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Rugby League

Matt Butler: With such highly-charged action, who needs balloons?

View From The Sofa: Rugby League World Cup  BBC1

The masterstroke of the week to broaden the appeal of the rugby league World Cup – other than Steve McNamara’s hilarious press conference walkout last week – was the BBC’s approach to covering the tournament’s opening ceremony.

There were displays from violinists, giant balloons and a ribbon-wrapped trapeze artist at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, which would have been intricate, moving and well rehearsed. Probably. But we never found out, because the Beeb ignored the whole thing.

Pity the poor performers, who had no doubt been practising for months, but to the rest of us it was a great start. After all, few things embody a sport involving tiny-shorted, muscle-bound men crashing into each other less than a lycra-clad bloke hanging from the roof of a rugby stadium.

The opening ceremony was in full swing when Saturday’s pre-match coverage before England v Australia began; the trapeze artist was shown briefly, disentangling himself from the ribbon, but he then suffered the ignominy of having the day’s fixtures plastered all over the screen.

Once they were out of the way, there was a second’s worth of a violin quartet, then they homed in on the studio, where the host, Mark Chapman, introduced his pundits: the former great Britain coach Brian Noble and England’s Eorl Crabtree – sporting, it must be said, a lovingly tended hair farm – and Jon Wilkin.The goings-on in the stadium could be glimpsed behind them, but they didn’t acknowledge them – even when a clutch of giant globes came floating past their window.

The only time Chapman turned round was when there was an explosion from the stadium pyrotechnics. “Crikey, there are a load of bangs out there,” he grumbled.

Sadly he missed a golden opportunity to segue into the “fireworks” at the previous day’s press conference, where McNamara, the England coach, tetchily refused to answer questions before stomping out in a huff. The episode, with McNamara looking like a four-year-old refusing to eat broccoli, was shown in full. McNamara (below) was slightly less testy in his pre-match interview, although still fairly monosyllabic with tunnel interviewer Tanya Arnold.

After some standard in-studio analysis of key match-ups and who to watch while, presumably, the performers packed up their instruments, unicycles and grease paint, it was finally time for the teams to take the field. And to the roar of the crowd, the players strode out, as flames were thrown and mascots grinned.

The air of anticipation was soiled slightly by Chapman, who chimed in with “Sometimes you don’t need words, do you?” before prattling on about what a massive occasion it was. Sigh... Listen to yourself, man.Thankfully some actual sport broke out and it was as high-tempo as the organisers would have hoped.

Some say rugby league is one-dimensional – run, pass, smash, wriggle, repeat five times – but then again, so were The Ramones. And they were brilliant. And such was the highly-charged nature of the opening Test, the sport may well have won a few more fans.

Australia won the Test, but in the first 20 minutes alone we’d had two England tries, a few stray elbows and a video referee decision – as well as some technicolour commentary such as “there’s the money pass”, “we know he is a big trucker” and “clatter him, George”. The commentators were having a whale of a time. So were we: we’d had the perfect opening, without the need for a single circus act.