Evening kick-off for Six Nations finale

Back in the days when a France-England match in Paris was invariably followed by an evening of celebratory excess - the kind of excess symbolised by Colin Smart's infamous consumption of a glass of after-shave - the players expected to lose themselves in an alcoholic haze long before dark. Next season, they will be lucky to hit the bar before last orders. The Six Nations committee has, in its eternal wisdom, bowed to pressure from the broadcasting community and sanctioned a kick-off time of 9pm local time, or 8pm GMT.

Television has been rolling back rugby's traditional frontiers ever since the 1995 World Cup in South Africa: Sunday matches, wired-up referees, video replay officials and independent timekeeping are all part of union's rich tapestry in the professional era. But 9pm on a Saturday night? The first time the French pulled a stunt like this, their Test match with the Wallabies clashed directly with a free helping of pornography on one of the country's terrestrial stations. Viewing figures were difficult to obtain, but the rugby was assumed to have finished a distant second.

The 2004 fixture, scheduled for 27 March, will be the final game of the tournament - another notable victory for the major broadcasters, including the BBC, who appear to believe that England and France are the only teams that matter and should, therefore, bring the competition to a natural climax by playing each other. The fact that England and Ireland provided the Six Nations with one of international sport's great rarities - a Grand Slam shoot-out - as recently as two months ago has done nothing to convince the television types of the error of their ways.

England's first match will be in Rome on 15 February, and they face the Scots at Murrayfield six days later. Their home games are against Ireland on 6 March and Wales on 20 March. There will be no Sunday fixture at Twickenham this time, much to the relief of those red rose regulars who value the Sabbath as a day of recuperation before contemplating a return to work.

This being World Cup year, there is a vast amount of international rugby to be played before anyone starts thinking about Six Nations business - indeed, it will be a minor miracle if more than 50 per cent of Europe's Test fraternity are still standing come February. Brian O'Driscoll, the Ireland captain and by some distance the hottest centre in the game, is already suffering the effects of repeated physical batterings, and will miss his country's summer tour of Australia, Tonga and Samoa because of a serious hamstring problem.

His absence, and the decision of his predecessor, Keith Wood, to spend the trip training rather than playing in an effort to regain some fitness in advance of the World Cup, means the Irish are looking for a temporary captain. Reggie Corrigan, the Leinster prop, is one obvious candidate, and there is support for Anthony Foley, the Munster No 8. Both are included in 41-strong squad, which features two 2001 Lions, Tyrone Howe and David Wallace, who will be looking to make up lost ground after a season of international anonymity.

If there are precious few centres capable of wielding influence on the O'Driscoll scale, Daryl Gibson can certainly be counted among them. The proud owner of 19 All Black caps - he left his native New Zealand for Bristol following the 2002 National Provincial Championship - Gibson yesterday signed a two-year contract with Leicester, and his move to Welford Road, where he will be paired with the exciting young England prospect Ollie Smith, has a significance above and beyond most of the transfer deals currently being finalised.

"Leicester are a very established, very successful and very well-supported club, and that combination of factors made me decide that this was the move for me," said Gibson, who had also been pursued by Bath. The Midlanders signed Ramiro Pez, the Italian stand-off, and Darren Morris, the Lions prop, last week. Now that Gibson has joined Julian White, the England tight head, on the same bus out of relegated Bristol, the fallen champions will be confident of rising again very soon. Next season, to be precise.

2004 SIX NATIONS SCHEDULE

Saturday 14 February
France v Ireland (2.00)
Wales v Scotland (4.00)

Sunday 15 February
Italy v England (3.00)

Saturday 21 February
France v Italy (2.00)
Scotland v England (5.30)

Sunday 22 February
Ireland v Wales (3.00)

Saturday 6 March
Italy v Scotland (1.30)
England v Ireland (4.00)

Sunday 7 March
Wales v France (3.00)

Saturday 20 March
Ireland v Italy (1.30)
England v Wales (4.00)

Sunday 21 March
Scotland v France (3.00)

Saturday 27 March
Wales v Italy (2.00)
Ireland v Scotland (4.00)
France v England (8.00)

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