Six of the best: Skippers Jamie Ritchie, Ken Owens, Owen Farrell, Antoine Dupont, Jonathan Sexton and Michele Lamaro
London (AFP) - This year’s Six Nations Championship starts on Saturday – and for officials confronting mutiple crises among Europe’s elite, kick-off cannot come soon enough.
The Welsh Rugby Union is still reeling from allegations of misogyny, sexism, racism and homophobia within its ranks.
Claims of a “toxic culture” at the WRU were aired in a television documentary last week, resulting in the resignation of chief executive Steve Phillips.
Racism has been an issue in Italy, with Treviso prop Ivan Nemer suspended until the end of the season after being identified as the source of the rotten banana given as a Christmas present to black team-mate Cherif Traore, also an Azzurri front row.
The Scottish Rugby Union have been criticised for their handling of the death of former international Siobhan Cattigan amid accusations she did not receive the same level of medical care as a male player.
French Rugby Federation president Bernard Laporte resigned last week following his conviction for corruption in December.
Meanwhile, a plan by England’s Rugby Football Union to ban tackling above the waist in the amateur game provoked such a furious backlash that within days Twickenham chiefs were forced into an embarrassing U-turn.
And yet that initiative, however poorly communicated, was a response to fears over the future of the game sparked by a slew of lawsuits from former players who insist officials failed to provide them with sufficient protection from brain injury.
Administrators often talk of “rugby values” when trying to promote the sport, but rarely has the phrase sounded so hollow.
This Six Nations, an annual showpiece that often produces upset results in front of routinely packed and joyous crowds, is, however, an opportunity to show that not everything is rotten within rugby.
- ‘Enough doom and gloom’ -
Shaun Edwards won a Six Nations Grand Slam with France in March
“A lot of people are knocking rugby at the moment and it has irritated me a bit,” wrote France assistant coach Shaun Edwards in thes Daily Mail. “Hopefully, the Six Nations can really change the mood.”
The former Great Britain rugby league international turned union defence guru said the sport had given him an identity and a purpose, adding: “I’ve had enough of the doom and gloom around the game.”
Warren Gatland, the returning Wales boss, was in no doubt about the Six Nations’ enduring allure.
“Forty per cent of fans can be away supporters. That creates an unbelievable atmosphere,” said Gatland, whose side launch this year’s edition at home to Ireland.
Just what effect the New Zealander, who won four Six Nations titles and three Grand Slams in his first spell as Wales coach, from 2007 to 2019, will have on a team that won just three games last year is one of several intriguing sub-plots.
Reigning champions France, for all their off-field chaos, are on a 13-match unbeaten run which includes last season’s Grand Slam.
The form of a gifted team, captained by outstanding scrum-half Antoine Dupont, has raised hopes the 2023 World Cup hosts could at last end their long wait to lift the trophy for the first time.
England are under new management, with former captain Steve Borthwick succeeding Eddie Jones following a dire 2022.
Ireland face a different problem in coping with the burden of expectation after rising to the top of the world rankings under coach Andy Farrell, the father of England captain Owen.
For Scotland – who face England on Saturday as the holders of the Calcutta Cup – and Italy, the challenge is to turn promising displays into more frequent wins.
But at least Italy ended a miserable run of 36 successive Six Nations defeats with a 22-21 win away to Wales last year.
“You’ve got the top two teams in the world, a Scotland team that should have beaten New Zealand in the autumn, then you see an Italian side that looks the strongest I’ve seen,” said Borthwick.
Scotland counterpart Gregor Townsend added: “As a coach, you just can’t wait for this tournament. It is the biggest thing we have in our game.”