Friday night under the lights in Cardiff. Two great rugby nations smashing into each other live on terrestrial TV. This was exactly what the Six Nations needed, a sporting blockbuster to convince everyone this game’s worth watching.
Instead, Wales v France felt like a disaster movie.
Rugby’s in trouble, make no mistake. Yes, grounds are full and terrestrial TV keeps viewing figures healthy, but this year especially, it’s been hard to see why so many bother turning up or tuning in, and Friday’s match only confirmed that fear.
We should have been worried even before the match kicked off. Ali Williams, an All Blacks legend and guest pundit for the night, could hardly keep a straight face when John Inverdale asked him how the Six Nations compares with southern hemisphere rugby.
He eventually came up with a blathering response about crowd passion. Of course that’s true – but it’s not enough anymore.
France looked like invitational side the Barbarians, only without the devil-may-care attitude. From their lack of a plan it seemed they’d only just met on the team bus – and maybe they had, given that many of their team were playing for their clubs just a couple days before.
Wales weren’t much better, dragged down by the level of their opponents. At times even the screeching Eurovision show over on BBC4 seemed preferable to this dirge of a match.
Rugby’s problem isn’t just that it was a bad game. The trouble is that the action was incomprehensible to all but the most dedicated of egg chasers, a grotty slog of penalties, collapsed scrums, higgledy piggledy driving mauls and refereeing delays.
The bickering between commentators Eddie Butler, Brian Moore and Jonathan Davies didn’t help either. The trio are normally spiky, argumentative and accurate. This time though, perhaps because there was so little to talk about on the pitch, they took to trading blows as to who could be more damning about the officials and the state of the game.
We wanted explanation not exasperation from the men on the mic.
This year’s Six Nations has more coverage than ever, with ITV joining forces with the BBC to keep the spectacle free to air.
ITV were spoiled during the World Cup, even without a home nation to cheer on in the semi finals. Actually, maybe because there was no home nation to stink up the action.
But now the broadcaster knows the truth: rugby’s a bloody hard sell, for all the passion it invokes. It’s complicated, nuanced, increasingly regimented and tactical.
Very occasionally, these muscled supermen will come up with something spectacular, a moment of instinctive brilliance that defies the confined logic of the sport. Rugby’s rules are there to be broken, its structure to be smashed by smart players who know when to play safe and when to turn and dash and make themselves a hero.
Maybe England v Ireland this Saturday will be different; maybe they will do exactly what Wales and France did and play within themselves.
We thought we were lucky to keep rugby free on TV. But if the Six Nations keeps going this way, there will be plenty who will say they wouldn’t tune in even if you paid them to.