Last weekend it was the second round of matches in the Six Nations and it was already crunchtime. Thanks to France delivering a spectacularly French display of ineptitude at the hands of the Italians, all of a sudden the game at the Aviva Stadium was a potential title decider: Ireland V England.
It was scrappy, it was physical and it was chippy, but Chris Robshaw led an England side, brimming with confidence after crushing the All Blacks in November and putting the Auld Enemy to the sword at Twickenham, to England's first win on Irish soil in a decade. Once again Owen Farrell, our steely young Saracens fly-half, put the men in green to the sword with another virtuoso kicking display.
My allegiances I hope are clear, and I only wish I could have been in Dublin at the weekend to sample the hospitality. But in the middle of this intense rivalry, stakes as high as you could want them, the O2 brand identity was sitting pretty on the shirts of both England and Ireland. Is it smart for a brand to openly court the allegiances of not just two distinct fan bases, but two rival nations in the same tournament?
Sponsorship in international sport is more than just a name on a shirt. It's about national pride, history, a sense of identity and home-grown companies nailing their colours to the mast. The Royal Bank of Scotland back the Scottish, Italian bank Cariparma sponsor Italy and for years, the proudly-Welsh brewery Brains was emblazoned upon the Wales jersey, only recently being replaced by fellow Welsh company Admiral. Sadly no French sponsor wants to be associated with the French Rugby team. After losing to Italy, who can blame them?
In English football it's certainly an alien concept. Fans welcome into their arms brands that show a genuine allegiance to their club; think Liverpool and Carlsberg's near 20 year happy partnership. When Chevrolet dared feature Liverpool and United players fraternising in the same TV ad, both sets of fans were utterly outraged - purely because the brand didn't 'respect' the sheer level of hatred between the two clubs. Key sponsors may acceptably invest in teams across different European leagues (Emirates, Samsung and Bwin for example), but in the same competition? Near unthinkable.
An obvious caveat would be just north of the border, where for the majority of the last 30 years the same brand has sponsored both Rangers and Celtic. But even that's a red herring; such a deal came into force in the very first days of kit sponsorship. Now that tradition is being broken in 2013, Magners new shirt deal with Celtic (a proud Irish brand to boot) is likely to send thousands of the Ibrox faithful flocking straight to Strongbow & Bulmers.
So from O2's perspective, is this a foolish move, or could it actually be quite a clever one? Does this mini-monopoly over Sunday's clash simply reflect their larger commitment and passion for a sport which spends the majority of the year in the shadow of football?
Certainly, you can't fault O2 for the investment it's made in the game. It supports the women's team, grass roots, the Rugby 7s and Barbarians. The O2 Touch campaign is even driving fans to get involved and playing too. In a vacuum, along with its various priority schemes for customers and engaging ad campaigns featuring various England stars, it seems the perfect sponsor. And they're heavily committed to the marvellous City of Dublin too. But there's still that nagging feeling that they could well be cosying up with Brian O'Driscoll over on Irish TV, and what a betrayal that would be!
Ultimately, the answer lies with the passion of the fans. O2's sponsorship across various sports and events largely stands them in positive stead with consumers; but it's interesting to wonder whether they're diluting the brand and preventing themselves from taking the affiliation to deeper levels by trying to please everyone. Should they jump off the fence and pledge full allegiance to queen and country? Or are fans just not that fussed?
What do you think?
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