Beefed-up rugby, and plenty to beef about

Sport on TV Giles Smith
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The Independent Online
THE BIG question in relation to BBC2's Rugby Special has always been: what's so special about it? Placed deep in Sunday afternoon's snooze zone, and dedicated to frill-free re-screenings of highlights from the Saturday, the programme has often had the distinct feeling of filler about it: a bag of yesterday's television mixed up with a bucket of some cold water and then smeared with a towel across a gap in the schedules.

Contrast, though, the ornate and gleaming edifice which is the modern Rugby Special. In the old days, you thought you were lucky if you got a theme tune and some credits, let alone a studio presentation. But someone has obviously walked into a meeting at the BBC and said: "Why should Match of the Day have all the jazzy desks?" And carpenters have promptly knocked together a citadel in navy blue, at the heart of which sits our presenter, John Inverdale, presiding with a smile over snappy clip compilations and panel analyses and "Try of the Day" slots and a "Video Board". What was traditionally a rainy afternoon in a car park is suddenly a day-pass for Disneyland.

Inverdale communicates the intensity of his enthusiasm for the sport by means of appearing in a rugby shirt of his own. A neat device, this, to emphasise the presenter's proximity to the game, though if it catches on widely, we're going to have to feel pretty sorry for David Vine the next time he introduces the women's ice dancing. Beside Inverdale last Sunday, taking a look back at England's formidable performance against France, were the former England manager Geoff Cooke and, not just one of your usual pundits, but the impressionist Rory Bremner, who could do all the usual pundits in between turning in a top-notch analytical performance of his own (though the judges did feel obliged to dock half a point for his use of the phrase "good for English rugby", right at the end).

The French had protested after the game that one of their players had sustained a 12-stitch leg injury as a result of some stamping by Will Carling. The replay seemed to prove this wasn't the case. Bremner said: "Makes a change this week to hear the French complaining about the treatment of their calves". If one had the mild sense that he had prepared this gag in advance, it was only because it was too frightening to imagine he might have thought of it effortlessly, there and then.

Beyond Bremner, Rugby Special's vote-winning tactics included a post-game vox pop: "Absolutely fabulous," said one spectator. "Absolutely wonderful," said another. At home, you were just starting to bristle at how absolutely pointless this was, when the camera alighted on a Frenchman, who warned mysteriously: "I think Santa Claus will not be there in the World Cup". The makers could add a slot called "Converted", in which members of the public agree that a spruced-up Rugby Special is generally a good thing.

It was Sportnight's unpleasant duty, after a night of Cup football on Wednesday, to bring us pictures which many of us had dearly hoped we would never see again on British television; images, at once sickening and tedious, of lads without responsibility taunting authority. Some argue that to show this kind of thing is merely to encourage those who indulge in it, to grant them the oxygen of publicity which rightly they should be denied. But if Ian Botham and Alan Lamb are available for interview about the failure of England's Ashes tour in Australia, then no TV producer is likely to turn down the opportunity.

Sportsnight found Botham and Lamb in Preston, backstage at some sort of gruelling gagfest which they are current hawking round the country, called, with the wit for which these jokers are renowned, "Beef and Lamb in a stew". Both were keen to speak, from an implausibly imperious height, about the current malaise in English cricket, which, the two of them seemed to agree, stemmed largely from England cricket's refusal to involve Alan Lamb and Ian Botham in a management capacity.

Lamb talked knowingly about having a sense of priority : "England come first," he said, in his thick South African accent. Botham spoke about "competing", about "pulling our fingers out" and about "geeing each other up". "Get (the England team) out playing golf together," he suggested. Hard to think of anything more hellish than having "team spirit" imposed upon you by a locker-room japester like Botham. Imagine the amount of times you would have to laugh about having your shoes filled with lager.

And it would be even worse if, as it appears, the fabled Botham "sense of humour" turned out to be fading. These days, it appears that "Beefy" isn't so much a jocular reference to Botham's portliness (in fact, in this report he looked peculiarly svelte by comparison with the lump in a jumper we see on A Question of Sport), as a reference to the large bunch of grudges he carries around with him. "Got a few points of view there, hasn't he?" said Des Lynam. Indeed. But it's important to insist that this trouble-making element is just a tiny minority, spoiling it for the rest of us.