Workers try to defrost the pitch of the Stade de France. Photo: Reuters
PARIS: The Six Nations match between France and Ireland was cancelled just before kick-off at the Stade de France here on Saturday because of concerns over the safety of the pitch.
English referee Dave Pearson had passed it fit 90 minutes before the 2000 GMT kick-off but temperatures of -5 degrees Celsius, with a wind chill of -11C, had made it rock hard by the time the teams were preparing to come out.
The military band and a couple of groundsmen vainly trying to heat up part of the pitch stood their ground.
Boos rang out around the packed stadium as it dawned on the 70,000-plus spectators that the match had been called off.
Both teams came out on to the pitch to vainly salute the furious spectators, including thousands of Irish fans who'd made the long trip over.
"It's a real shame for you all but unfortunately the match has had to be cancelled," said French captain Thierry Dusautoir.
"I hope you will all come and support us next time. The decision has been taken, and now we will prepare for the next time."
The match is now slated to be played either next weekend, a planned Six Nations rest when the Stade de France is in use on Saturday for a Top 14 match between Stade Francais and Toulon scheduled at 1500 GMT, or the weekend of March 3-4.
If the teams do play on March 3-4, it would mean them having to play on four consecutive weekends.
It is not the first time that a France v Ireland match has been called off, the last time being in the old Five Nations in 1986 at the Parc des Princes.
And the 2001 tournament saw three Ireland matches postponed until September and October of that year because of an epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease.
"The pitch was unsafe. The referee had to take the decision and it was tough for one man to do it," Ireland coach Declan Kidney told the BBC.
"In fairness it was the right decision. The players were pumped up but it will be a new experience for them.
"The game will be rearranged -- next week might be a bit tight, but it's up to the Six Nations to decide. We will have to talk about it. I wouldn't like to guess."
One fan left furious was Mark Kelly, a salesman from Dublin.
"You wouldn't get this in schoolboy rugby!" Kelly told AFP. "Me and my wife have been planning this for a year, St Valentine's weekend and all that.
"These French friends came over last year to Dublin and we said we'd come this year.
"With hotel and flights and organising nannies for the two kids it has cost 1,000 euros.
"The first we knew was 10 minutes after it was meant to kick off. The referee didn't have the courtesy to come and announce it himself. I can't come back as I can't take another day off."
French rugby federation president Pierre Camou expressed his "massive disappointment" at the cancellation, choosing his words carefully in fear of badmouthing the Six Nations organising committee.
"I'm sad for all the fans who've travelled, those who've come here from outside Paris," he said.