Fears rugby fans will have to pay to watch the Six Nations by 2021
Tournament is left off the list of free-to-air sports events
The Six Nations has been left off the list of Ireland's compulsory free-to-air sporting events, raising fears it could end up on a subscription-based sports channel.
Communications Minister Denis Naughten opted to leave the popular tournament off the list despite his predecessor Alex White's belief there was a "strong case" for its inclusion.
Mr Naughten said, however, that he was "very proud" to designate the All-Ireland camogie and ladies football finals as free-to-air events.
For the next two years, the Six Nations will be broadcast on RTÉ until TV3 takes over the reins in 2018. Along with the BBC, the channel retains the rights until 2021.
But from that date onwards, the future of the tournament's availability on terrestrial television is in doubt.
"It is a concern because there is a move towards pay-per-view for sporting endeavours, and competition is fierce amongst networks, so it is a real possibility," said Fianna Fáil's spokesperson on Communications, Timmy Dooley.
"It would be a shame and a retrograde step if the Six Nations did end up behind a pay wall."
The Clare TD told the Irish Independent he was disappointed that Mr Naughten had not taken the opportunity to secure the terrestrial future of the tournament.
"Rugby is no longer the preserve for a few private schools in Dublin. Over the last decade, and probably more, it has become quite a provincial game. One that is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people across Ireland.
"The Six Nations is a major part of the Irish sporting calendar and if you look at any of the reasons as to why something is added to the list of sporting events free to everyone it ticks all the boxes."
The list of events, which has been in existence since 2003, includes the Summer Olympics, Irish games at the Rugby World Cup, the soccer World Cup and European Championships and their qualifiers, and the All-Ireland GAA senior hurling and football finals. Among the criteria for the list includes each event having a "special resonance" and a "distinct cultural importance" for the people of Ireland.
The Irish Rugby Football Union has resisted proposals for the rugby tournament to be added to the list on the basis that it could cost them income from television rights.
The championship is the IRFU's prime source of income, and it is believed the TV rights are worth an estimated €20m for Irish rugby.
Under current broadcasting rules, Ireland's home games are listed as category B events, which stipulates that the games must have deferred coverage on terrestrial TV.
The IRFU had "no comment" to make when asked by the Irish Independent on whether it supported the Six Nations being listed as a free-to-air event.
Previously though, it said: "The [status quo] strikes an appropriate balance between our desire to make the matches accessible to the widest possible audience and the need to avoid causing Irish rugby substantial financial losses."