The winters are dark and cold in this part of the world, the daylight is in short supply during the days following Christmas, it is a bleak time for everyone, everyone that is apart from rugby fans.
For us it is the rebirth of the sporting year, and the start of the weekly countdown to the first weekend in February when the 6 Nations tournament begins.
The tournament starts in the depths of winter, and takes us through to the weak sunshine and gentle warmth of early spring, when the tournament concludes in the middle of March.
February 14th, which is of course Valentines day, sits perfectly in the middle of the tournament, so for the romantically inclined what could be a better way to show your undying love for your partner than to take them away for a 6 nations weekend.
But I would offer a word of caution, I would suggest you inform “your other half” that rugby is involved before you travel, I have witnessed couples in Paris having a “domestic” as the non rugby partner is informed, over coffee and croissants on saturday morning, that a large part of the romantic weekend ahead in the city of light will taken up at Stade de France watching an international match.
But the 6 nations is about far more than just rugby, it’s about making and renewing friendships, it’s about the history, it’s about the fans, the wonderful memories of 6 nations weekends past, and those wonderful ones yet to come.
Memories of matches and weekends shared with family, loved ones, and friends, some of whom are sadly no longer with us, come flooding back, and their spirits are with us this at time of year, as we prepare to enjoy a winter sporting festival like no other.
The 6 nations weekend has a heartbeat, a soul, it is a living entity, that has been enjoyed and handed down from generation to generation.
Uncles, fathers, grandparents cousins, have all taken pride in guiding their offspring on their first 6 nations weekend, and those youngsters who have taken over the baton, keep the traditions alive, and when the time comes, they will take their young on a similar rite of passage, and that is why the 5 Nations, as it was, and the 6 nations as it is now, is so unique.
Only in this tournament would you find a middle-aged Englishman wearing a Roman centurion outfit sitting outside a cafe and calmly enjoying a beer in the Piazza Navona.
Each wonderful host city has its own unique atmosphere, sight, sounds and smells.
Whether it’s welsh fans dressed in dragons costumes under the Eiffel Tower, English fans masquerading as medieval knights handing out roses to the scary French riot police, or Italians meeting their ancestors at one of the plethora of Italian restaurants in Cardiff, the joy and friendliness of the tournament are plain to see ,which ever match you happen to attend.
Add to that the kilted Scots sitting around the fountains at Trafalgar Square, with their whisky filled hipflasks to keep out the cold, the Irish a sea of green in leprechaun hats clutching a pint of the black stuff, or the stylish French looking cool in their shades, whatever the weather, and whatever the venue, you begin to get a feel of what a thrill to the senses this tournament really is.
Cardiff is the only city where supporters can watch the game, celebrate, and collapse into bed all within the distance of a Leigh Halfpenny goal kick.
The Principality stadium is squeezed in between the flats, shops, houses and pubs right in the heart of the city centre, and more importantly in a country where rain is a frequent, if not permanent resident , it has a roof.
Cardiff is also the home of Brains Brewery, whose products are rather popular on rugby weekends, one their products is a beer called “Brains SA” the locals will tell you that “SA” stands for skull attack, which informs you all of you need to know about the side effects of this particular beverage.
Talking of beer, Dublin is of course the home of the silky smooth black stuff, Guinness, and the most popular excursion for 6 Nations fans visiting the Irish capital, is a tour of the Guinness brewery where you actually get a free sample.
The French fans simply adore Dublin, they fly over in the thousands to watch Ireland face “Les Bleus” they used to bring live cockerels with them and release them on the field of play, obviously this is now outlawed, or it may just be that chickens find Air France air fares a bit too expensive these days.
The Irish will charm you, entertain you, smile and then kick the living day lights out of you on the rugby field, there aren’t many more hospitable capitals on this planet than Dublin, as any 6 nations fan who has been there will happily tell you, once they have recovered from their lack of sleep and mind numbing hangover.
Rome is the 6 Nations “new kid on the block” as Italy did not join the tournament until the year 2000 and the shock for fans here, especially those from Scotland, is that you are likely to experience sunshine, now a famous Scotland player once told me that Scots are born with blue skin, and it takes them three weeks in the sun to even turn white, so the Tartan Army are easily to spot, not only because they are wearing kilts, but due to the fact that they are all clutching bottles of factor 50 sun cream.
Italy joining the 6 Nations created an added pressure for the regular 6 nations fans, and there is a big downside the Azzuri’s inclusion.
Partners, wives, girlfriends and boyfriends who previously had no interest in rugby, and could be visibly seen yawning when you even mentioned the word , suddenly took a rather disturbing interest in the game, when they discovered that joining you on a potential weekend to the Eternal City was a distinct possibility.
Rome is a venue like no other, no tradition or historical rugby hang ups here, it is the brash teenager of 6 Nations rugby, and is determined to enjoy La Dolce Vita whatever the result.
A colleague, when in Rome for an Italy v England match, told me of a time he found himself standing at a set of traffic lights in Rome, when he suddenly became aware of a twelve-inch sword being waved in his face, wielded by a local man uttering threats in a deep loud Italian voice.
A few seconds later his “assailant” reassured my friend that the sword was made of plastic and gave him a “high-five” and a “Ciao baby” and went on his merry way.
If Rome is the brash teenager then Twickenham, the bastion of Englishness, is the grumpy old grandfather, but even so is a shrine for visiting fans, and a shrine that obviously makes visitors extremely thirsty.
At the England v Ireland match in 2014 160,000 pints of beer,were sold at the stadium, another victory over the Welsh who only managed a mere 77,184 pints in Cardiff at a match between Wales and France.
As you walk from Twickenham station to the ground, every inch of pavement is filled with providers of fast food frying their wares, as the aroma of burgers, sausages and onions fill the air with a smokey haze you can almost touch the cholesterol.
For Welsh fans the favourite trip is Edinburgh, this all started due the fact that until 1977, the matches at Murrayfield were not “All Ticket” so people paid at the gate, as a result the Welsh always travelled in heavy number.
It is a like a red tsunami flowing down Princess street as the Scarlet hordes make their way to Murrayfield framed by the beauty of the castle, and the Scott Monument.
Things went horribly wrong in 1977 when at least 110,000 were squeezed into Murrayfield for Scotland v Wales, and it was a miracle that no one was seriously injured, and since that day, Scotland matches became ticket only affairs.
That weekend trip to see Wales play Scotland in Edinburgh was perceived to be a test of manhood undertaken by many generations of Welsh fans.
The journey to this game was known as “The Killer”, leaving Cardiff at 2100 on Friday night, the train would arrive in Edinburgh at 0700 on Saturday morning, the return journey commenced immediately following the match, with the train leaving Edinburgh at 2100 on Saturday night, and arriving in Cardiff at 0500 on Sunday morning, it was not a journey for the faint hearted.
Mind you I know of people who have travelled on this weekend marathon and never even got to see the game, due to socialising a bit too fervently, they returned home with very little memory of the whole weekend, but the moment they got back they started saving, weekly, for the next trip in two years time.
But putting romanticism aside for one moment, the stark economic factors of the tournament are worth a mention.
Supporters spending makes the championship worth £375 million per year to the participating countries economies, whilst the cities that host the matches (London, Paris, Rome, Dublin, Cardiff and Edinburgh) benefit by around £150 million.
The main sectors to benefit are food and drink and accommodation, in a study undertaken by previous tournament sponsors RBS, £59 million is spent in bars and restaurants, and £38 million on hotels and other accommodation, and £19 million spent in shops.
In addition the tournament creates around 3,100 jobs, and all this very real boost to economies occur during what is a quiet time of year for tourism.
In 2017 two matches in Cardiff, where Wales faced Ireland and England, resulted in £52 million coming into the Welsh economy, of which £30 million was enjoyed by the city of Cardiff itself, so it seems everyone is a winner in the 6 Nations, off the field at least.
As the 2023 tournament approaches, many of us, in the middle of a cold dark winters night will lie awake, and as the wind and rain beat against the window, we will feel a cosy warmth, as we remember with fondness, the matches, the weekends, the laughter, the tears, but most of all we will remember the people we have shared the matches with, and those friends we have met, because it is they that make the six nations tournament so very special.