*Updated with full schedule + who to root for.
Leader: If you need an offseason excuse to drink and watch contact sports, the Six Nations Championship starts this weekend. For the uninitiated, it's an annual round-robin between the top national rugby union teams of Europe - England, France, Wales, Scotland, Ireland & Italy. If you don't know much about rugby, it's kind of like football but without pads, forward passes, timeouts or commercial breaks. France won last year, and they (along with England) are favorites this year. This year's championship is especially important due to the 2011 rugby world cup in the fall, where the Southern Hemisphere teams typically put the Euros to the sword.
How to watch: For the past couple years, BBC America HD has broadcast one game on each of the five weekends. For the other games, one has to trek to bar and pay a $20 cover to catch the matches - find a local venue here. Anyone that lives in NYC, The Red Lion, Slaine & McCormack's are popular & rowdy spots and provide a great reason to get slizzard with a bunch of Euros at 10am on a Saturday. ATLiens your best bet is probably Fado. Can also look for a stream online here.
Six Nations 2010 Highlights (via AdamMKeane)
- England (pop. 51mm): The biggest market for rugby, they invented the sport and possess UK media coverage with a clear fawning bias (i.e. every victory, no matter how pedestrian, heralds "A New Era in English Rugby!"). Well-capitalized but relatively underachieving team. Supporters tend to be overpaid and overserved (think lax bros in the US). Hated by every other team & fanbase. Won world cup in 2003, one of four teams to have won it and only team from Northern Hemisphere. College FB comp: Notre Dame, Texas
- Scotland (pop. 5mm): Great rugby history but have not been a factor in recent memory - though things are trending up after recent defeats of Southern Hemisphere heavyweights Australia & South Africa. One-yard-and-a-cloud-of-dust style of play. Rivalry against England is one of the oldest in international sports - beyond pride, at stake is a trophy with cobras on it. College FB comp: Texas A&M, Penn State
- Wales (pop. 3mm): Rugby is the national sport of Wales, and as such, punches far above it's relative weight with a typically appealing open style of play. Every other player is named "Jones'. Visceral hatred of much larger island-mate England. College FB comp: Oklahoma, Auburn
- Ireland (pop. 6mm): Historically shaky but recent vintages have raised expectations considerably. Raging passionate hammered fan base with extreme historical grievance against rival (surprise!) England. For a non-partisan arguably the easiest team to root for. College FB comp: Ole Miss *Should also note that the Irish team selects players from both the Republic of Ireland and from Northern Ireland, and as such transcends national & religious boundaries.
- Italy (pop. 60mm): New to major international rugby. Surprisingly physical style of play. Haven't made waves yet, but the sport is growing in Italy though still trails far behind soccer. College FB comp: Kentucky, Cal-Berkeley
- France (pop. 65mm): The great paradox of rugby. Defying national stereotypes, forward/line play is nasty, rugged & effective. Confirming national stereotypes, the backs/skill players are handsome & elegant. The French are comically inconsistent and only show up when they feel like it, though when they do they can beat any team in the world. Varied facial hair and lax/frat shags abound. Team is a lot like life itself: moody, improvised, sometimes boring, but with moments that make it all worthwhile. College FB equivalent: none. Closest I can think of is the Brazilian soccer team with a healthy dash of the Oakland Raiders and a fan base resembling LSU's (i.e. Parisian elites + well-fed southern vineyard workers).
Schedule (games last about two hours - there are two 40 minute halves with a ~15 min halftime):
Fri Feb 4:
Wales v England - 2:45 EST
Sat Feb 5:
Italy v Ireland - 9:30am EST,
France v Scotland 12pm EST (live on BBC America)
Sat Feb 12:
England v Italy - 9:30am
Wales v Scotland - 12pm (BBC America)
Sun Feb 13:
France v Ireland - 10am
Sat Feb 26:
Italy v Wales - 9:30am
England v France - 12pm (BBC America)
Sun Feb 27:
Scotland v Ireland - 10am
Sat March 12:
Italy v France - 9:30am
Wales v Ireland - 12pm
Sun March 13:
England v Scotland - 11am (BBC America)
Sat March 19:
Scotland v Italy - 9:30am
Ireland v England - 1pm (BBC America)
France v Wales - 3:45pm
(And if you want to read any local media on the subject, The Daily Telegraph is probably your best bet.)
Any other rugby fans/players sound off below.