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The secret fan | Ireland versus France, RBS 6 Nations Rugby

  • Crowd atmosphere and organic elements of fan experience matched by second screen experience
  • Ear piece and large screens explain referee decisions
  • Post-match pub ‘entertainment’ part of whole-day experience

By Mark Bradley

“By a lonely prison wall,

I heard a young girl calling

Michael they have taken you away,

For you stole Trevelyn’s corn …”

Five minutes into the second half of Ireland’s Six Nations game with France, the crowd, almost on cue, erupted into a spine-tingling rendition of The Fields of Athenry: Pete St John’s stirring ballad of a young man caught stealing food for his starving family during the famine of 1845-50.

This wasn’t from a singing section. (Was there ever a term less appropriate to the spontaneous joy of the sports chant?) This was EVERYONE. All four sides of the stadium united in celebrating what this is and why we were all so blessed to be here.

The fact that we were there at all was something of a minor miracle itself, since the game had almost sold out when we got our tickets and, as any travelling Six Nations fan will tell you, flight availability was at a premium. But, like the early afternoon sun that peeked out through a mob of angry clouds, fortune smiled on us and so it was that we found ourselves with Mike, the taxi driver, waiting for the Tom Clarke Bridge to lower and let us across the Liffey.

His subject matter ranged from the visitors (“The French are so socialist. They always get the bus en masse from the airport. They won’t spend money on taxis – too elitist.”) to post-match entertainment opportunities. “You’ll have to go to Donehy & Nesbitts after the game. That’s the law,” he told us with a smile. “This is not just a game, you know. It’s the whole day.”

Finding the local streets closed a few hours ahead of the game, Mike dropped us a short walk from the stadium. We walked past pubs and hotels that had erected marquees for the occasion. Hospitality was everywhere. More than 2,000 meals would be served both inside the stadium and in the adjacent Marquee and, in the streets surrounding the Aviva Stadium, there were options for everyone (as long as you like Guinness and bacon sandwiches).

At this point, as if by prior arrangement, a ray of sun lit up the south east exterior of the stadium and we were immediately stopped in our tracks. The Aviva Stadium is a remarkable structure with the roof designed to undulate like a wave (apparently to ensure light is not denied to local residences). It’s a curious shape with four tiers filling three sides of the ground and with only one low tier making up the north side: a necessity due to the proximity of housing there.

Our seats were on the south side and I felt compelled to spend most of the afternoon contemplating the architectural marvel before me. The effect is to make the opposite end of the field look much further away than it actually is. How far would Johnny Sexton have to kick the feckin’ ball? That North end is either very small, or far away.

We took our seats in time to see President Michael D Higgins introduced to the teams. Here was a man who epitomised Ireland’s love of sport, words and song: a Galway-United-supporting sociologist, author, broadcaster and, inevitably, a poet too.

Next, the national anthems and then, after a thunderous display of fireworks, the main event was upon us. France took the initiative early on, establishing a six-point lead with two penalties and that, my friends, is where my technical appreciation of this code of rugby ends. I did aim to bluff my way through, hoping to bring the game to life for my better half, but the disallowing of a French try left me baffled.

Happily, Vodafone had provided, for the sum of €5, a set of radio headphones that allowed you to listen to the referee (and the voices around him). Although the volume did feel slightly low to me, the value was clear. As a first-time attendee I immediately had exposure to the respect and order that characterises a rugby union game. I began to muse how such an innovation might challenge the culture of football, for example.

In my experience, sponsor activations can often seem cosmetic and sometimes give the impression of a hastily actioned afterthought, but this was far from the case here.

As well as hearing the referee, we could share his view of proceedings too, thanks to the innovative headcam that Nigel Owens was wearing. This was blended with several other angles and perspectives and broadcast to us via the Guinness and Vodafone-sponsored big screen. As someone brought up on football – where we’ve been deprived of the in-game presentation and innovation that has characterised sports such as Australia’s T20 Blast – it was refreshing to be so close to the action.

And once you added the RBS 6 Nations application to the mix the ‘second screen’ aspect of the event started to become a big part of the experience for the novice. Easy to download and not too data-hungry, I enjoyed the Momentum Tracker function especially. Over the course of the 80 minutes, it traced both teams’ territorial progress and it wasn’t long before I felt confident enough to explore the Positional Battles facility, where a simple graphic brought to life each player’s success compared with his opposite number.  Significantly, this data is accessible long after the game has finished so I was able to go back and reconcile my clunky perspective with that of the experts.

With continually updated news, videos and a match gallery, I’d score the app highly for its reach, simplicity of design, operation and, in particular, its appeal to the new fan. Clearly, this was not an event that was going to struggle to sell tickets and there’s no evidence that the growth of rugby in Ireland is being constrained by the complexity of the rules, but any concession to first-timers like us was always going to be welcomed. And for those occasions when we needed further clarification about a refereeing decision, just about every fan in a five-metre radius offered his or her take on events.

Back on the field of play, Ireland gradually took the lion’s share of possession (a fact I was able to verify by using my phone). By half time, they had established a small lead and they would stretch this to 10 points by the end of the game.

But it was at the start of the second half that The Fields of Athenry began to reverberate around the packed stadium: the point at which I realised that while the RBS Six Nations may be delivering ‘digitally’ extremely well, the unmatchable rapture of just being there reminded me of just how important analogue is in sports too.

As I headed along Baggott Street after the game, I reflected on the challenges of our times when competition for the sport dollar has never been fiercer. How do you balance the needs of the long-term aficionado with the expectations of the new or less familiar audience? How do you ensure that the race to embrace digital innovation doesn’t compromise or threaten your traditions, identity or values?

You might think it would take several hours of contemplation over the local stout to reach a definitive conclusion, but to be fair to the IRFU, the RBS Six Nations Championship and the Aviva Stadium team; my experience as a ‘newbie’ was so immersive, so informative and so engaging, that I’d got the answer well before I’d reached Donehy and Nesbitt’s door.

Extract from Refreshments Menu

• Burger deal (house burger, chips & soft drink) €11
• Chicken burger meal (chicken burger, chips & soft drink) €11
• Combo meal (crisps, confectionery & soft drink) €6
• Aviva burger (Irish beef, lettuce, cheddar, onion & relish) €6.50
• 9” Oak Smoked Hodgins Irish Hot Dog €5.50
• Curry Fries €5
• Soft drinks €2.50
• Hot drinks €2.50

Mark’s ratings:

Ease 9/10 The broader logistics of the day were smoothly managed. The city felt ready for the event; travel was easy, particularly earlier in the afternoon, and there were no hold-ups, inconveniences or delays at any stage. But what I recall, as a genuine first-timer, is how useful the big screen was; how captivating the headcam shots were and, ultimately, how much closer to understanding the game the RBS 6 Nations App brought me. The only small downside was the failure of the radio headphones to convey the referee’s voice with sufficient volume.

Value 9/10 Value is famously in the eye of the beholder, so as genuine first-timers, for us it was about feeling ‘part of things’. I’ve attended sports events where I’ve felt like I’ve just crashed a party, especially when I’ve dared to offer an audible opinion. The radio headphones, ref’s headcam, fan app and big screen were, as I’ve recounted, a huge part of this, but I felt an equal sense that Ireland was on show here too with stadium representatives and the general public going out of their way to make me feel welcome. From the stewards both outside and inside the stadium to the refreshments staff and the taxi drivers, I cannot begin to tell you just how friendly everyone was.

Recommendation 9/10 To use the hackneyed term that this was ‘more than a game’ simply does not do justice to an event where the analogue and digital combined so effortlessly to the clear benefit of the novice. I thought rugby union was always going to be a stretch too far for me, but the Aviva Stadium experience has made me think twice.

Brief Overview

The Six Nations Championship is an international rugby union competition played between Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, France and Italy. It has its origins in the Home Nations Championship, which first began in 1883.

The IRFU (Irish Rugby Football Union) was founded in 1879. It manages rugby union in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Ireland has been champion of the tournament 13 times, most recently in 2015.

This fixture took place at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium on February 25, 2017. Opened in 2010 to replace Lansdowne Road, the venue holds 51,700 spectators when hosting sports events and up to 65,000 for concerts.

Tickets for this Six Nations game ranged from €25 for schoolchildren to €95 for Category 1 Stand Tickets

Transport: Dublin’s Dart Line and other rail services call at Lansdowne Road Station, which is adjacent to the stadium in the Ballsbridge suburb of the city.

For more information, visit www.irishrugby.ie.

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