For many people, the Six Nations rugby union tournament – something which you’d have to be living Lord-of-the-Flies-style out on East Sands to realize isn’t currently taking place – represents everything good about sport. For a start, the rugby itself is always competitively unpredictable, with true thrashings rarely meted out, and anyone capable of beating anyone on their day (yes, even Italy beat France two years ago, conspicuously without recourse to a Roman mudbath). Yet what also stands out is the conduct of everyone involved. The almost unique broadcasting decision by the BBC to relay chat between the players and referees is made possible only because of the players’ genuine respect towards them. Six Nations referees aren’t treated, as is the case with so many sports, like obstacles on the path to victory, but as legitimate arbiters of a game which would be impossible to play without their help.
Further, the attitude of the tournament’s fans seems to strike just the right note. Genuine outpourings of patriotism – last week’s column highlighted the Welsh support against England in 2013 – are offset by the affable acknowledgement that national borders are essentially arbitrary divides between people and other people. Sure, for any given fan, their nation’s winning is the best outcome, but having a good time regardless of nationality doesn’t fall too far behind. Indeed, much of the patriotism on show tends to come across as ironic anyway; the Scottish and Irish fans’ fake ginger beards failing to mask knowing smiles.
All the same, the format of the tournament helps to maximize patriotism, whether ironic or not. Staging games in the six nations themselves (in Italy, France, Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland) means the respective atmospheres of such games is often majestically partisan. The mere notion of a ‘host nation’ is totally eschewed; in this way, the Six Nations really does live up to its name in a way that, say, the World Cup doesn’t. The rise of Italian rugby – which brought the Five Nations up to today’s Six – is inconceivable without the popular exposure that staging games in Italy itself has generated. Rugby union in Italy has usually been the sole preserve of the nation’s northern regions, looked upon as little more than a provincial oddity by the rest of the country. But once a year, hosting two or three of the major rugby nations in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico in a competitive tournament, Italian rugby gets the Hollywood treatment.
By the same token, the pre-eminent exposure of student sport in St Andrews enables many more minor sports to rise to the fore. Just like the ‘Six Nations’, the all-encompassing nature of the ‘Saints Sport’ brand means that, by-and-large, sports such as sailing and canoeing – both featured in this issue – are treated as no less important than sports such as rugby and football. Director of Football Stuart Milne and Director of Rugby David Ross have both stressed to me in recent interviews that their Clubs, although more popular in bare participation terms, are nevertheless conceived of as mere cogs in the overarching ‘Saints Sport’ machine. It is this self-conscious brandedness, so conspicuous upon arrival at the Sports Centre, and enshrined on every item of University sportswear, that provides clubs such as Sailing and Canoeing with the popular platform upon which to thrive.
The whole concept of ‘Saints Sport’, in fact, can be easy to take for granted in virtue of this very conspicuousness. Wandering round St Andrews on any given day (something this writer is heavily predisposed to do), the Saints Sport brand is simply everywhere, impossible to avoid whether you’re into sport or not; a sort of sporting Starbucks minus the latte-wielding hipsters.
Yet the reality is that most – nearly all – universities in the UK do not even attempt to unify all their sports clubs under a single umbrella identity. Where Starbucks has Costa for company in the coffee-cashing stakes, Saints Sport has no real rivals in the UK when it comes to all-encompassing student sport brands. It is easy to wonder, accordingly, whether Sinners Sport – something this writer knows from experience to be one of the best nights out there is to be had in St Andrews – is also unique in the UK; existing as it does as a devilish inversion of Saints Sport’s quotidian saintliness. Any member of any sports club can attend Sinners, and as such, it only helps to reinforce the unifying power of the Saints Sport brand, acting as a sort of sporting feedback loop in spite of its name.
So, next time you spot someone wearing the Saints Sport logo as you sleepily wander into Starbucks for your morning caffeine fix, just remember to wake up and smell the coffee: as a student sporting community, we in St Andrews could hardly be any luckier. Enjoy the section.