The Ireland women's team must play their home Six Nations matches on Sunday in Donnybrook despite RTÉ offering prime time slots Friday or Saturday night.
The IRFU rejected Friday double-headers, alongside the men’s under-20s, against Italy, Wales and Scotland, despite the success – and full capacity – at the Dublin 4 venue when England came to Dublin in March.
The IRFU’s reasoning is that amateur women players struggle to get time off work for Friday games.
“We requested that home games are played as double-headers on Friday nights with the under-20s but that option was declined,” explained RTÉ head of sport Ryle Nugent. “Our second option was to broadcast the games live on Saturday nights in prime time and that was also declined. We were informed the games would have to take place on the Sunday.
“Friday nights do not work, we were told, as they are amateur players and are going to struggle with taking time off work,” Nugent continued. “We fully accept that. We are not trying to cause a problem, we want to do the best we can for the women’s game in Ireland in terms of giving them a profile and an opportunity to engage with the largest possible audience.
“We were just told Saturday nights wouldn’t work.”
The IRFU insisted on early Sunday kick-offs over prime time Saturday evening, which would have followed the men’s home matches as they all kick-off this season at 2.15pm. This would have given the women’s squad an extra recovery day before returning to work on Monday morning.
“The reason is to allow time for team preparation and minimise disruption to players’ work and study schedules,” explained an IRFU spokesman. “Women’s games have traditionally been held on a Sunday since their games moved to Donnybrook.”
Ireland moved to Donnybrook in 2016. Twelve of the 15 women’s Six Nations games, from 2010 to 2015, were on Friday nights.
“I don’t think the team had any input on scheduling of matches,” said a recently retired Ireland player. “Sunday seems less than ideal in terms of recovery as most players are straight back into work Monday morning.
“You would think to maximise the audience some sort of double-headers would make more sense.”
Ireland, under newly appointed head coach Adam Griggs, open their Six Nations campaign against France in Toulouse on February 3rd, a 9pm Saturday kick-off, and finish against England on Friday March 16th in a double-header with the male under-20s.
The full list of fixtures will be released by the Six Nations on Thursday. RTÉ is broadcasting all five Ireland matches live.
Despite poor attendance numbers this and last year, two of the three Donnybrook games remain at 1pm on the Sunday, with Wales moved to 3pm to avoid a clash with the Winter Olympics closing ceremony in South Korea.
An average audience of 191,300 watched the opening World Cup fixtures, a victory over Australia, in August. That rose to 224,500, an 18.26 per cent audience share, for the loss to France on August 17th.
Both games were evening kick-offs.
The French win during last year’s Six Nations drew 129,000 viewers, a Sunday 12.45pm kick-off, while 185,000 tuned in at 8pm on Friday to see England complete the Grand Slam.
The average viewing figures for Ireland’s Sunday lunchtime win in Italy was 81,000, with just 60,000 for the early Saturday kick-off in Cardiff.
Griggs, a New Zealander who played representative rugby for Canterbury before moving to Dublin, where he's been capped by Leinster A and won an All-Ireland league medal with Lansdowne FC, will work in tandem with women's director of rugby Anthony Eddy during November training camps.
France, Scotland, Wales and England all play competitive games this month.
There is already a significant turnover in the squad following the retirements of 2013 Grand Slam winners Nora Stapleton, Marie Louise Reilly and Ailis Egan while it remains unclear if Jenny Murphy, still only 28, will be available this season.
There is no update on the IRFU steering committee formed to address issues in the women's game following the advertisement for a "part-time casual" six-month position subsequently filled by Griggs, who has also coached the Leinster women and assisted the men's under-19s. Mary Quinn and Su Carty were announced as co-chairwomen on October 24th when Philip Browne, the IRFU chief executive, acknowledged the "union's role in causing unintentional concern and confusion around the future of the women's game in Ireland".