This year’s Six Nations tournament got off to a memorable start last week with England claiming their first win in Dublin since 2013, and Wales fighting back from 16-0 down at half-time to win in Paris. The continent’s most fiercely contested competition rolls into Rome, London and Edinburgh this weekend for round two and fans around the world will be tuning in to see which nation can remain unbeaten and stay on course for a Grand Slam. We spoke with Jon-Luc Bacquenois, BA (Hons) Sports Business & Sports Broadcasting student and rugby team captain at UCFB Wembley, about what makes the tournament so unique, the growing popularity of rugby globally, and the rapid development of the women’s game…

Jon-Luc (second from left) led the UCFB rugby team to a home win on Wednesday

The England men and women’s team made a great start to their Six Nations campaigns last week. What do you make of the first round of fixtures?

The England women’s team took on Ireland, and the way they played showed a real testament to how far the women’s game has come in recent years. I think that Tyrrells sponsorship of the Premier 15s league has allowed the women’s game to improve and allow all the squads in that competition to play consistently at a high level which, in turn, has allowed the standard of the international game to increase.

The England men’s side also took on Ireland who, arguably, were Grand Slam favourites this year. England attacked them from minute one, they kept the same intensity that they had against New Zealand in the summer but never took their foot of the gas. They capitalised on poor play from the Irish and deservedly won.

For you, what makes the Six Nations such a special tournament?

The Six Nations is special because it involves five of the top 10 sides in world rugby, which on its own means it’s going to be a competitive tournament. The big collisions, the sportsmanship and the sense of countries coming to a halt to support their country in taking on the old enemies of rugby really gives a buzz to watching the tournament and enjoying it.

Having the Six Nations on terrestrial television is the reason fans can feel this way; everyone can watch for no fee. It’s a real advert for how good a game of rugby can be.

What are your predictions for both tournaments this year? And who do you think has the best chance of securing the Grand Slam?

For the men’s tournament, if I had to answer this pre-Six Nations I would have said Ireland. But after that first weekend I think England are going to win it, and after beating Ireland I think they have the best chance of winning the Grand Slam this year. However, I do believe that Scotland have a chance of creating a few upsets this time round and could have another year where they aren’t battling Italy for that coveted wooden spoon accolade.

The women’s tournament is a tough one for me to call because all of me wants to say England have it in the bag and are going to win another Grand Slam. But the French aren’t a team that can be taken lightly and have every chance of causing another upset like they did last year. If I was a betting man I’d choose England to win the Grand Slam.

Who are the players to watch this year? Who do you think will come out as player of the tournament?

Jordan Larmour has been in great form for Leinster this year and if he can bring that form to an Ireland shirt I think he will be brilliant to watch. Another player that impressed me in the opening weekend was Damian Penaud, the French winger. He attacked really well and stood out for France against Wales in what was a poor game for them. And Manu Tuilagi; it’s great to see him back in the England set up. If he can continue his run of form and use his brute strength and power, he will be fantastic to watch.

The UCFB team plays their home matches at Hendon RFC

I think player of the tournament will be decided by who wins the Six Nations. As I’ve tipped England to win it Owen Farrell has my vote. He’s come out of the blocks and claimed that number 10 shirt back off of George Ford and is owning it! He is Mr. England Rugby and if England win it will all go through that man, Owen Farrell.

In a World Cup year, the Six Nations always takes on added significance. Do you think this year’s winner will have a good chance in Japan in the Autumn?

Yes, I do. Playing against some of the top tier sides, and winning, as a warm up to the biggest competition in world rugby is a brilliant way for the squad to build confidence in the run up to Japan. Having a team that is brimming with self-belief will make anyone think they can win the world cup and they need to have that mind set if they want to win the trophy.

A recent study by World Rugby on fan trends and perceptions revealed that the sport has nearly 800 million followers globally, while more than 338 million consider themselves fans, with India, China and the USA constituting almost 33 per cent of this number. As a BA (Hons) Sports Business & Sports Broadcasting student, how would you assess this growing coverage and popularity? And how is the sport breaking into these emerging markets?

I think a major reason for rugby breaking into these markets is the success of the Rugby Sevens Series. They travel worldwide and put on a show that draws huge crowds to a fast-paced, high intensity and exciting brand of rugby, with some of the biggest tournaments taking place in Las Vegas and Hong Kong. Rugby Sevens became such a phenomenon in America that it has led to the introduction of the Major League Rugby tournament which is in the 15-man format of rugby. This will only bring more success and exposure to the sport as America are known to have some of the best athlete’s worldwide, and with a consistent, competitive league the standard of rugby will only get higher, and who knows, maybe in a few years’ time America can have one of the largest fan bases and one of the most competitive teams in rugby.

In January England Women announced that 28 players had been awarded full-time contracts, with world cup winner Sarah Hunter describing the move as ‘game-changing’. How important could this move be for the women’s game?

It’s a fantastic move by England Rugby. Not only will it increase the level of rugby being played but also increase participation in rugby both on and off the pitch. The professional era making its way into the women’s game also gives young girls and women proof that playing rugby for your club and country is a viable career path for their future which is a fantastic opportunity for young stars of the game. The women’s game is growing day by day; Tyrell’s sponsor the premiership, Sky Sports are getting more and more international games on TV, and now with these professional contracts, standards and demand can only keep going up for the women’s game.