Late show is heading for the early bath

Sport on TV Giles Smith
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The Independent Online
ITV'S Rugby World Cup symbol, which flashes at us before and after the commercial breaks, is a flaming oval ball. There have been times this week when it's been possible to assume the fire was started by angered viewers and likely to spread to the studio at any moment. We're not yet through the preliminary rounds, but the channel has already come in for a vigorous mauling and many now wonder whether it might not have to come home injured before the later stages.

The aggro has one or two specific sources. The decision to screen the Scotland v Tonga match only in Scottish regions clearly upset more than just England's vibrant Tongan community. Then there are two general criticisms: that the highlights programme, which has occasionally run past midnight, is positioned too late; and that the pictures from the games (which are organised in South Africa and so are not ITV's fault) favour multiple replays often at the expense of the live action.

Clearly, those general criticisms stand up, though to maintain them both at the same time calls for an impressive capacity for complaint. To quibble simultaneously about the lateness of the highlights and the quality of the camera shots is a bit like saying, "The coverage is rubbish. And we never get to see any of it."

But the lament about the hour of the highlights show does at least go some way towards correcting an unhelpful stereotype relating to the hardiness of the rugby audience. You could easily have assumed that, come 11.15 of an evening, the average male rugby fan was two-thirds of the way through his 16th pint of Theakstons and about to commence a teary-eyed version of "Jerusalem" with a beer-tray stuffed down the front of his trousers. As we now learn, the truth is, rugby types like to be tucked up well before the end of Newsnight and get upset if this regimen is challenged.

The business about the replays is a little more serious. During England v Argentina, for instance, we missed a disqualified try because the producer didn't want to drop the preceding piece of action until we'd looked at it what felt like eight or nine times, at various speeds and through various cameras including one positioned, apparently, in the scrum-half's shorts.

But even this wasn't as disturbing as the decision to carry a microphone on to the pitch during the national anthems, where it picks up the teams singing. Sports coverage has brushed with this in the past, notably during the football World Cup in 1994 and it should have been clamped down on then. That intimidatory tribal dance the All Blacks go in for has nothing on the sound of the England team hymning their Queen.

As usual, an explanation of the simplest mysteries is all one is really looking for, and yet the coverage fails to provide it. Take the business at penalty kicks and conversions, where, in order to get the ball to sit upright, the kicker is allowed to fashion a stand for it out of sand, delivered by a small boy with a bucket. Or alternatively, the kicker might favour, as Rob Andrew does, a kind of plastic ashtray. There are limits, obviously, to what you can bring on from the sidelines to assist you at this point. But what are those limits?

During Ireland's demolition of Japan, the referee moved to prevent the Irish trainer from pouring water on the sand. It was left to us to deduce for ourselves that the manufacture of cement is not encouraged; nor presumably is the adaptation of benches, ropes and found objects to form versions of those catapult machines favoured by armies in the assault of medieval castles. Doubtless, there are strict and fascinating regulations on these matters, passed down from the highest levels. But no one has thought to pass them on to the punter in the sitting-room.

ITV's main problem at the moment is, it seems to me, neither lateness nor replays, but a lack of focus. There's just too many faces out there - Alastair Hignell, Mark Austin, Mary Nightingale, a posse of Chris's, one or two Steves, various Clives and the occasional Gareth. And none of them dominates or anchors the coverage. We're talking, obviously, about a tragic lack of Lynam. But what is odd is that, while the new boys Austin and Hignell smile and try not to look as if the water has just reached their chins, the amply qualified Jim Rosenthal is out there, mysteriously consigned to the interview beat.

Meanwhile, the phone-in competition questions continue to look insultingly easy. They are A or B questions, so you've got a 50 per cent chance. Your chances go up another 50 per cent if you happen to be capable of anything approaching sentient life. At the current rate of attrition, expect the following question at some point in the next few days: "Are you currently watching, A: a television set or B: a toaster?" You could say all this was harmless fun and irrelevant, but it does contribute to the general low-intensity atmosphere, an atmosphere in which Austin can fumble the one word you would have thought he had locked on to by now. "There's a big weekend of, er, rugby coming up," he reminded us last week. Which was, er, good to know.