The Rugby World Cup comes around just once every four years, meaning that for fans of international rugby union, something else has to plug the gap. Unlike in soccer, where national team games are often deemed disruptive and inconvenient, rugby’s Six Nations Championship gets the blood pumping of both casual and avid fans of the sport.
Pitting the northern hemisphere’s top six national teams – England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales – against each other annually puts bragging rights up for grabs, sells out stadiums and, more often than not, is the perfect recipe for six weeks of high quality entertainment.
The Six Nations also has a rich history. First played out between the British and Irish teams in 1883, the competition then known as the Home Nations Championship was the world’s first international rugby tournament. The home nations were later joined by France, initially in 1910 and then again in 1947, to create the Five Nations, which it remained until 2000 when Italy entered the fray.
For some time though, it wasn’t clear what this year’s edition of the championship would actually be called. After cutting ties with title sponsor Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) at the end of last year’s tournament, organisers went in search of a new backer willing to pay as much as a reported UK£100 million for the honour - a UK£6 million-per-year increase on the annual UK£11 million committed by the Scottish banking group.
That search, however, rumbled on for many months amid tough market conditions linked to the uncertainty created by Brexit, forcing Six Nations chief executive John Feehan to revise the asking price. Then, just days after reports surfaced of a deal with the Altrad Group, a contract was signed: in a somewhat embarrassing episode for Six Nations chiefs, a one-year stop-gap partnership was agreed with financial services provider NatWest, a sub-division of the outgoing RBS.
NatWest joins Guinness, which has a four-year deal to serve as the official beer of the Six Nations alongside arrangements with several competing teams, as a prominent sponsor, as well as Accenture, which teamed up with the competition in 2012 as its official technology partner, and Tissot, the tournament’s official timekeeper since 2013.
Stadium: Twickenham Stadium (82,000)
Main sponsor: O2
Kit supplier: Canterbury
Last year’s champions are the bookies’ favourites to retain their Six Nations title, and Eddie Jones’ side will be keen to avenge the defeat to Ireland which prevented them from securing a third Grand Slam in 2017. That result also ended England’s record-equalling 18-match winning streak - a run of form which has since seen Jones rewarded with a new contract until 2021.
Injuries to Elliot Daly, Nathan Hughes and Billy Vunipola mean England’s squad will begin the tournament somewhat depleted, but away from the pitch, the country’s Rugby Football Union (RFU) remains exceedingly healthy. The national governing body enjoyed a financial boon from hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2015, and last year recorded UK£184.9 million in revenue, representing a 20 per cent increase on the previous year.
That news was preceded by the unveiling of an ambitious four-year strategic plan to make rugby union the strongest sport in England. Stephen Brown, the RFU’s new chief executive, confirmed that the organisation would be investing a record UK£443 million in the project, reflecting an internal confidence that a team rejuvenated under Jones can win the next World Cup in Japan next year.
The end goal is to make England the world’s leading rugby nation, and the first step towards achieving that objective will be winning a record third-straight Six Nations crown in the coming weeks.
Stadium: Stade de France (81,400)
Main sponsor: The Altrad Group
Kit supplier: Le Coq Sportif replaces Adidas in July
Attempting to predict France’s fortunes in any tournament is often futile, such is their unique ability to achieve either the wonderful or the woeful with seemingly no in between.
After finishing third in last year’s Six Nations, the French national team has regressed significantly, losing two of their autumn internationals to South Africa and New Zealand, before stumbling to a disappointing draw at home to minnows Japan to end a run of five straight defeats. It was a spell of results which prompted the French Rugby Federation (FFR) to finally part ways with head coach Guy Noves, before appointing former Italy charge Jacques Brunel to the unenviable task of restoring national pride in its rugby union side.
The French did, at least, land one significant victory in 2017, when World Rugby members controversially voted for France to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup, despite an earlier recommendation to award the event to South Africa. France’s selection will see the country stage the flagship tournament for the third time, but it was one that prompted World Rugby to review its World Cup bidding process following widespread criticism.
And when France kick off their first game of the Six Nations, it will be played against a backdrop of uncertainty, following January’s news that the FFR’s headquarters had been raided by police as part of an investigation into an alleged conflict of interest involving the federation’s outspoken president Bernard Laporte (left). The 53-year-old’s home was also searched, along with that of Mohed Altrad, the man who recently secured a long-term €35 million deal for his Altrad Group to become the shirt sponsor of the national jersey.
While the FFR’s walls might be caving in, as far as the actual rugby goes all signs point towards an unspectacular Six Nations for the French, but as history has shown, that might be the perfect environment for them to flourish in.
Stadium: Aviva Stadium (51,700)
Main sponsor: Vodafone
Kit supplier: Canterbury
Other partners and suppliers: Guinness, Ulster Bank, Aviva, Sport Ireland, Aer Lingus, PWC, Volkswagen, Aon, Intersport Elverys, Aldi, Dove Men+Care, DHL, Eden Park, Gilbert, Blackrock, Glenisk, Tipperay Crystal, STATSports
Like last year, the 2018 Six Nations is likely to boil down to Ireland’s showdown with England on St Patrick’s Day and, like last year, the probability is that at least one of the two teams will be in with a shout of completing the Grand Slam. With this year’s game between the two sides being staged at Twickenham Stadium, however, Ireland’s task will double in size.
The Irish do, however, have every reason to be confident. They are coming into the tournament off the back of a record win over South Africa in November, and are unbeaten since their defeat to Scotland in the opening game of the last Six Nations.
Beyond the white lines though, the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) is still nursing a fresh wound dealt by World Rugby’s aforementioned decision to overlook the country in favour of France for the right to host the World Cup in 2023. Ireland were eliminated in the first round of the process after receiving just eight of 39 votes, and it later emerged that it had failed to receive the backing of both Scotland and Wales.
While England's RFU opted for Ireland's bid, Scotland were reportedly convinced by the greater revenue France could generate, and Wales felt inclined to follow the recommendation of an independent review that suggested South Africa would be the best host.
The IRFU did, at least, recently renew its stadium naming rights deal with insurance firm Aviva until 2025, and the country’s World Cup bidding woes will soon be forgotten if Ireland can channel some of their union’s frustration on securing a first Six Nations crown since 2015.
Stadium: Stadio Olimpico (70,000)
Main sponsor: Cariparma Credit Agricole
Kit supplier: Macron
Other partners and suppliers: Renault, Peroni, NH Hotels, Eden Park, Gilbert, Eataly, DMAX, Il Messaggero, Tuttosport, Vital Nutrition, GTZ Medical, Uliveto
Put simply, Italy’s record in the Six Nations is not good. The Azzurri have taken the wooden spoon on 12 out of 18 occasions since joining the tournament in 2000, and have not won a game in the competition since 2015.
Indeed, Italy’s poor record has previously led to calls for either an expanded championship or the introduction of a promotion and relegation format, giving second-tier nations such as Georgia and Romania the chance to play more regularly against the northern hemisphere’s major teams. That particular scenario still seems far off, though, not least since Feehan last year described criticism of Italy as “unfair”, and has claimed that it is not the tournament’s role “to develop other nations”.
If Italy were to spring a surprise against one of their five opponents this year, however, it would blow the tournament wide open, and the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) will be hoping that their kits provided by domestic supplier Macron – which agreed an eight-year deal with the country’s governing body in July - will bring better luck than those previously supplied by Adidas. But it would be fair to say that the Italians will need more than a lucky uniform to avoid suffering an all too familiar fate.
Stadium: Murrayfield (67,200)
Main sponsor: BT
Kit supplier: Macron
Other partners and suppliers: RBS, Caledonia Best, AG Barr, Guinness, Crabbies Alcoholic Ginger Beer, Eden Mill, Vitality, Dove Men+Care, Gilbert, G4S, Gullivers Sports Travel, Elior, Healthspan Elite, Mitsubishi Motors, Roseberry Tailoring, iPro Sport
Much of Scotland’s Six Nations existence has been defined by an annual two-way battle with Italy to avoid finishing last, so their recent ascent to a historic high of fifth in the world rankings will come as a surprise to many.
Emphatic wins over Samoa and Australia in November followed a trio of victories in last season’s Six Nations, and those results were enough to convince some pundits that Scotland will be genuine contenders for this year’s title.
While talk of a serious challenge might be a little premature, there is no doubt that Scottish rugby union is on the rise. Spearheaded by their talismanic full-back Stuart Hogg, the Scots are playing an exhilarating brand of attacking rugby, free from the shackles of financial burden which has perhaps weighed down on their development in the past.
Indeed, Scottish Rugby announced in August that it had generated UK£50 million in turnover for the first time, with significant boosts coming from increased ticket sales and revenue from sponsorships. That news was soon followed by a three-year renewal with telecoms giant BT, which retained its place on the front of the team’s playing shirts and the naming rights to their Murrayfield home until 2021.
With an estimated 15,000 players in the country, Scotland might have the smallest pool of talent to choose from out of any of the six competing nations, but now that they are finally thriving on and off the pitch, there is a sense of optimism going into this year’s championship that has been absent in the past.
Stadium: Principality Stadium (74,500)
Main sponsor: Isuzu, Subaru
Kit supplier: Under Armour
Other partners and suppliers: Principality, Admiral, Dove Men+Care, Heineken, Guinness, Brains, Vitality, Brogue Trader, Gilbert, Rhino Rugby, T.M. Lewin, Ticketmaster, Fanatics, Gullivers Sports Travel
Rugby’s very nature dictates that injuries are inevitable, but Wales appear to be hobbling rather than charging towards this year’s Six Nations. Despite their long list of absentees, the Welsh will remain hopeful of transforming a two-horse race into a three-way tussle, having gone four years without winning the championship since they did so in consecutive years in 2012 and 2013.
Warren Gatland has been at the helm since 2007, and there is always a sense of staleness that comes with retaining such a long-serving coach, but the 54-year-old has a habit of inspiring teams to upset the odds.
Wales have had a quiet year off the pitch compared to their European counterparts, but the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) did announce last year that it had posted its highest-ever revenues, and that it was reinvesting a record amount back into the sport at all levels in the country. The UK£74.9 million means the WRU is out in front of Scotland and Ireland, but still remains a long way off England’s RFU.
Commercial activity at the WRU was up from UK£12.3 million to UK£12.8 million in 2017, and a chunk of that income came from new shirt sponsors. After their agreement with Admiral came to an end, the body announced last year that Japanese carmakers Isuzu and Subaru – both part of the automotive importer IM Group’s brand portfolio – will adorn the front of the national team’s home and away shirts respectively.
Who’s showing it?
UK: Free-to-air broadcasters BBC and ITV agreed a six-year deal in 2015 to share UK coverage until 2021. The agreement, valued at some UK£50 million (US$77 million) annually, gives the BBC live coverage of all Scotland, Wales and France home matches, while ITV televises all England, Ireland and Italy home matches.
Ireland: This year will see commercial broadcaster TV3 succeed its partly publicly funded rival RTE as the Irish home of the Six Nations. The channel agreed a three-year deal in 2015 which runs until the end of the 2021 edition of the tournament.
France: French public broadcaster France Télévisions has the rights to the competition until 2022, and also cover’s the women’s Six Nations.
Italy: Eurosport parent Discovery Italy renewed its rights deal with the Six Nations’ organisers at the beginning of this year, securing coverage of the next three editions of the competition until 2021.
Asia: OTT platform Rugby Pass recently acquired exclusive rights to the Six Nations across Asia, which is becoming an increasingly important market for rugby union with Japan set to host the next edition of the World Cup in 2019.
US: In October last year, NBC Sports Group cemented its position as the home of European rugby in the USA when it announced that it had pouched the rights to this year’s Six Nations, adding to its coverage of England’s top-tier domestic league, the Aviva Premiership, and World Rugby’s flagship events.
Canada: In the week building up to the tournament, Perform Group-owned streaming service DAZN confirmed that it had secured the rights in Canada to the Six Nations until 2020.