Ireland face hectic openers

 

 Six Nations ChampionshipJust as happened in 2003, Ireland will begin their 2005 RBS Six Nations Championship itinerary with two away games just six days apart. In a reversal of last year's opening fixtures, Ireland will initially travel to Rome to play Italy at Stadio Flaminio on Sunday, February 6th, before facing Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday, February 12th.

Better news for coach Eddie O'Sullivan is that Ireland will have a fortnight's build-up to both of the crunch games at Lansdowne Road against the big two of England, on Sunday, February 27th, and France, on Saturday, March 12th. They will concluded their programme against Wales in Cardiff on March 19th, a.k.a. "Super Saturday".

The scheduling of the England game means Ireland and England are the only countries on whom two Sunday matches are inflicted. England's other Sunday fixture is the, eh, "Grand Slam decider" against the reigning champions, France, which the Six Nations Committee and BBC have pencilled in for the second round of matches, on February 13th, rather than the final weekend.

Scotland will have had an additional day's respite before playing Ireland in round two, although this is offset by their first game being away to France in Paris in the tournament opener on February 5th. Wales play host to England that afternoon.

The tournament will conclude with the Calcutta Cup encounter between England and Scotland at Twickenham on March 19th.

"It's a tough start having two away games back-to-back when they are as far away from each other as they can possibly be in the Six Nations," O'Sullivan said. "So you have travel days thrown on top of a short turnaround and on top of two away matches.

"The up-sides are that you are playing England after the break, and then there's a further break before we face France. But Wales away is a tough ending," added O'Sullivan, no doubt mindful of Ronan O'Gara's last-ditch winning drop goal at the Millennium Stadium and Denis Hickie's chargedown of a similar attempt by Stephen Jones last year.

O'Sullivan will name a squad of 26 on Monday, May 24th, for the two-Test tour to South Africa next month, which departs on June 5th, and will have a warm-up game on Friday, May 28th, at Lansdowne Road, behind closed doors because of the cost of opening up the ground.

O'Sullivan has a number of injury concerns in the interim, such as Ronan O'Gara, Gordon D'Arcy, Alan Quinlan, Girvan Dempsey and Keith Gleeson. And although Geordan Murphy is due to have a pin removed from the leg that was operated on last September, it is O'Sullivan's understanding he will be available for the tour.

One imagines Irish supporters will share O'Sullivan's grievances over next year's Six Nations' scheduling. Over 10,000 of them made the pilgrimage to Rome last year while no doubt incurring significant damage to their credit cards, and they'll hardly be enamoured of a Sunday fixture either, even with the local kick-off time of 2.30 p.m. And once again, the numbers travelling to Edinburgh may be reduced.

Jacques Laurans, the Six Nations chairman, said, "We recently concluded yet another fine RBS Six Nations tournament. Contrary to all the predictions beforehand, this was not a championship which was decided by the final whistle of the first match. In reality, it hung in the balance until the very last moment. I hope that 2005 will prove to be even half as exciting."

The bad old days of 1996, when the English RFU's television deals with Sky threatened the very future of the world's oldest international competition, also appear to be a thing of the past after it was announced the six unions have signed a new, long-term constitution following months of negotiations.

A rolling five-year accord, which comes into effect in 2006 and stands ad infinitum until one of the six gives five years' notice, the constitution replaces both the 1996 Regulations of the Five Nations Committee and the Five Nations Accord of the same year. Aside from professionalising the business structures of Six Nations Rugby Ltd, it formally recognises, for the first time, the involvement of Italy in the tournament and provides for a new budgetary structure.

The constitution cedes a greater share of income to England and France on the basis of number of clubs. Historically, 90 per cent of total income has been divided equally between the partners, five per cent distributed according to number of clubs, and five per cent on the basis of performance in the championship.

From 2006, 75 per cent will be divided equally, 10 percent according to number of clubs, and 15 per cent according to performance. A Grand Slam, for instance, would be worth 5.5 per cent.

Changes include the establishment of a limited-liability company to oversee all commercial activity, the strengthening of the committee structure, and the creation of the new post of deputy chairman/honorary treasurer, to which position Bill Beaumont of England has been elected.