Even with more than 48 hours to go, the Grand Slam decider already appears to be an open-and-shut case revolving around the roof over Cardiff’s city centre Superdome.
Mike Ruddock, the only living Welshman to have won the big prize at the same venue against the same opponent over the same St Patrick’s weekend, knows what he would do, a conviction reinforced by local forecasts of strong winds and heavy rain at the epicentre of the Six Nations’ finale.
“If I was making the call for Ireland, I’d want the roof open,” he says.
“The weather will be a crucial factor and on a wet day I think that could result in a very experienced Irish pack edging the forward battle with Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray to back it up.
“Closing the roof would give Wales a better chance of getting some momentum into their game and with the weather shut out, I think they could win it. From an Irish perspective, I’d be quite happy to play with it open and get wet. Either way, there won’t be much in it.’’
Under Six Nations rules, the roof can only be closed if both sides agree, as they did when the Welsh defied the odds in overpowering England in the dry three weeks ago. A decision has to be made today to comply with the 48-hour deadline. Warren Gatland has repeatedly spoken out against such a ruling on the basis that it’s a Welsh roof and therefore up to the Welsh to do with it as they see fit. Their head coach has rarely shied away from supporting the case for the closed roof, that a roof open to rain and wind “potentially makes a game less open or less attractive”.
So much for the age-old concept of a game meant to be exposed to the elements. “We all have a responsibility,” Gatland once said. “Not just to the broadcasters but to the public and the game as a whole to make it as attractive as possible.”
Such altruism did not count for much when Wales played Australia during a wet autumn week in 2010 and the Wallabies wanted the roof shut. Wales disagreed and kept it open, a volte face which prompted their management to offer the feeble explanation that they wanted to acclimatise to conditions for the following year’s World Cup in New Zealand.
They coped well enough with the wet one to beat their hosts 3-1 on tries.
Whatever the state of the roof, Ruddock has more of an emotional attachment to Ireland which goes beyond the fact that his mother came from Clare. His wife, Bernadette, is from Dublin and his elder son, Rhys, captained Ireland against Italy in Chicago before Christmas.
A whole host of established internationals, among them Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Tadhg Furlong, Jordi Murphy, Iain Henderson, Josh van der Flier, and Jack Conan, rolled off the assembly line during Ruddock’s time as head coach of Ireland’s under-20’s.
Ruddock, junior, has had to wait behind the indestructible Peter O’Mahony. “I’d be jumping up and down for Ireland if Rhys plays but that’s unlikely,” says his dad, still coaching Lansdowne after eight years. “In his absence I’ll be shouting for Wales.
“After the France game, I struck quite a lot of bets on Wales to win, five euro here, ten euro there. If Wales lose, I’m going to have to ask my bank manager for a loan….”
The powerbrokers of world rugby converge on Dublin today with their agenda dominated by the biggest single offer in the history of the sport — £500m (€585m) for a 30% stake in the Six Nations.
The bid, from the British private equity company, CVC Capital Partners, carries enough clout to change the game for better and worse in equal measure. That it happens to coincide with attempts to persuade the most unconvinced of the Six Nations, Ireland and Scotland, to join the proposed World League is no accident. The promise of riches on an unprecedented scale gives the six the commercial muscle to trump the promise of extra revenue in return for allowing the world’s most successful annual international event to be subsumed into a global one. What’s another £7m when the home countries can stay as they are and make closer to £100m?
Everything comes at a price. CVC, who paid English Premier Rugby £227m for a 27% stake a few months ago, may like the shape of a rugby ball but they like what they can get out of it far more which will leave individual Unions to ask whether they aren’t selling their souls.
Just as CVC’s money and experitse transformed Formula One from 2005, so they will transform rugby which will almost certainly sound the death knell of the Six Nations on free-to-air television once its current contract expires in 2021. That also raises the spectre of destablisation on a global scale.
A fattened up Six Nations at the expense of a World League will do nothing for the impoverished state of Union in Australia and, to only a slightly lesser extent, in South Africa. The haves will have a lot more, the have-nots a lot less.
Rugby likes to consider itself a global game, a case of delusional thinking. As a company whose job is to manage assets estimated to be worth around £40bn, CVC will have a strategy to make rugby sweat like never before. Whether that means buying out the PRO14 and merging its Irish, Scottish and Welsh component parts into a British and Irish League with the English clubs remains to be seen.
Whatever shape the revolution takes, the danger is that the European game becomes richer still at the expense of the rest. The English and French, whose domestic Leagues thrive in the most fertile markets, joined forces this week to raise the threat of legal action over World Rugby’s failure to consult them over proposals for still more Test matches, not fewer. If too many of the 12 Tier One countries let it be known around the conference table in Dublin today that they’re in it for the money, heaven help the game at large.
The Six Nations could be likened to the most gruelling two-legged steeplechase devised by man, with an obstacle of Becher’s Brook severity rearing its ugly head at every ruck or line-out.
No wonder, then, that those who have made it this far without missing a minute are down to single figures.
The fourth round having eliminated such fancied English runners as Owen Farrell (subbed after 68 minutes) and Mark Wilson (rested) as well as the Scot James Ritchie (HIA), only seven are still standing as ever-presents. The solitary Irishman, Munster’s Peter O’Mahony, will expect at some stage on Saturday to go careering into the two Welsh stayers, Jonathan Davies and Josh Adams. Billy Vunipola and Elliot Daly are England’s most durable pair alongside the Italians Braam Steyn and Angelo Esposito.
Whether the latter is deemed fit to come under starter’s orders after his unfortunate exposure to Joe Cokanasigna at Twickenham last weekend, remains to be seen.
In Dublin last Sunday afternoon, a pair of French props would have needed a sophisticated sat-nav system to let them know whether they were coming or going.
Demba Bamba and Dorian Aldegheri replaced each other on the tighthead side of the scrum on no fewer than five occasions. Bamba was on and off three times, Aldegheri off and on with the same frequency.
France made a total of seven substitutions to their front row alone.
And to think they won le Grand Chelem in 1977 with a front row that never changed from start to finish — Gerard Cholley, Alain Paco, and the great Pyrenean bear himself, the late Robert Paparemborde.