MOVE TO ATTRACT LARGER TV AUDIENCE
The controversial move to stage Englandâ€™s opening Six Nations match against Wales in Cardiff on a Friday night next season has sparked fears of travel chaos and led to criticism that supporters have been overlooked in the desire by championship chiefs to attract larger television audiences.
Gavin Mairs, The Telegraph
The Six Nations committee announced on Wednesday that England would travel to Cardiffâ€™s Millennium Stadium on Feb 4, the first time in the 127 years of the Five or Six Nations that it will not start on a Saturday.
It will also be the first time that two Home Union sides will meet on a Friday night. France hosted Wales at the Stade de France in 2009 before the corresponding game in Cardiff in this yearâ€™s championship.
The Friday night project has so far not been popular with supporters or players, but last month the committee took the decision to continue with it after a two-year trial because so far the matches have commanded record shares of viewing figures while the Wales v France match proved to be the most financially lucrative of the season for the Welsh Rugby Union.
The scheduling of the Friday night match, which will have a 7.45 kick-off, however, prompted criticism from supporters and warnings from the two main train companies serving the Welsh capital. Twickenham has already been ruled out as a Friday night venue because of police concerns about associated traffic problems.
â€śSwitching the game to a Friday night will impact greatly on supporters trying to get to the game at what will be rush hour at a time of the year when weather can wreak havoc,â€ť said Helen McAteer, secretary of the Northampton Saints supportersâ€™ club.
Currently, the last train leaving Cardiff on Friday night bound for London departs at 9.25 â€” before the game finishes â€” and train company First Great Western called on all parties, including the Welsh Assembly, to work together to find a solution to the potential travel chaos.
DIFFICULTIES IN CARDIFF
â€śFriday evening sporting fixtures cause particular difficulties in Cardiff because the regular rail services havenâ€™t been designed to cope with the extra demand,â€ť said Simon Pickering, the companyâ€™s Welsh passenger focus manager.
Welsh train company Aviva was also concerned. â€śWith such a late finish, travel options home after the game will be limited, especially for the many making longer journeys such as to north Wales,â€ť the company said in a statement.
John Hall, chairman of sports travel company Gullivers Sports, said the switch to a Friday night would hit â€śregular supportersâ€ť the worst.
â€śThe corporate side probably wonâ€™t be too affected,â€ť said Hall. â€śBut thereâ€™s going to be major problems getting there and one of the major problems for supporters will be that the hotels normally insist on a two-night stay and what you will find is that many supporters will come down for the Friday night but will want to return on Saturday.â€ť
John Feehan, Six Nations chief executive, claimed that only a â€śsmall minorityâ€ť opposed the move and that potential travel and accommodation problems could be overcome.
â€śThe centre of Cardiff should not be a no-go zone after seven oâ€™clock,â€ť he said. â€śIf we were to schedule a championship based around the hoteliersâ€™ practices, then I think we wouldnâ€™t have a championship.
â€śWe do appreciate the difficulties that supporters may have in terms of travel but we also have to think not just of people who want to attend the games but also to watch the games. Two years ago, when the Welsh played France in Paris, we had a record audience in France.
â€śThere are over 20 million more people watching the championship as a direct result of us showing games at times that suit the public. This tournament has to adapt and change.â€ť
David Pickering, the Welsh Rugby Union chairman, also backed the switch, saying that South Wales Police had endorsed the Friday night game while the Rugby Football Union was also supportive, claiming its travel company was also looking at â€śinnovativeâ€ť ways of transporting their supporters to and from the match.