They say that familiarity breeds contempt. Well, the Six Nations at once proves and disputes that old adage.

First, the proof. On Thursday brought reports of T-shirts already on sale, online, celebrating England's Grand Slam in 2017.

It didn't take long for the reaction to begin in earnest and no prizes for guessing the tone of it. 'Typical English arrogance', was the cry, amid an out-pouring of Celtic indignation. Irish, Scots and Welsh united in the conviction that the upstarts would pay for such a lack of respect.

Put aside the fact that the T-shirts were certainly not official merchandise, the fuse has been lit - with three weeks and a day to go until the annual European showpiece begins again. And there will be contempt, alright. Historical grievances and neighbourly antagonism are the very pillars on which the competition is founded.

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There is supposed to be hostility and tension; that's why the formula works. Everyone cares deeply about beating enemies from across their borders. These are fervent sporting derbies, weekend after weekend. The Rugby Championship cannot hold a candle to the Six Nations for a sense of occasion because, although the standard is often so much higher, the rivalries are less bitterly entrenched.

A sense of familiarity has not yielded public contempt for the old championship itself - far from it. Figures published in Sportsmail this week revealed that the Six Nations is the best-attended sporting event in the world, beating the football World Cup, NFL, the Champions League; everything. Two years ago, the 15 matches drew an average crowd of 72,000.

There is remarkable, unwavering devotion to the tournament, despite public appetite being tested by a rapid rise in ticket prices and awkward kick-off times. But make no mistake, the Six Nations could be better. Hopefully, in some cases, bonus points will prompt a shift away from conservatism, while this column will continue to advocate a later slot in the calendar, with clear benefits in terms of playing conditions.

On the subject of attendances, it would help if Ireland were not stuck in a stadium with a modest capacity of 51,700. The way they are playing, Joe Schmidt's side could attract double that number. To the east, similar crowds will watch Georgia compete in the European Nations Cup once again, while the prospect of promotion to the elite event remains as remote as ever.

Yet, with the countdown now in full swing, it is right to celebrate a cherished jewel in the crown of the sport. Spare seats will be hard to come by. Let the tribal hostility re-commence.