By Bea Asprey, Rugby World Writer
VINCENT CLERC had issued a warning days before France were due to host Ireland at the Stade de France that the freezing temperatures in Paris could render the pitch unsafe to play on. So why was a contingency plan not immediately put into place, and why was it left until kick-off time on the Saturday night to tell thousands of travelling fans that the game was to be called off?
French winger Clerc had expressed concern that areas of the pitch, around the touchlines, were frozen during their 2.30 fixture against Italy the week before, and with temperatures forecast to be well below freezing by 9pm on Saturday, it beggars belief why action was not taken to ensure that the fixture could go ahead. Instead, 80,000 fans flocked into the ground and had taken their seats before it was announced, just minutes before kick-off, that they were to be ejected into the chilly night 80 minutes earlier than they had bargained for.
It was suggested that the kick-off time was moved to much earlier in the day, around 3pm French time, an option TV stations would reportedly have agreed with despite contrary assumptions. But the Six Nations itself refused to change the time of the game. The pitch had been covered all week and passed an inspection at 7.15pm, but with parts already frozen less than two hours later and the temperature still falling, referee Dave Pearson was left with no choice but to call off the fixture in the interests of the players’ safety. The announcement was met by a chorus of boos from the crowd, who were understandably livid at being turned away without seeing a match.
Chaos reigned at a press conference at which media were not allowed to ask questions, and FFR President Pierre Camou pointed the blame at Pearson for the shambles of the evening. He said: “I am very sad and worried about what has happened tonight. I am sad for fans, and I don’t understand why the referee has not shown up (to the press conference). Two hours ago everything was fine. I am not sure that the argument of safety is suddenly a good one at 8pm. The FFR always takes responsibility for its pitches but we are not responsible for this decision. Today a game has taken place in the snow (Italy v England, Rome) and the referee was French.”
However, the IRB was quick to defend Pearson in a statement issued on Sunday that said: “Player welfare and safety is the primary concern for the IRB and its Match Officials and having witnessed and assessed the rapid deterioration of the playing surface between the final pitch inspection and the scheduled kick-off time, and following consultation with the match official team, both coaches and Championship organisers, Dave Pearson deemed the pitch unplayable on player welfare grounds.”
Fans were informed that their match tickets would still be valid when the fixture is eventually played, but with many travelling from Ireland and all over France, how many will be able to repeat the trip to take their seats? Furthermore, it is as yet unclear whether or not fans will be offered a refund if they are unable to attend the fixture.
The match is likely to be played on the 2 or 3 of March, which would mean both teams will play fixtures on four consecutive weekends, an option that France coach Philippe Saint-André is unhappy about. However, Ireland have stated that they would prefer to go ahead with that date than return to Paris this weekend. The Six Nations committee will make the final decision on the date, and unions will be informed and an announcement made on Monday.