Brian Viner: League finally scores a moral victory over union in the age-old battle of the oval ball

The last word
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The Independent Online

Rugby league fans can be an incorrigibly chippy lot, raging against the tendency of effete London-based journalists to overlook their sport in favour of the plainly inferior 15-man game, and sometimes berating those who blithely refer, ignorant beggars, to rugby union as rugby. Having grown up among diehard league enthusiasts in the north-west of England I have some sympathy with this view, however, and it is surely unarguable that in general the media's oval-ball coverage is disproportionately weighted against rugby league, a victim even now of the north-south divide, and even the class divide.

So it was nice to see the scales tilted just a tiny bit the other way this week, with the BBC's transmission not only of a documentary about the late Eddie Waring, but also of This Sporting Life, Lindsay Anderson's remarkable 1963 film starring Richard Harris, snorting testosterone through his nostrils as the brutish Frank Machin, man of few words but loose forward of prodigious ability. It was hard to persuade my sons that they were looking at the young Professor Dumbledore.

Gratifyingly, they enjoyed what they watched of it. It must be two decades since I last saw This Sporting Life, and I fully expected its rugby sequences in particular to have dated, yet they're as powerful as they ever were. The years have been predictably less kind to David Storey's dialogue, but plenty of it still resonates, not least Machin's put-down of the chairman's predatory wife: "We don't have stars in this game, Mrs Weaver. That's soccer."

I was similarly entertained by Eddie Waring: Mr Rugby League, which was as much a history of the sport as a profile of its most famous commentator, and properly explored the antipathy between union and league. I stumbled upon this antipathy myself once, when I wrote a column about Peter Howard, who in 1931, while captain of the England rugby union team, was recruited by Oswald Mosley to lend some muscle to meetings of his extreme right-wing New Party. Dozens of rugby league devotees emailed me to say that they weren't the least bit surprised, some quoting Philip Toynbee's wry observation that a bomb placed under the West Stand at Twickenham would set back the cause of British fascism by 50 years, and others citing South African rugby union in the age of apartheid, and French rugby union in the Vichy years, as further examples of the sport's tainted record.

As for Waring, even as the BBC's "Voice of Rugby League" he was by no means lionised by fans in the way that other voices of their sport were, such as Bill McLaren and Sir Peter O'Sullevan. Some considered him little more than a joke, and certainly an ululating Eddie Waring was a vital tool in the repertoire of those of us who considered ourselves half-decent impressionists, which in the 1970s, for some reason, was every other schoolboy. He used to mix up his words, too; a contributor to the documentary quipped that he commentated like Les Dawson played the piano. But the programme also made clear how much the sport owed the former typewriter salesman from Dewsbury, and how steeped in it he was. Moreover, he represents a more forgiving age of TV commentary, as I was reminded by the clip of Don Fox's famous missed kick in the 1968 Challenge Cup final. "Poor lad," was Waring's irreproachable response to a disastrous error which would now, in just about any sport you can think of, provoke in the commentary box nothing but scorn, ridicule and indignation.

Houllier may prove to be the villain of Aston Villa

Aston Villa fans are reportedly underwhelmed by the appointment of 63-year-old Gérard Houllier as their new manager, and who can honestly blame them? The Villa owner Randy Lerner has so far been the embodiment of a benevolent and even visionary foreign takeover of an English football club, certainly when compared with his despised compatriots in the Anfield and Old Trafford boardrooms, and I for one doubt that he was entirely in the wrong, perhaps not even 50 per cent in the wrong, in the unfortunate business of Martin O'Neill's untimely departure.

It could also be that Lerner and his splendidly named sidekick, General Charles C Krulak, will prove to have pulled a masterstroke by bringing Houllier back into top-flight management. But I doubt it, somehow. And it seems to me both a tremendous shame and, less forgivably, a mistake, not to have appointed a young, upwardly-mobile British manager, full of ideas and zeal and promise. That strategy can backfire, of course, as it did with Paul Ince at Blackburn Rovers. But it can also reap the kind of dividends that I just don't see Houllier delivering.

Such a pity that Sheene didn't get to top 60

The great Barry Sheene would have been 60 today, and while I can't imagine him ever growing old, it remains unspeakably sad that he succumbed to cancer aged just 52.

I went to interview him once, at a flat in Chelsea he was borrowing from a mate, and we had a real laugh as he tried to find the paraphernalia to make coffee. He was full of joie de vivre, and one of the most grounded sportsmen I have ever met, which was ironic for someone who crashed so many motorbikes in the course of a remarkable career, although the ultimate irony was that a man who cheated death so often and so dramatically was claimed by such a prosaic killer.