It’s 7.50pm on a Monday in mid-January and at the premiere of Netflix’s rugby series – Six Nations: Full Contact – Marcus Smith is perched uneasily on the edge of a stool, addressing a huddle of rugby journalists. Smith is wearing a tux which makes him look like he’s off to his school prom. We’ve been told he has exactly seven minutes to spare for us. “Yeah, 100%, obviously …” Smith says in response to the very first question when he is interrupted. “GOOD EVENING EVERYONE! Please start making your way to your seats for the start of tonight’s event! I repeat, please start making your way to your seats!” The screening is about to begin.
Smith, who has a starring part in the first episode as well as the premiere, has spent the night being bustled from one camera to another. Truth is that he looks a lot more comfortable running a Test match than he does walking a red carpet. There must be more room in a midfield, too. Tonight he has an entourage of five, six, seven, people, handlers, agents, press officers, cameramen. Two of them are busy recording footage of it all on their phones. I ask them whether they’re with Netflix. “No,” they reply, “it’s for the socials.” In the time it takes them to say it Smith has already been hustled along on and the pair scurry off to catch up to him.
“It’s probably not what I signed up to when I was 18, to have all these cameras in my face,” Smith admits a little ruefully. “But, it’s a privilege.” He doesn’t sound entirely convinced by this last part. “You see what it has done for golf, what it has done for F1, and hopefully it can push rugby, which is the sport I love, and which has changed my life, on to a wider audience too.”
The success of Netflix’s Drive To Survive comes up a lot during the evening. It had a transformative effect on F1, especially in the US, and now sports such as golf, tennis and athletics have signed on for their own behind-the-scenes show in the hope it will do similar things for their popularity. So far it’s not clear any of them have enjoyed the same sort of bump.
The first episode concentrates on England’s match against Scotland last year, which is presented as a showdown, of sorts, between Smith and his opposite number Finn Russell. The other 44 players involved hardly get a mention even though, as Russell’s coach Gregor Townsend says in the show, “rugby is the ultimate team game”. Maybe the producers are saving their 45 minutes on the nuances of WP Nel’s scrummaging for the second episode.
Ellis Genge obviously made the cut. He is at the premiere too, pondering a tray of tiny little fried canapés dotted with blobs of gel. He’s been on the go, and is getting hungry. Part of the art of putting together a series such as Six Nations: Full Contact is picking out which of the 200-odd players involved in the tournament to concentrate on. Genge, who is shrewd, straightforward and funny, was an obvious choice. “Rugby needs all the help it can get, to be blunt,” he says. Genge is a UFC fan, and thinks his sport could learn a lot from it about how to sell itself to a new audience. “Ultimately,” he says, “you need this sort of spectacle to lift the game.”
All the focus on the celebrity of individual players, the sense that rugby’s turning into something other than itself, will make some people feel uneasy. But Genge doesn’t have much time for that sort of thinking. “I think we’re in a bit of a bubble. Rugby thinks it is the be-all and end-all but it’s not. It needs stars, it needs idols and it needs good press. Look at other sports: football, the NFL, the NBA, even cricket. People follow the individuals, not just the team. I don’t watch NFL, I don’t know the teams, but I know the players. Are we going to get there? Who knows? We’ll find out.”
Russell is milling around the launch, too, moving at a more leisurely pace than Smith. Like Genge, Russell is one of those people who is only ever able to be himself, whether there’s a camera on him or not. He had the crew into his home to film him with his family. “They kind of told us what to ask each other,” he admits, which is maybe a little more honest of him than his press handlers might have liked. But Russell is pretty relaxed about it, and everything else too. “If they want to see what I get up to off the field, even if it’s just playing PlayStation with my daughter, I don’t mind. I don’t do anything that I need to try and hide.”
Besides, Russell adds with a smile, “they weren’t ever there on a Saturday night, thankfully”. Instead, we see him spending time with his wife and child, and working with Townsend. The two of them are pretty open about their checkered history, and all the rows they have had over the years. Russell hopes that opening up will help to draw a new audience into the sport. “If you turn on and see a kick battle going on back and forth, viewers might think ‘that’s a bit boring’. But hopefully if you’ve watched the show it will give viewers more of an understanding of what we’re going through and what’s in our mind during the game.”
And after it, too. “It’s good to show the vulnerable side, so people can see what you are going through out of rugby,” says Italy’s Sebastian Negri. “People only know what they see on TV, they don’t see all the recovery that goes along with it, how after games you wake up in the morning and you can hardly walk, how you get up in your hotel room and stumble down the stairs, or the way my fiancee is worried what life might be like for me in a couple of years, because of some of the head knocks I’ve had, and the injuries I’ve picked up. I think that is going to be a bit of a shock to outside viewers. I think that kind of insight is only going to be good for rugby.”
Six Nations: Full Contact, premieres on Netflix on Wednesday 24 January.