The importance of a good pre-season was well illustrated by Paul Merson on Saturday.
His lecture tour of the Ivy League over the summer meant that he hit the ground running as Soccer Saturday returned this weekend. "He's got a 50p head," said Merse as a headed chance skewed wide in the game he was watching. He's the pundit of the season, so far.
The English season may just be dusting itself down but in Scotland things are already in full swing, so much so that Celtic and Rangers appear to have started their pre-season for the next campaign already. They began this season last month but have since concentrated on pre-season preparations. This appears part of an ingenious plan to get the national side back to a major finals – if they can get into next season before anyone else then it will give them an advantage come World Cup qualifiers. It is a plan based on their experiences in 1996 when Estonia failed to turn up for a qualifier.
It is the sort of blue-sky thinking that No 10 meteorologist Steve Hilton would cherish, although as blue sky is limited in Scotland – thanks to restrictions introduced by the Thatcher administration – he should not hurry north of the border. It was raining in Edinburgh on Saturday, which at least made it rugby weather.
The appearance of Murrayfield and Twickenham on TV screens in the middle of summer only added to the state of confusion that surrounds the sporting calendar at the moment. On Saturday it was possible to watch live cricket, football and rugby. With Christmas getting earlier every year, it will not be long before the traditional Boxing Day games are played on Thanksgiving – in Scotland the New Year's Day Old Firm game will remain in place, only it will be played a year in advance.
England's meeting with Wales may have been a warm-up for the World Cup but Sky doesn't do warm-ups. The slant on Saturday was that when England won the trophy in 2003 it was effectively because of what they did in the non-warm-up matches, that Sky just so happens to have footage of, unlike the main event.
A Sky rugby broadcast is exhausting to watch. It shares the current obsession for super slo-mo – usually in the middle of a montage which every live sports programme is obliged to contain at intervals of no more than 15 minutes – but that doesn't take any of the pace out of the coverage.
Nobody sits still for a moment. Simon Lazenby drag anchors the coverage, popping up and down from his seat to press buttons on big screens. Down pitchside Will Greenwood and Scott Quinnell are so fleet of foot it gives the impression they are tangoing. Then it's off to the commentary box, where the excellent Stuart Barnes, who manages consistently to fall just on the right side of pompousness, gives his take, then into a dark truck where Dean Ryan lurks to bring further analysis (an idea that was first used during ITV's brief tenure as Premier League rights holder, except then it was greeted with derision).
Greenwood and Quinnell make an entertaining double act. Quinnell is all rumbling passion and has a nice turn of phrase for a big man. "The butterflies will turn to dragons," he said as the Wales team came out. The problem in having two former players together is that one ends up asking questions that you know he can answer. The ubiquitousness of former players on TV means this applies to most sports. Too often this leads to banality – witness Robbie Paul in the Wigan dressing room after their Challenge Cup game. "How do you feel?" he wondered. Which makes Greenwood and Quinnell's quickstep all the more enjoyable.Reuse content