It may be a shortened week for Ireland as they face up to a first Friday night Six Nations fixture, at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium, this evening. But, with close to two weeks elapsed since the last round of games and little new to talk about in the interim, it feels as though we have all been banging on about this fairly minor curiosity for forever and a day.
To be fair, it beats wasting our breath on a roof that we now know will stay closed. No-one will bother with the architecture post-game, not when the consequences that come with an 8.05pm start time in a teeming, alcohol-soaked city with a public transport system that stretches to breaking point on a normal match day dawns on everybody..
A sin against tradition for some, Friday games have been welcomed as a nice Brucie bonus by others who can think of nothing better than a smorgasbord of Six Nations fare laid out across the weekend and with the first course lying in wait just as the working week winds down. Whatever your view on it, take it as read that we’ll be listening to arguments about the rights and wrongs of it all for years to come.
Why? Because we’re still listening to people bang on about the disgrace that are Sunday matches.
This has nothing do with religion, as it might have been in the distant past, but an equally fervent belief that this most traditional of rugby tournaments should be confined to Saturdays and, more specifically, a slot wedged in between the hours of two and six.
A nice thought for the nostalgic among us but it’s as outdated as crepe paper hats, rattles and rosettes.
We are almost 20 years down the road of Sunday Six Nations games now.
And there’s some who still can’t move on. The first Sunday game was the 1998 Calcutta Cup meeting of Scotland and England at Murrayfield and, well, talk about a different time. Italy were still waiting for someone to answer the door, France had just moved into the Stade de France, Wales were paying rent in Wembley and Ireland propped up the table with ne’er a point to their name.
Incidentally, Ireland weren’t as bad as all that suggests.
They lost by a point to Scotland, France had only two to spare on them and Wales nine. Only England, with a 35-17 win in London, managed any daylight and even then Ireland managed to get under their conquerors’ skin with Lawrence Dallaglio complaining bitterly about the visitors’ enthusiastic rucking. Quite literally, it appears.
“Look at our bodies right now and you won’t see a single stud mark,” said Ireland back row David Corkery when Dallaglio’s criticisms were put to him afterwards. “Why? Because we didn’t lay around on the wrong side. I imagine you’ll see one or two marks on the English boys, however, and they know full well why they’re there.”
Anyway, we digress.
Rucking has all but gone the way of baggy jerseys and shoulder pads and, though the IRFU have this week repeated their distaste for hosting Friday night games at the Aviva Stadium in the coming years, the reality is that TV money will bend their arm. All six unions will be asked at one point or another to get the weekend off to an early start regardless of the inconvenience it causes to spectators on site.
It’s the sort of thing that happens when sport seeks out the corporate dollar and Sunday games were just one inevitable by-product of professionalism being introduced in 1995.
They were pushed through on the back of pressure from the BBC, the French broadcasters and Sky, who had the rights to England’s home games at the time, but it is staggering to look back over the records now and remember that, despite acceptance among union blazers that game times needed to be staggered to maximise audiences, there was still a crossover between fixtures played on the same day.
Anyone who wanted to watch Ireland’s one-point loss to Scotland at Lansdowne Road in the opening round had to record France’s 24-17 defeat of England in Paris because the two games kicked off at exactly the same time. Most other weeks served up two games on the same day and with kick-off times separated by just 60 minutes. Lunacy.
It was never likely to last.
Oh, and Ireland’s first Six Nations Sunday game, by the way? Stade de France, March 19th, 2000. Three tries for a 21-year-old Brian O’Driscoll in the same year that the Five Nations finally became Six and a first Irish win, on a scoreline of 27-25, in the French capital since 1972. Then again, he always did have a nose for an occasion, regardless of what day it was.