You might be forgiven for thinking—were you American—that the entire sporting world pauses on its axis in awed silence as the brouhaha that is the Super Bowl sweeps towards NFL Championship Sunday.
The hype surrounding this annual-holiday event began months ago: Fox had sold every one of its £3 million advertising slots by last October. With an expected audience of around 150 million for at least part of the game—with many, it is claimed, tuning in just to see the lavish adverts—no wonder corporate America wants a piece of the action.
And even though this year will be the first in the Bowl’s history that cheerleaders do not play a part—the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers are two of the few teams to have dispensed with their squads—the glamour quotient remains high.
Christina Aguilera will sing the National Anthem, the Black Eyed Peas are providing the half-time entertainment, and Usher, Slash, Maroon 5 and Keith Urban are slated to contribute to the pregame and postgame showcase.
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 themselves 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. In Wales, Italy and France, the singing comes from the players and the fans, and there is nothing to match it anywhere in sport—even Christina 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 or Wales, 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 English long to match the Welsh, the best choir in the world, singing of loyalty to their homeland and forefathers in Bread of Heaven—or the Scots, lifted by their pipes, singing of sending Edward’s army “homeward” in The Flower of Scotland. Compare the maudlin melody of the British National Anthem with the rousing spirit of Le Marseillaise and it’s little wonder that the English fans have adopted—mysteriously—Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
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 because the scoreboard will carry on without them: 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: all 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.
He can be the match-saver or the match-loser, the team’s poster boy—England’s Friday-night star Toby Flood or Wales’s glowering Steve Jones.
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 and 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. Italy’s finest may have been cut to the quick by Ireland’s last-minute drop goal, but they will line the field to shake hands with every one of their opponents.
The BBC’s Scottish commentator may have wished for his compatriots’ three tries to be enough to trounce the French, but he still paused to encourage the viewers to listen to the singing of the Parisian fans and to admire the beauty of the home-team’s running play.
For rugby is characterised by a camaraderie that rises above mere patriotic allegiances.
Imagine the scene. Best friends, one English, the other Welsh, are gathered to watch their respective teams.
They text their absent children. The Welsh daughter is following the match in a bar in Hong Kong at 2 am. She was born and brought up in England, has an English mother, but stands shoulder to shoulder with her Welsh 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. The Welsh duo share their gloom within moments of the final whistle, the English share their celebration. Then, in the blink of an eye, it’s back to the ale, to some impartial analysis, 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.
In the end, then, maybe it’s not so different from the Super Bowl.
And perhaps that is why, for the first time in Six Nations history, the men on this side of The Pond have opened their campaign on Friday and Saturday. It leaves Sunday as a day of rest—a day to watch their padded-up colleagues strut their stuff while every family in the States cheers them on.