If you had ever wondered what a mug punter looks like, you needed only to gaze around the Stade de France on Saturday night at a few minutes past nine. As the dread words in French and English rang round the space-age stadium with the municipal-park facilities, announcing that the match was off, the popular translation was this: "You give us your hard-earned Euros and we'll give you days of anticipation that the freezing temperatures in Paris will make the pitch unplayable. Oh, but we will drag you over from Limerick and Dublin, up from Toulouse and Biarritz, in from London and make you sit and wait in the sub-zero temperatures, and make you believe it's on – and then call it off." The booing of the crowd as a response could be interpreted thus: "Well, merci beaucoup and up yours."
For many among the 80,000 the anger was not a hot-blooded one; rather it gnawed at the bones like the arctic chill – because we had all seen it coming. The French players had seen it coming; Vincent Clerc, a wing threequarter much better known for scoring tries than making meteorological observations, had passed comment last Tuesday about parts of the pitch freezing during the Italy match at the Stade de France the previous weekend. That had kicked off at 3.30pm. So: same place, same wintry weather, only this time with a kick-off five and a half hours later, and a few degrees colder. You do the physics.
One shattering affront was that TV viewers were the first to know. At about 10pm a post on an Irish rugby forum read: "Back from Stade de france...you know whats sh1t? Hearing it from you mates in Ireland that the game is off a full 15 minutes before the stadium your sitting in does. Lined up this trip 6 months ago and broke. So angry."
You can trace it all back as far as you like: the building in the late 1990s of a national stadium with no undersoil heating (there were some old gas pipes in the way, apparently); or to the Six Nations fixtures set 13 months ago to include Paris on a February evening. In the pivotal minutes around the 9pm scheduled start, it got silly. At about 8.50pm, the Ireland captain, Paul O'Connell, said the players were "30 seconds away" from leaving the dressing rooms for the tunnel when the referee, Dave Pearson, walked in, said "It's off", shook hands and left. Outside, at 8.57pm, a public address announcement in French declared only some uncertainty. Jaunty music was put on. "A little less conversation, a little more action please." Yes, quite. The marching band stood on the halfway line, all dressed up and no teams to play the national anthems to. Soon enough, the band marched off, in formation and high dudgeon. "PLEASE keep your tickets," the announcer beseeched as the postponement was confirmed, although the offer to reuse them on the new date was as far as the inaptly named organisers were prepared to go. No refunds, no justice?
Not when you consider a £200 flight from Dublin, £160 for two nights in a hotel, plus the cash that flies from the pocket for whatever goes into making a Parisian Six Nations weekend.
In the basement of the stadium, a man from the Six Nations Council and one from the French Rugby Federation gave us reporters a statement but took no questions. L'Equipe described it yesterday as a North Korean approach to public relations. First we were told Pearson would come in, and then, er, no he wouldn't. In any case his decision had been a fait accompli, though all and sundry wrung their hands disingenuously that the onus had been on one man.
The players went anyway to their post-match (post-postponement?) dinner and swankier guests were seen smiling with goody bags; their canapés and champagne quaffed, come what may. We reporters did our bit before joining the miserable majority for the 40 minutes back to the city centre, arriving near midnight. It's an unprepossessing journey when the weather is mild. On Saturday night it was the flight of the fooled.