Last weekend, I was in Rome for the Six Nations clash between Italy and England. An uneventful flight from Dublin to Rome’s Fiumicino airport (FCO) was marred only by the slow baggage delivery. FCO took 50 minutes to get bags from the plane to the conveyor belts – I can’t think of a slower delivery by any major international airport in the recent past. It seems that many of the airports have invested in better baggage handling systems and that’s definitely helped performance – and of course, because of onerous airline fees, people travel with far less checked baggage these days so there should be less strain on baggage systems, except, apparently, in FCO.
The refereeing team stayed at the Hotel Alexandra, a nice hotel of traditional style rather than modern (definitely not a bland Marriott or Sheraton) that was just beside a metro stop. The Rome metro is easy to use with good directions in the stations. Tickets (one euro for unlimited access to bus and metro for 75 minutes) can be bought from automatic vending machines. The trains seemed to be more like those used in Paris than the London tube, with the Line B trains sporting some pretty impressive graffiti similar to that you’d see in Amsterdam.
Having nothing better to do on a cold Friday afternoon in Rome, we took the metro to the stop that serves the Vatican and walked up to St. Peter’s. I’ve visited St. Peter’s several times before and noted the increased security that visitors now have to go through. The queues weren’t long and the wait took just a few moments. Interestingly, the police who manned the metal detectors didn’t seem to be too worried about mobile phones in the pockets of those who went through the detectors. I wonder what kind of devices they’re actually looking for as I’m pretty sure that a mobile phone case could be used as the basis of an explosive device.
Meanwhile, St. Peter’s was busy with lots of tourists. Looking around I saw lots of Japanese and Chinese groups busily making their way around, checking off the must-see items from Michelangelo’s Pieta to the various altars, paintings, statues, and the mummified remains of a couple of popes. The thought went through my mind whether the same kind of organized chaos caused by flocks of tourists exists in the seats of other major religions? The Vatican attempts to keep some kind of decorum in the church and insist that visitors are dress appropriately. However, while they don’t allow cell phones to be used for conversations in the church, the same devices come out in droves to join other cameras flashing left, right, up, and down. All in all, a bit baffling, even if facilitates tourism.
Heading back to the hotel, we dropped into a bar for a coffee. The bar was nothing out of the ordinary and its only claim to fame is that it’s close to the entrance to St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican museums. In any case, the bar charged 24 euros ($31.44) for three coffees, which set a new personal record for me in terms of expensive coffee, beating the previous mark of 7.50 euro in Montmartre, Paris. The bar did allow us to warm up a tad and get out of the slushy snow that was falling in increasing amounts, so I guess it did deliver some value in that respect. The lesson here is to always look at the price list before you sit down, even if the thought of a nice hot coffee is foremost in your mind.
Slush turned to snow and kept on falling as evening went into night. Rome doesn’t get too much snow (about once every 25 years, according to the locals) and traffic slowed to a snail’s pace with quite a few skids and minor accidents. The Italian Rugby Federation was a little concerned about how the weather might affect Saturday’s game. The pitch was covered so there would be no problems with it, but the roads and stadium could have been problematic for spectators if the freezing conditions persisted.
Next morning I got up early and took the metro to the stop that’s just opposite the Coliseum on the basis that it was an opportunity to get some pictures in unique conditions. By 7am, the temperature had risen to above freezing and the snow had started to melt, so I was glad to have been out early.
Quite a number of other people were out in the early morning, many of whom were also taking photos of the unusual scene. I guess that they didn’t want to miss the chance to capture some snowy antiquity.
The morning remained bright and sunny. Things got very different as the afternoon progressed and we left the hotel for the game in a blizzard. In fact, if the game had been scheduled for a 3pm kick-off, there’s a fair chance that it would have had to have been postponed simply because the crowd couldn’t get near to the Stadio Olimpico (the Olympic Stadium built for the 1960 games). We had a police escort who drove a Fiat Punto at speed through the snow, bypassing lines of cars whenever possible, and reached the ground in one piece.
Obviously the new snowfall posed some problems for the stadium staff. Weather forecasts predicted that the snow would ease off and that no snow would be falling at the 5pm kickoff. A decision was taken to paint red lines on the pitch to make them more visible than the normal white lines. This had some unusual consequences as the red lines didn’t quite cover the original white lines so we had a border of white alongside the red middle. In rugby, you score a try by placing the ball on or over the line, so the question was whether the white border was part of the goal line or if only the red paint was in play. Red won the day and both teams were informed.
Other minor problems got in the way too. This was the first major rugby international to be played at the Stadio Olimpico, which is normally used for soccer (both Roma and Lazio soccer teams play their home games there). The flying camera was therefore set at a height appropriate for soccer. Rugby players tend to kick the ball higher than in soccer and the goalposts are much higher. The first concern was that the ball would hit the camera (the decision would be to award a scrum to the team who had kicked the ball at the point under which it hit the camera). The second issue was that wires used to support and to position the flying camera snagged on one of the goalposts, which then meant that the post developed a very obvious slant to one side. Fortunately the problem was soon sorted by the very efficient stadium staff and didn’t seem to affect anyone (the snag occurred at the end where the England team was warming up; some reports said that this interfered with their preparation, but it didn’t seem to cause much bother).
After all the trials of tribulations of blizzards, clearing snow, repainting lines, and snagged cameras were resolved, the teams were able to play the game, which England won 15-19. The general view, accepted by many of the England team afterwards, was that they were lucky to come away with the win, but a win is goal dust in a competitive championship like the Six Nations where every match is critical in some aspect. Italy had the opportunity to win and possibly would have done so had their kickers been on form.
Two weekends gone in the Six Nations and England have two fortunate wins, Scotland and Italy have two painful losses, Wales look the strongest so far, and Ireland and France were even colder than in Rome. All in all, it’s developing into an “interesting” championship.