'We might be broke, but at least our pitch has got central heating' - cold comfort for Irish fans

 

Irish and French fans in the stadium united in disappointment and anger at their treatment

ALL THAT, for this? Months of expectant planning. Weeks of buildup. Hours of flight-time, train-catching, face-painting and queue-making. All the thousands of euro and countless small feats of improvisation that can bring 80,000 people together in a great shining cauldron on the outskirts of Paris on a freezing night in February.

And all they got, the Irish and French rugby fans who filled the Stade de France at the stroke of 9pm on Saturday, was the lonesome sight of a band standing soundlessly, self-consciously in the middle of the pitch just when the raucous night was supposed to have begun.

Kick-off time came and went. The musicians didn’t seem to know what was going on. Nobody did. The players had disappeared down the tunnel after their warm-up, and a few pitch-heaters – devices that look like the offspring of a union between a steam engine and a Hoover – were being steered over the grass. News that the match had been called off was reported on TV at least 10 minutes before a muffled announcement told the crowd it was time to go home.

“We just stood there,” said Cathal Boland from Donegal, who had travelled to Paris with three friends. “There were no announcements in English at first, so the French fans translated everything for us.” Others learned of the referee’s decision only when friends texted from Ireland.

The Irish players returned briefly for a wind-down, their sprints earning them cheers from the stands, and then vanished down the tunnel again. So, less than 20 minutes after many of them had passed through the turnstiles, disconsolate fans poured out of the stadium and the recriminations began.

“It’s absolutely disgraceful,” said Michael McGilligan as he waited for a train back to the city. McGilligan and his wife Barbara, from Blackrock in Dublin, had spent €2,000 to bring their family to Paris as a Christmas present for their 10-year-old son Myki. “We went on the basis that they must have known it was going to be okay. It obviously wasn’t a shock that it was going to be this cold.”

The pitch has no undersoil heating, but groundsmen had covered it in tarpaulin and heated it throughout last week. It passed a referee’s inspection two hours before kick-off, but as darkness fell and temperatures dipped, frozen patches formed on one side of the ground. “We might be broke, but at least we’ve got central heating on our pitch,” said Barry Keogh jnr, an exasperated Dubliner, as he left the stadium.

Some of the many French fans who had travelled long distances said even they would not return for the rescheduled fixture, which is likely to take place on Saturday, March 3rd. Among them were sisters Audrey and Nadège Maumus, who had spent €300 each to fly from Toulouse.

“At first I was disappointed, but now we’re angry at the organisers. They waited until the stadium was full – 80,000 people who came from all over France and Ireland – even though the weather forecast was clear for days,” said Audrey. “We’ve known for two weeks that the temperatures would be below zero . . . it shows such a lack of respect.”

Some fans couldn’t help but wonder if commercial pressures were at play in leaving the decision to the very last minute. “They let us know 10 minutes after the kick-off was supposed to happen. I think it’s down to getting people in to buy merchandise, buy beer, and for the sponsors to get the audience,” said Laura Wall, who had travelled from Dublin.

It was a strange night. In the bowels of the stadium, hapless players and officials sounded unsure whether angry or bemused was the note to strike.

Journalists with pages to fill and nothing to say stared at their blank screens in terror. But at the bars and hotels facing the stadium, stoical voices could already be heard. “Our hotel has just run out of beer. We were more pissed off about that than the match being cancelled,” joked Marie McMahon from Monaghan.

There they were, all dressed up and nowhere to go, sending lusty renditions of La Marseillaise– and one plaintive tuba player’s take on Ireland’s Call– into the cold night.

€100 QUESTION: NO WORD ON REFUND

RUGBY FANS who travelled to Stade de France at the weekend will know later today whether they will be refunded for their match tickets.

The Six Nations match between Ireland and France was called off on Saturday night after freezing temperatures left the pitch unplayable. Up to 6,000 fans had travelled to the Paris venue and were in the stadium when the match was called off. They were told their tickets, which cost up to €100, would be valid when the postponed fixture took place, but it was not clarified whether or not they could get a refund.

Although there was no official comment yesterday from the French rugby federation, it is expected fans will be given the option of a refund.

The Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) said yesterday it was awaiting the outcome of a meeting with the Six Nations organisers this morning about when the match would take place.

A spokesman said they would have a clear indication about the validity of the tickets and whether refunds would be available then.

“We will be voicing the concerns of the Irish fans who may not be able to make the rescheduled game,” he said. He said they did not have any indication from the French rugby federation about reimbursement but they would be “putting it on the table”.

The IRFU was conscious of the disappointment of fans, the spokesman said. In the dressing room afterwards it was one of the concerns of the players, who had gone on to the pitch and had a training session for the fans, he said, but they knew that “didn’t make up for the disappointment of not being able to play”.

Dermot Jewell, chief executive of the Consumers’ Association of Ireland, said those who attended Saturday’s match should be entitled to a refund if they wished.

They would not be entitled to compensation for their travel to the match or for reimbursement of their accommodation costs as all of these obligations were fulfilled. - FIONA GARTLAND