Hang entertainment, winning's the thing

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The Independent Online
W HEN I hear anyone talk of entertainment I reach for my revolver. That's not quite the infamous quotation from Germany's Third Reich 60 years ago. The word that persuaded Hermann Goering to go for his gun was culture. But had the gross Nazi tyrant been reincarnated as the chairman of a Premiership club - and who's to say he hasn't - entertainment would probably have had the same effect on his trigger finger.

And when you put it in that context, perhaps he was helpfully pointing out in his own inimitable way that not everyone's priorities are the same and when it comes to deciding which is more urgent it pays to have a powerful argument at hand.

Sport's duty to place entertainment at the highest point of its ambitions, at least at the professional level, is the subject of a long debate that each of our main games has had to address at one stage or other. It has been brought to the fore again in the wake of rugby union's final surrender to the arms of Mammon and in particular by England's feebly acclaimed victory over Wales last weekend.

This was England's first home appearance in the Five Nations as a fully professional team and there was an unmistakable change in the atmosphere. Twickenham has long demanded a regular reassurance of England's superiority but, stretching to the sky in their new and expensive concrete tiers, the English crowd are suddenly displaying additional appetites.

Perhaps they always harboured a longing to be entertained by the rugby as much as by the result, but controlled their urges because the chaps were amateurs and winning was all that could properly be demanded of them. Not any more. The ground seethed with dissatisfaction. They may have reacted in the same way had England played far more attractively and lost. The situation is so new that expectations have yet to be rationalised.

It didn't help that Scotland not only beat France on the same day but did so in a grand manner - a little too grand for their director of rugby, Jim Telfer, who thought it was not "a completely fulfilling performance". At one point, he said: "We were trying to entertain rather than play a balanced game." But the Scots' captain, Rob Wainwright, countered with the profound point: "Entertainment is not a weakness."

If you lose because a piece of reckless crowd-pleasing goes wrong it will be surely categorised as a flaw but that depends on how far supporters can be persuaded to tolerate the risks of an entertaining approach. The importance of the contest would dictate that. To think that a year ago the Scots were criticised for their negative play at Twickenham. How will England approach their visit to Murrayfield in three weeks' time? With gay abandon, no doubt; although I suspect their supporters would settle for a narrow and unsparkling victory on that occasion. So would the Scots if it meant the Grand Slam.

Enjoyment in sport is in the heart of the beholder and the heartbeats at any big sporting encounter descend in palpitation order from those involved, whose livelihood is at stake, through their most fervent supporters and their more distant admirers down to the neutrals. You cannot place an entertainment value on a match that will cover the requirements of all. If the game is an exciting, skilful contest that flows from end to end with the result in doubt until the end, most will be content. But it is difficult to contrive such a game or forecast when it will happen. Indeed, the rarity is part of the enjoyment.

At the centre of sport's appeal is the anticipation of the contest, what is at stake and the fascination of watching the drama unfold. Essential to that experience is the knowledge that both sides have no other thought but to win. The true sports fan would not be grateful if he or she thought the players were more intent on entertaining him.

Furthermore, there is a vast difference between the genuine supporter and those merely waiting for entertainment to occur. The essence of rewarding sports-watching is to be caught up in the action, to want one team to overcome the other. That's why 2,500 people can be engrossed on a bitterly cold night in Darlington by a match most others would find tedious. Don't ask them if they're being entertained. They're being fed.

Impartial viewers who judge a game by their own yardstick of quality will get their ration of satisfaction but, generally, those who don't give a damn about the result are missing the point. By their very nature, these are not people to be found presenting their money at many turnstiles and they probably also figure among the siren voices calling for England to throw their natural reserve to the winds.

They didn't seem to mind the juggernaut's caution when England were winning everything in sight. By all means call for more adventure, but rugby has a great deal of quick learning to do under its new pressures. Jack Rowell is beginning to resemble a manager of the England football team, and just as football has to live with imperatives laid down by wealthy club owners, so will rugby.

Sport is fascinating no matter how it is served up and the fact that it doesn't always work out as anticipated is a strength. Doubtless England will eventually settle into a style they think suits them. Meanwhile, the Welsh are enjoying the sight of England arguing among themselves. That's real entertainment.

T O ADD to the many new ex- cuses for a sporting bet, the spread betting bookmakers are now taking big money on how dirty a football match will be. City Index assess a game for its clogging quality and judge how many yellow and red cards will be issued. It is 10 points for a yellow card and 25 for a red and you bet on whether their assessment is too high or low.

But whereas the bookmakers base their estimates mainly on the reputation of the teams, smart punters have been noting the record of the referees. Now City Index has compiled a list of refs from the strict "Hitlers" down to the tolerant "Mother Teresas". Top is Graham Poll, who has sent off six and booked 70; bottom is Roger Dilkes, who has shown only one red card and 23 yellow.

Another interesting point they have noticed is that by far the highest rates of skulduggery occur in non-televised matches. The cameras probably make them shy.

A NOTHER facet of Wales's defeat at Twickenham was that it was not followed by the usual English gloating. Indeed, Englishmen have commented to me on the new leaf Wales have apparently turned over. Adventurous on the field; magnanimous off it. There was a time, he alleged, when we would have moaned for a month about the number of penalties the English were given.

I didn't tell him the story going around the Principality last week. Apparently, when Will Carling hurt his leg in the second half the England trainer rushed on to the pitch with the old-fashioned sponge in a bucket of water.

"What's that for?" asked Carling.

"It's to wash the referee's car afterwards," answered the trainer.

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