When Wales take to the field at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, history will be made. Not by anyone in a red or green jersey, but by the match referee, Andrea Piardi.

It will be his first ever Six Nations appearance, and he will also become the first ever Italian official to referee in the tournament. It will undoubtedly be a very proud moment for him, and I would like to congratulate him and wish him all the best.

I’ve refereed matches across all levels, at the World Cup, in the Rugby Championship, some crucial, title-deciding games. But for me, nothing is as special as the Six Nations.

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Aside from the World Cup, I would say it is the greatest rugby tournament in the world. Its history, its fans, it just makes it so special. You get such intense rivalries and when teams like England and Wales meet just once a year, it really is a massive event. There’s a reason why millions of people tune in to watch from around the world when they probably wouldn’t watch a rugby match the rest of the year.

As a referee, you always want to be involved in the Six Nations. It’s the tournament that really makes you feel as if you’ve made it as an international referee. There’s really nothing else like it.

Crowds play a big part in that. Taking charge of Rugby Championship games and things like that just isn’t the same. Yes, the quality of some of the games would be top notch, but atmosphere-wise, there is nothing like the Six Nations. Say you’re refereeing South Africa at home against New Zealand. Other than maybe a handful of All Black fans, the vast majority of the crowd is going to be made up of Springbok supporters, so the atmosphere is special but mostly one sided.

But this weekend, thousands of Welsh supporters will be going over to Dublin to either go to the stadium or fill the city’s bars and pubs to watch the match. There will be a lot of trips to other destinations in the Emerald Isle to watch the game too. There will be a fantastic noise inside the Aviva and all around the city, particularly given the rivalry this fixture has taken on in the last 15 years or so. Ireland are phenomenal at present but Gatland will be instilling belief into his young side, so it should be an exciting game for both sets of supporters.

I’m sure it will be a very special experience for Andrea too. It’s a deserved appointment for him having performed consistently well in the URC and as an assistant referee at the World Cup - and I’m sure it will be a good test for him as well as a proud day for him and his family. Being the first Italian referee in the tournament’s history is also a fantastic achievement and he should be very, very proud of himself for that. I hope the game goes well for him, it’s one he should cherish.

I have already mentioned how refereeing a Six Nations game can make you feel like you’ve made it as a Test official. That’s certainly how I felt when I took charge of my first game in the tournament back in February 2007.

It was England v Italy at Twickenham, with the likes of Phil Vickery, Josh Lewsey, Mike Tindall and Jonny Wilkinson lining up for the hosts. There were World Cup winners in their ranks and with a massive crowd in the stadium and watching at home on TV, I did feel a little bit nervous. But overall, I felt pride.

Twickenham is one of my favourite stadiums that I refereed at. I remember walking in there with some of the fans already either side waiting for the players to arrive and I’d hear them shout out to me. Most of them said ‘Good luck, Nige’ or ‘Good luck ref’, you would get the occasional ‘Oh God help us, we’ve got a Welshman in charge today!’.

That first game is a very special memory for me. My dad, my uncle and my cousin were all there to watch and support me, which meant an awful lot. I think it might have been the first time my dad had left Wales!! It is a very fond memory I hold dear.

Such is my admiration for the Six Nations, I wish I had ended my career in the tournament. It would have been the perfect way to bow out, for me. Of course, it didn’t turn out that way as my final game came in my 100th Test out in Paris for the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup. But I wish it could have all ended in the Six Nations.

Anyway, the past is the past, and now it’s Andrea’s time to feel the magic of this wonderful tournament. Good luck, buona fortuna (!) and let’s hope for a great game out in Dublin.