I'd sworn that I would never enter the Aviva stadium, but on Sunday I was induced to by a friend who had a spare ticket, and the promise of lunch in The Lobster Pot beforehand.
It was an interesting journey through time. The lunch was quite superb, a reminder of the Old Ireland that caused people once upon a time absolutely to love a trip here. But the stadium is a perfect three-dimensional model of the DNA of hubris that not only killed the Celtic Tiger, but infected her cubs with the congenital syphilis of monumental debt.
The Lansdowne Road stadium is run by the Irish Rugby Football Union, its country cousins, the Football Association of Ireland, and their joint operating company, NSL, New Stadium Limited. It is well-named, because limited the stadium really is. It is limited in wisdom, limited in size, limited in vision, limited in suitability, and limited in practicality. So limited in planning was it that the goalposts are indistinguishable from the roof trusses.
Has any lord of the IRFU ever sat on the far side, opposite the Presidential seats and the press box? For there are areas within this stadium from which it is impossible to view an action-replay screen. I could, with difficulty, see one small screen, though the angle was poor. But the people in the seats above me and to my left couldn't possibly have seen any screen. And this, after paying for a ticket in the spanking new Limited View Stadium. Moreover, for the Leinster versus Leicester match next month, there are even "restricted-view" tickets. It might astound you that a new stadium even has such seats, but the lords of the IRFU are capable of almost anything. The price for such a seat is €25, plus, of course, the usual piece of Celtic Tiger thievery: a €2.95 "service charge". So for nearly €30 you will be possibly restricted in watching the game and probably not able to see a screen.
Croke Park was sold out for every major rugby international: 83,000 tickets. But the IRFU insisted on building its new stadium at Lansdowne Road, where planning restrictions meant that it was too small to pay off the crippling debts at normal ticket prices. The resultant higher ticket prices have meant that the new stadium was full only for the first time on Sunday, its fourth international. These absurd prices are not just driving spectators away: they're driving away the spectators that Lansdowne Road needs most -- the passionate working class rugby fans from Munster, who know their rugby backwards, and who are prepared to leave their tonsils scattered over the back of the necks of spectators five rows in front of them, as proof of their love of the game, and of Ireland.
With the backbone of Irish support now filleted out of the stadium by the blade of high prices, the natives were outroared and outsung by the French on Sunday. The Irish who could still afford to buy tickets -- the niminy-piminy professional classes -- were as vocal as Cistercian goldfish at a funeral. The match wasn't lost, yet again, just by a lethal subconscious desire to fail (the only explanation for gifting so many penalties); it was also lost because what had made Lansdowne Road so deadly for visitors for over a century was completely gone. PASSION.
The nightmarish economic reality of the Aviva stadium is reflected in the internet black-market price for the England match: £575, for ticket-only. But just £20 extra -- £595 -- will get you an all-day "Gold Package" for the England-Scotland match at Twickenham: your own hospitality suite, coffee and luxury pastries on arrival, a champagne reception, an all-day complimentary bar, a four-course lunch with fine wines and liqueurs and brandy, a celebrity guest speaker, a souvenir match programme, a post-match hot buffet, a presentation wallet with map, itinerary and security pass, an in-stadium personal plasma television screen, a souvenir gift, and an experienced host for the day.
The very act of servicing those debts creates a product that is simply too expensive for the ordinary man. I haven't got a clue how long it will take the IRFU to pay down this immense debt. Perhaps Martin Murphy, the stadium director, might care to watch a match from the unfashionable seats, preferably the purpose-built "restricted-view seats" from which you can't even see everything, and yet still be charged €30 for the privilege.