Major reaction to problems on a foreign field

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The Independent Online
HOW bad was England's performance against France in the Rugby World Cup third place play-off (ITV, Thursday)? Very bad. Deeply bad. So bad, in fact, that some of us couldn't take it at all. Like those French fans in the crowd whom we briefly glimpsed, ignoring the game and amusing themselves with a live cockerel. Or like the players on the England bench, open-jawed and catatonic with boredom. And about 15 minutes into the second half, with France up 14-9 and another shoddy Rob Andrew punt descending glumly into no man's land around the half-way line, John Major finally said "sod it" and resigned.

Here was the proof that there is no keeping politics out of sport. A blue strip appeared across the bottom of the screen, courtesy of ITN. I should confess: it was quite a while before I got round to reading it. The slightest experience of watching bad youth programmes teaches us that, when graphics appear at the foot of the screen, it's normally safe to ignore them because the chances are they will only be saying "get a life" or announcing the release of the new Take That video.

In any case, all through ITV's World Cup coverage, that space along the bottom has only ever housed unrewarding statistical and biographical information about the players - about how fly-half X from team B has kicked 33 points in 49 internationals and enjoys Italian food and relaxing at home with his wife Maria and daughters Maxine and Jade. These boxes have not at any point been the vehicle for warnings of a significant shift in the governmental power base. It was hard to be ready.

Still, there's always a first time. The sign said: "PM offers resignation as leader of the Conservative Party". Even here the combination of phrasing and context was slightly confusing. Were we meant to phone in and take him up on the offer? A little later, a second sign appeared saying, "Major remains PM pending Conservative leadership contest" which clarified matters a little, though without entirely dispelling the suspicion that this was all simply a preliminary to another of ITV's magnificently challenging multiple-choice quiz questions ("Is the Prime Minister's first name A: John or B: Queen Elizabeth?").

And soon another sign came up saying: "Temporary Fault". This may just have been a crisp endorsement of the way John Major sees the current break in his service. Or it may have been an apology for the sound which had suddenly deteriorated to the quality of a taxi-driver's CB. Clearly, "Temporary Fault" wasn't referring to the England side.

Eventually, the reverberations of the Major story reached the commentary box . (No small feat, incidentally. To judge by the slowness with which our commentary teams have responded, all along, to the pictures we've been seeing at home, that box has been built to withstand nuclear bombardment.) "Momentous news from England," said John Taylor, looking anxiously for the implications on the pitch but not immediately seeing any. "Jack Rowell certainly not aware of that and neither are the players." Difficult to know how Rowell could have responded tactically - except, perhaps, by implementing immediately a policy of "foot up or shut up".

Some political commentators have argued that John Major's response was hasty and over-reactive. After all, Tony Underwood was being rested, and Rob Andrew was having a rare off-day and will doubtless return rapidly to something more recognisably his regular form on the international stage. Most of us, they argue, would have settled for turning over to another channel or going out into the kitchen to make a sandwich, rather than opening up a leadership challenge and sending the party into turmoil.

But this, I think, is to underestimate the provocation offered in the heat of the moment. The game was about as entertaining as an exhibition of goat-herding. Someone at the very highest level had to make a stand and stand down.

There may be people in the ITV sports department thinking similarly at the moment. What an unhappy time ITV had out there in South Africa. It started out rough and it stayed rough. At the end of the England game, Alastair Hignell attempted to trail Saturday's star-studded coverage of the final. "A galaxy of talent to look forward to rugby's greatest showcase," he said. If you had a pound for every time in the tournament an ITV linkman managed to deliver a sign-off from the autocue without fluffing, you would be broke.

One doesn't wish to apportion all the blame to ITV, but it is eerie the way that the standard of the England team's play descended through the tournament until it reached the level of the television coverage. This is one of the reasons why it is important that Sky Sports are never allowed to get hold of the Wimbledon franchise. British players do badly enough as it is, without the world's worst television station backing them all the way.

But, as the politicians say, it's about what we can take forward from here - both ITV and us. "The ball there, bouncing as we all know a rugby ball can," said Taylor, late in the game. It was good to know we haven't all come this far without learning anything.