Robin Scott-Elliot: French hits high notes in quest to save world's most pointless event

View From The Sofa: Rugby League World Cup, BBC1 Saturday
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The Independent Online

Not since the Zimbabwean election has the world witnessed a more pointless event than the Rugby League World Cup. Hang on, let's try that again: not since the Zimbabwean election has parts of north-west England, bits of Australia, a Scot who got his Perths muddled up, the O'Hanrahans in Toowoomba and 17 drunken Kiwis in the Shepherd's Bush Walkabout who thought they were watching the All Blacks witnessed a more pointless event than the Rugby League World Cup.

"Welcome to the highlights of England against New Zealand," begun Dave Woods, before muttering something about it not actually mattering one jot who won the game as having both lost to Australia and beaten Papua New Guinea they will play in the semi-final next Saturday. And that set the theme.

There are other games in other World Cups that become meaningless, but this competition has elevated it to a new level of pointlessness – weeks working out who will play, and probably get beaten by, the Aussies in the final – so thank the Great Loose Forward in the sky for Ray French.

There are those in rugby league circles who are irritated by French, believing he reinforces a stereotypical image the sport finds difficult to shed. Sod them. French is an enthusiast for a game he loves and his commentary reflects that with more "Ohhs" per minute than a leaky oil tanker.

The Ohhhs were in full flow on Saturday, emerging at a pitch appropriate for the state of play. A fumble around the halfway line brings the "Ohhhh" of a tenor warming up; a missed tackle within range of the posts and it's up to a soprano; a try and dogs start to howl up and down the New South Wales coast. It is not always possible to understand what French is saying, but you appreciate the sentiment. When Rob Burrow broke away to score for England, French was into his stride in a flash: "They won't catch him, his legs are going like clockwork." And time flies when you're having fun. England were 24-8 up with half-an-hour gone and Ray was enjoying himself.

But back came New Zealand as England gifted the giant wing Manu Vatuvei four tries, the Kiwi even finding time to stick his tongue out at the nearest defender in the manner of a cheeky (16st) two-year-old as he completed his hat-trick. Ohhh no, it was all going wrong, and just in case we weren't convinced a replay of an England player yelling "Fuck off" in slow motion as a decision went against them was dropped helpfully in. An apology from the DG and a producer's head on a platter at once, please. But hang on – it doesn't matter. Phew.

"It's been a great World Cup," suggested Woods with admirable optimism as we arrived at the end of the programme having taken in Scotland and Ireland's games. There was a win for a Scottish team that has excited as much interest in Glasgow (that's the second most important place in Scotland, chaps – after Brigadoon) as the Annual Upper Poppleton Morris Dancers "Hankies at Dawn" Dance Off, or AUPMDHADDO for short.

And Ireland have qualified for something, although it is hard to be sure what exactly as this competition is blessed with a bizarre format – perhaps in an attempt to disguise the pointlessness of the whole affair. But then where would you rather while away a couple of winter months? St Helens? Or Townsville, a place so good they named it twice. Is that the point? Does it matter? Ohhhhh knows.

Help is at hand for anguished Dons' fans

You may not be familiar with BBC Alba, the new Gaelic channel, but for the Setanta-less Gael in exile it provides a welcome fix of the SPL. On Saturday nights they show one of the afternoon's games in full and this week my miserable lot (Aberdeen) finally had their moment in the drizzle. As they headed for another defeat a replay revealed a banner in handy view of the despondent away fans – for the Samaritans.