Blithely though the Six Nations Committee describe it as "making this great rugby occasion available to as many people as possible", it is fair to describe the shift of England's match against Wales in Cardiff to a Friday evening next year as a break with tradition. The fixture has been played 57 times in Wales since the first in Swansea in 1883, and every one of them on a Saturday. The powers-that-be are spinning faster than Spiderman on this subject, with the Welsh Rugby Union describing a 2.30pm start for their Saturday match with South Africa this June as a "crowd-pleasing kick-off time", adding that it is a "10-year anniversary" of the Millennium Stadium's inaugural fixture in June 1999 (so if 1999-2000 was the first year; 2000-01 was a one-year anniversary, right?). The numbers which will count with Wales and England supporters next February are the thousands of cars heading down the M4 in the Friday rush-hour and the blank timetables for trains from Cardiff to London after the final whistle. The unions say they need the TV money to invest in the sport, but where is the tipping point between pandering to the armchair viewer and annoying your most loyal supporters?
ESPN turns Healey on
Talking of tipping points, the Guinness Premiership (which is looking for a new sponsor, with insurance firm QBE tipped to take over) has sold 43 live matches to ESPN from next season. In addition to Sky's 26, this means three out of each weekend's six matches will be shown live. ESPN plan to have 14 cameras at matches compared with Sky's 12, and to set up a studio at most grounds, a big improvement on their sparse coverage of the French Top 14 and autumn internationals when they cut to and from other broadcasters' pictures with nothing added before, at half-time or at the end. The "lead analyst" will be former England back and sometime ballroom dancer and quiz host Austin Healey while new, young talent is being auditioned for the presenting role.
Heineken begins to settle
Newcastle's elimination from the European Challenge Cup has clarified the picture regarding Heineken Cup qualification – just a little. England and France each have six qualifying places as of right for next season's Heineken. If Wasps win the Challenge Cup they will earn a seventh place for England, which will let in whoever finishes seventh – probably Bath, Gloucester or Harlequins. If Cardiff Blues win the Challenge Cup (they are away to Wasps in the 1 May semi-final), they will earn a fourth Heineken spot for Wales – which would be good news for the Scarlets, who are off the pace in the Magners League. If French clubs win the Heineken and Challenge Cups this season, they can earn their country only one additional spot, and the other would pass to whichever club outside France has the most European ranking points – the Scarlets, Bath and Gloucester are well placed on that count too.
All friends in the Bath
All round then, a good week for Bath chief executive Nick Blofeld. In addition to announcing the club's new owner, Bruce Craig, he was spared the task of serving on the Premier Rugby panel set up to mediate between Northampton and Saracens over the signing of Soane Tonga'uiha when the warring parties settled "out of court".Reuse content