To be honest, the most captivating aspect of reality TV has never been the victory. What viewers truly desire to witness is some form of suffering, whether it be a contestant being criticized by judges, consuming kangaroo testicles, or role-playing as a cat and drinking milk from the hands of a celebrity. Therefore, it is not surprising that the main focus of Netflix’s latest rugby series, Six Nations: Full Contact, is not on the winning team, Ireland, who achieved a grand slam last year, or France, who came close to victory, but rather on Italy, who lost all five of their games and placed last.
The season finale reveals that their head coach, Kieran Crowley, is facing the possibility of losing his job. A caption confirms that a few months later, the Italian Rugby Federation chose not to renew his contract. Despite already securing a position with Honda Heat in Japan’s Rugby League One, after watching Full Contact, one may wonder if Crowley has found his true passion. It would be a missed opportunity if a creative producer did not commission a travel series starring Crowley and his partner, ex-Taranaki dairy farmer Neil Barnes.
“I am too old for this situation,” Crowley says tiredly as he watches his team suffer yet another devastating loss. Despite the difficult results, the New Zealand coach maintains good sportsmanship, aided by having Barnes as his interpreter. While Barnes does not speak Italian, he has a talent for conveying Crowley’s emotions and thoughts into words that everyone can understand, including phrases like “for goodness sake,” “hit that person,” and even a mention of Italy’s star player, Ange Capuozzo, as “the speedy one.”
At least it can be said that Barnes was not pretending to be someone he is not. There is a sense of genuineness in the portrayal of Italy’s team that is lacking in the scenes involving other teams, possibly because they granted Netflix more access. Scotland is the other team that allowed the crew to film behind the scenes, giving viewers a glimpse of the players’ reactions when they find out if they have been chosen or not. This is not by chance. Scotland and Italy are the two smallest nations in terms of rugby, and they hoped to benefit the most from Netflix’s assurance that the show would attract new viewers.
The Welsh team was more reserved, and as the competition progressed, the English team appeared to fade into the background. This is unfortunate because both teams had their own narratives; Steve Borthwick had recently become the coach of the English team, and Warren Gatland, who had just returned to coaching, had to navigate a potential players’ strike during the tournament. However, we only catch glimpses of their journeys through generic statements and forced conversations between Gatland and his wife, Trudi, regarding his experiences.
The French, on the other hand, are truly and undeniably themselves. According to head coach Fabien Galthié, “Rugby is a form of passing the ball that involves arabesques, parabolas, and the roaring of the stadium all at once.” It’s unfortunate that we don’t see more of this artistic aspect of the sport. The filmmakers, however, focused on highlighting its physical demands. Arabesques and parabolas? Are those the names of the former second row players for Beziers?
Finn Russell has compared himself to Messi in rugby, but it would be beneficial to have him elaborate on what that means in a game situation. Despite being featured prominently in the series, viewers do not gain insight into his thought process on the field, such as why he made certain passes or kicks. Additionally, the show fails to address important aspects of the game like scrums and lineouts, leaving viewers without an understanding of what it’s like to experience them during a Test match.
It is unusual, considering that these elements are integral to the distinctiveness of rugby union. Instead, the series focuses on promoting the game by interviewing players such as Andrew Porter, Stuart Hogg, Ellis Genge, Seb Negri, and Gaël Fickou about their personal histories. However, rugby union is not well-suited for this type of celebrity-oriented approach compared to other team sports. As Townsend states, it is a truly collective game where the narrative of a match does not solely belong to one player, regardless of the outcome. The personalities of the teams as a whole hold more significance than those of the individual players.
The scent in the air hints at a lack of belief, as if the sport is trying too hard to appeal to a new audience by pretending to be something it’s not. As the series progresses, this becomes evident and the most impactful episodes are the ones that showcase the true implications of defeat for Italy and Scotland. In the event of a second season being greenlit, it has the potential to be exceptional if the creators are more confident in their direction and storytelling, as Barnes advises Crowley to have the courage to fully commit to it.