RICHARD BULLICK: There's nothing like the Six Nations

Two uncapped players named in Ireland squad
Richard Bullick

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The strangest Six Nations ever gets underway this weekend with all the games being behind closed doors instead of in front of the capacity crowds we always took for granted.

Watchers had a flavour of empty stadium backdrops when last year’s pandemic-disrupted Championship was completed in the autumn, but it still feels far from normal.

The Six Nations isn’t just about the rugby but the social side, and those wonderful weekends we all love in the capital cities of the competing countries with fans mixing freely.

Ireland beginning their campaign away to Wales on a Sunday brings me back to a Cardiff afternoon 14 years ago when the same scenario applied.

On that occasion, a certain Rory Best scored a try on his first Six Nations start as the men in green got up and running with a vital victory and went on to complete the Triple Crown.

That was the season Ireland thrashed England on that unforgettable evening in Croke Park but were denied the title on points difference in spite of an emphatic win in Rome.

Poyntzpass man Rory had come on as a replacement against Wales in Dublin the year before, but the Ulster hooker had to wait a while for his next opportunity.

However, that 2007 fixture in Cardiff was, remarkably, the first of 51 consecutive appearances in the Six Nations by Best until overnight illness struck in Rome a decade later.

Now retired after a great career, Rory has become involved in the media machine, contributing a column for BBC Online and appearing as a television pundit.

However, like many of us, Rory’s earliest memories of what was then the Five Nations was heading down to the old Lansdowne Road as a schoolboy, blown away by the experience.

Armagh Royal brought us down on day trips, leaving first thing in the morning so we could play a game against a Dublin school in the morning or watch an early kick-off club match.

One recalls seeing former Ireland prop Phil Orr playing for Old Wesley, confectionery being sold out of prams on a three-for-a-pound-basis and taking our places on the packed terrace.

We watched Ireland being brutalised by a huge English pack featuring the likes of Dean Richards in 1989 but witnessed a rare home win against Wales the following spring.

Rory talks about steak dinners being part of the attraction of trips to Dublin but, being there with school, we were content with chicken, chips and peas at the old Rosnaree Hotel.

Our Drogheda haunt was later rebranded the Europa and is now no more, not that we see these places nowadays anyway with the motorway making the journey south so convenient.

Rory went on to achieve the dream of pulling on the green jersey but, in my case, being back covering games as a reporter not long after finishing school was also a privilege.

Up until the postponed Italy game, this writer hadn’t missed a home match in the Championship since 1997, at the old Lansdowne, Croke Park and the new Aviva Stadium.

As a daily newspaper rugby correspondent for 13 years, one was fortunate enough to get all the away games too and, even with work to do, sample the unique experience of each city.

In a journalistic capacity, your columnist covered Ireland seven times at Twickenham, in half a dozen Six Nations matches in Paris and on their first five visits to the wonderful Rome.

Edinburgh has its attractions too as a rugby weekend destination while trips to Cardiff were always a reminder of the special passion for rugby that there is in Wales.

My first Wales away game as a rugby writer was actually at Wembley while the Millennium Stadium was being built to replace the old Arms Park in time for the 1999 World Cup.

The 2001 match was delayed until the autumn due to the outbreak of Foot and Mouth, but the wait was worth it as Ulster’s David Humphreys put Wales to the sword.

Ireland got out of Cardiff with a narrow win to set up a ill-fated Grand Slam decider against England 18 months later, while 2005 was memorable in its own way.

Wales were on the verge of a first Grand Slam since 1978, an unthinkable famine for such a rugby-mad nation, and the atmosphere as that 27-year wait ended was sensational.

Having been at Cheltenham on the Friday, I spent that evening in Croesyceiliog rugby club up in the Cwmbran area of the Valleys at the invitation of a former Welsh women’s outhalf.

Her team had been staying in the same hotel in Barcelona at the 2002 women’s World Cup and the friendship meant experiencing the fervour first-hand in the Welsh rugby heartlands.

That was a privilege and, on the day itself, the thousands of inflatable daffodils waved wildly as Wales got the job done, helped by Gethin Jenkins charging down Ronan O’Gara for a try.

However, Rory struck the first blow on Ireland’s successful next visit and our local hero was on the field when the final whistle in 2009 confirmed a first green Grand Slam for 61 years.

That was a truly wonderful day and, although this weekend is set be a lot lower key occasion and lacking atmosphere, all those treasured Six Nations memories will come flooding back as we watch from afar.

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