The Six Nations is always a thrill-a-minute tournament, but perhaps never as heart-in-the-mouth exciting for our regular rugby columnist, Howard Johnson, as when there’s 20 grand riding on it!
The 2012 edition of the RBS 6 Nations is almost upon us and the signs are that it’s going to be one of the most open and interesting competitions in ages. With three new Head Coaches getting their first run-outs and teams in a state of flux at the end of the traditional four-year World Cup cycle there’s a genuine sense that this Six Nations is going to throw up shocks, surprises and most likely the odd new hero.
Yet despite all of this I find it hard to imagine that this year’s competition will be able to keep me on the edge of my seat in quite the same fashion as the 2011 edition did. Not because last year’s tournament was particularly special. England won it, which was good news as far as I was concerned, of course. But because there was money riding on it for me. Cold, hard cash! Sky Sports, the UK’s premier sports TV network, tried to introduce a betting arm with the snappy slogan ‘It Matters More When There’s Money On It’. But not being remotely interested in betting I never really paid it too much mind – until the last game of last year’s Six Nations, that is.
Cast your minds back. Remember what state England were in going into the last match? Having beaten Wales, Italy, France and Scotland Martin Johnson’s men were in line for the country’s first Grand Slam since 2003. All that stood between the men in white and ultimate glory were the Irish, themselves in something of a slump and badly underperforming. The omens were good too. The match was scheduled to be played in Dublin, scene of our last triumph nine years previously, when with Johno as captain of England had obliterated the Irish by 42 points to 6 to capture the Slam. In the circumstances I would have been pretty excited whatever. But in 2011 it definitely mattered more to me because there was money on it.
I hadn’t placed a bet. But by my estimation there was something like 20 grand riding on it for me. Why? Because my book agent had a deal in place for me to write an ‘England Grand Slam Champions’ eulogy for a major English publisher. Of course, Grand Slam books tend to work best when a Grand Slam has actually been won, so clearly the deal was dependent on England doing the business in Dublin and battering the Irish.
To say that I was willing England to win that day would be like saying I’m fairly interested in rugby – the understatement of the year! I was sat onthe edge of the edge of my seat as the teams lined up for the anthems, hoping and praying that my bank account would be soon be bulging like a fat girl’s waistband. While it’s clear that Nick Easter moaning about 35k going down the toilet after our World Cup exit in 2011 was a wee bit off, I don’t think anyone could suggest that I was out of line for being motivated by money for that particular game, do you?
Well it took just 27 minutes before I realised that Christmas would not, in fact, be coming early in the Johnson household after all. England were so abject in that first period of the match and Ireland so fired up that the home side were 14-0 up before the first half hour was done. And as the old adage goes, we were lucky to have nil! It was as clear as day that the match could have gone on all day and England wouldn’t have been able to come out on top. The final score of 24-8 in favour of Ireland in no way flattered the home side and while England were still able to go on and pick up the Six Nations trophy there was no going on to pick up a big, fat cheque for me. It wasn’t the happiest Saturday there’s ever been in the Johnson household, I can tell you!
So no matter how thrilling the 2012 tournament gets, no matter how tense and nail-biting the final day of the competition is, there’s no way it will have my heart pumping in quite the same way as it was twelve months ago. I still have nightmares about that day, about what might have been. It gave me just the tiniest glimpse into what it must be like being a compulsive gambler, the success or failure of your entire day, week, month or year dependent on the rub of the green and the bounce of the ball. For those 80 minutes you’re living in the highest possible state of excitement. You’re a sporting adrenaline junkie. But the trouble with being a junkie is that there’s always a comedown. And the feeling of desolation when you realise that the money’s slipped right through your hands is absolute. And that’s why betting’s not for me. Because much as I might think I can handle pressure, the truth is that where money’s concerned I now know that I can’t.