament and sometimes we forget about just how unique it is as we are involved it. We live in a wonderful part of the world and it just brings everyone together. It reminds people of what rugby can do for communities and everyone comes together to celebrate the best team sport in the world.
I know I've said that a thousand times before but I bloody well mean it.
Sometimes you take that for granted but the rest of the world would die for the competition we have. It's about Cardiff, Dublin, London, Edinburgh, Paris and Rome with the people celebrating together, enjoying the banter and finding a common purpose in being passionate about their country. It's a wonderful thing.
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