In almost any other sport or competition, it would be anathema to a type of observer, especially Real Championship Man: The wretched dead rubber.

A team that has already won the competition against a team that already can’t; sure what’s there to really play for, what’s really at stake?

In hurling country, where it takes an occasion like next Saturday for the oval ball to be granted a one-day pass as the people’s game, there are objectors to the new-look provincial championships coming to them soon, because of the appalling vista the last round might throw up where teams are already aware of their fate. 

True championship, to such Fíor Ghaels, is supposed to be simple and primal: knockout, do-or-die; not convoluted and superfluous with round robins and dead rubbers.

As we all know, though, Ireland-England is anything but a dead rubber. 

It’s as do or die as anything you’ll get any summer in Thurles, encapsulating the dynamics that makes the Six Nations Championship such a marvellously unique and compelling competition.

As far as competing countries go, it’s about as small as you’ll get for any international team sport. 

As its title suggests, it features just six nations, three of which hail from the same island. The Rugby Europe Championship, for second and third-tier teams, also involves just six countries.

Contrast that to the recent European Handball Championships in Zagreb, which featured 16 teams, most of whom had to make their way through a highly-competitive group stage to even qualify. 

The tournament itself was fiercely contested, with only five of its 47 matches decided by 10 goals or more; no Italy-style landslide defeats there. 

The top eight featured a range of countries rugby could only dream of, from Scandinavia (Norway, Denmark, Sweden) to the Balkans (hosts Croatia) as well as the big-population players (Germany, semi-finalists France and eventual champions Spain). 

To paraphrase a famous line of the great and now-retired John Motson, the European Handball championships — truly an international event.

John Motson
John Motson

Over the last 25 years, the biennial Eurobasket championships has thrown up more winners than the Six Nations has participants; not only has the continent’s big five of Germany, Italy, France, Spain and Russia all being champions, but so have smaller eastern European states, such as Lithuania and, most recently, Slovenia, as well as Greece. 

Twenty-two European nations have at least one player operating in the NBA. Rugby doesn’t even have half that number playing in the Champions Cup.

And that’s without mentioning the skyscraper in the village that is soccer, whose competition is so fierce and broad, Italy haven’t made it to the World Cup finals while Iceland have.

Rugby is more commensurable with ice hockey, though even then it wouldn’t quite have a nation with as vast a playing base as Russia. 

As nice as it is to hear that Ireland have surpassed England as “the best team in Europe”, the boast or achievement doesn’t quite resound as deep or as far as Slovenia’s, Spain’s or Portugal’s respective supremacy in hoops, handball or football.

Berlin, Bern and Barcelona will be oblivious to any chest-beating from these parts next Saturday.

However, if they listen closely enough, they might just hear the tremor of our hearts beating, though not quite knowing the source or cause, because, here’s the thing: when it comes to numbers watching on in the stadia and on the box, rugby rivals, indeed trumps, everything else other than football.

Almost all of Spain and Germany may be indifferent to Twickenham, but then outside of making a final, they’re largely indifferent to how their own nations fare in the handball and even basketball, too. 

Whenever Ireland play a Six Nations match, whether it’s for a Grand Slam or wooden spoon or a supposed dead rubber, almost all of us care about the result and every one of us will know the result.

You can’t live in Ireland, England, Scotland or Wales in February and March and be unaware of how your country got on at the weekend. It matters. Every game matters.

It’s why it’s one of the best-attended sporting competitions in the world. In 2016, the average attendance for a Six Nations match was 68,000, the same as it was that year for an NFL game. 

The average crowd for a Champions League soccer match is 44,000; a Bundesliga game 43,000, a Premier League game, 36,500.

There were just 12,000 in the Sinan Erdem Dome in Istanbul for Slovenia’s Eurobasket final win over Serbia; 9,000 in the Arena Zagreb for Spain’s win over Sweden in the European handball final.

Even allowing for how the Six Nations features far fewer games than the aforementioned outdoor leagues and a far greater stadia capacity than those indoor sports, the fact it so routinely tests the capacity of its major stadia is indicative of its stature.

Since the turn of the decade, 97% of all available seats for Six Nations matches have been filled. Cardiff, Dublin, London, Edinburgh, Paris produce full houses nearly every time.

Even Italy have required a bigger house, moving to the Stadio Olimpico in recent years. Two years ago, when they hosted their most regular wooden spoon challengers Scotland, over 67,500 people were there, almost identical to the average of the tournament itself... and the NFL.

Every game, there’s something more than a championship at stake. At the weekend, when they again host the Scots, Italy will be looking to avoid being swept for the spring. 

No one wants to be swept. No one wants the wooden spoon. 

There’s a series of tournaments within tournaments. The Scots beat England to regain the Calcutta Cup. 

Fourteen years ago, when we beat the Scots, we celebrated the Triple Crown as much as we did either of the country’s last two championships.

“My first rugby ball had the words ‘Triple Crown’ on it,” Shane Horgan would later say in Tom English’s No Borders, when reflecting on that triumph.

Shane Horgan
Shane Horgan

“It was in my backyard for 15 years and in all the years playing with that ball we never won a Triple Crown. When you were a kid in the 1980s in Ireland it had a romance about it.”

A Grand Slam at the time would have seemed too fantastical, like a Clare hurler in the same period dreaming of winning an All-Ireland when he’d have died happy with just a Munster. 

It did elude Horgan, though not his contemporaries, in 2009.

Looking back on that day in Cardiff, there was Paddy Wallace and that error, Stephen Jones and that kick, that tension, that relief, that joy. 

It’s easy to forget that, regardless of what Wallace did and Jones could have done in those excruciating final moments, Ireland had won the championship. 

We were champions. Brian O’Driscoll would still have been collecting silverware and the first championship of his career.

At the time, though, no-one was thinking like that. Before the game, alright, Declan Kidney had laid out a series of contingency plans, aware that a 13-point loss would hand the championship to Wales, but in that moment, in fact for all that game and virtually all of its lead up, for even the players, it was Grand Slam or bust.

“We knew if we lost we’d be known forever as bottlers,” Donncha O’Callaghan would reflect years later. 

“It was a must-win game for us. It was a game that could scar your career if you lost it.”

So that’s what Ireland are playing for this weekend. A Triple Crown. A Grand Slam, a first for all, but two of the squad and only the third in our entire history. 

To pull it off, having had to win in Paris — like that! — and in London, against an England team fancying its chances at the next World Cup, means it is probably the most impressive of the lot. 

For Ireland, this is do or die, alright. Do the business and they can die as rugby immortals; lose and a bit of them will die inside.

However, what are England playing for? If it’s not about a Slam or championship, is it not a dead rubber for them?

No, no way, because, again, it goes back to what makes rugby and the Six Nations so magical. In rugby, they don’t just call their international games ‘matches’. 

They call them Tests, because almost every day in this competition, it is a test. You are being tested and you are determined to test the opponent.

After two consecutive defeats, Eddie Jones will have likely said to his charges something like Ciaran Fitzgerald famously said to his in a clash of the ould enemies: “Where’s your fucking pride?”

The great baseball coach Tommy Lasorda said: “No matter how good you are, you’re going to lose one-third of your games. 

"No matter how bad you are, you’re going to win one-third of your games. It’s the other third that makes the difference.”

For England to lose three out of their five games this spring — to not even win half of their games — seems almost inconceivable and, for Jones, unacceptable. 

For Ireland to ensure England are left with such an underwhelming record would be almost as impressive as not losing a game themselves.

Going by Lasorda’s logic and the law of averages, England will edge this, but that’s what makes the Slam special. Championships are won every year. Slams and greatness aren’t.

Joe Schmidt is right. This comes down to a test of them and us.

Pure championship hurling.

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