No clouds for Sky as Stevo seizes the day

Sport on TV
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ALL SORTS of confusion has followed the decision by Rupert Murdoch to form a rugby league Super League with exclusive coverage on Sky Sports, not least over the matter of possible mergers between some of the smaller teams. It was reported that Salford and Oldham were considering a merger but couldn't agree where to meet in order to have the discussion. That's how confusing it's got.

No merger difficulties for Sky Sports' rugby league presentation team, however. Eddie Hemmings, in the chair, and Mike "Stevo" Stephenson, in the Alan Hansen role, are, on the evidence of Friday night's edition of The Big League, effortlessly as one on all the radical proposals heard so far. Revisions and redesigns? Bring 'em on. "We can clean-slate," said Stevo, inventing on the spot a new, highly American-sounding verb ("Call the Vice-President and tell him I'm gonna have to clean-slate today's lunch-meeting"). "We can start all over again," he added.

Of course, it's just possible that our presenters' unerring optimism and joyfulness about these changes to the constitution of rugby league might have something to do with their sense of an impending explosion in the vicinity of their own wage-packets. During Friday night's live coverage of St Helens v Warrington, Hemmings in particular seemed able to spot harbingers of joy and omens of prosperity almost wherever the camera alighted.

At one point our screens filled with a less than appetising shot of a child in the crowd ramming a fistful of soggy snacks into his mouth. "There's the new face of the Big League," said Eddie, "enjoying the match, enjoying his crisps." If that was the new face of the Big League, then pass the flannel.

Actually, we'd already had half an hour of pure flannel before the game. Eddie and Stevo staged a cardboard debate about the Super League with Eddie lobbing up rhetorical questions of a softness not witnessed since Barry Norman interviewed Michelle Pfeiffer. "It's got to be right, hasn't it?" asked Eddie. "It's all about making a great spectacle, so thumbs up," said Stevo.

At one daring moment, Eddie conceded that some people weren't too happy about the introduction of in-goal referees. "You'll always get someone who'll knock it," said Stevo. "Let's get positive." "It's all great to have a chat about," concluded Eddie.

You got the impression that if a decision was taken to stage the game in swimwear on an enormous bouncy castle and to sanction the use of rubber baseball bats and copious quantities of shaving foam, this would be greeted back in the studio with a straight face and an upraised thumb, and short shrift for the nay-sayers. Eddie would say, "Some people are arguing that replacing the scrum with the Grab A Grand sequence from Noel's House Party is out of whack with the spirit of the game. That's just plain wrong, isn't it, Stevo?" And Stevo would say, "There are a lot of negative people in this world, Eddie."

Still, for now, it's what happens out on the pitch that counts and the work that Sky Sports put into their coverage manages to convince you that there's something worthwhile going on here, and not only because of the channel's liberal use of words like "big" and "super". (Not a bad tactic in itself: think how much ITV's Endsleigh League coverage would be jazzed up if they started calling it "The League That's Slightly Larger In Terms Of Team Numbers Than The One Above It".)

A disallowed try stirred the home fans. "I hope the referee isn't expecting Christmas cards from St Helens," said Eddie, without explaining why he thought, in late April, the referee would be expecting Christmas cards from anywhere. But this was one of only a very small number of moments in which the programme's slogan ("Seize the day") might have been more appropriately "Get a Grip".

Super League initiatives may change a lot about the coverage in the future, though. Coloured gumshields are obviously a bit of a rage right now, enabling the players to offer the cameras some frankly alarming grins in sky blue and post-box red. But it can only be a matter of time before these spaces are occupied as advertising sites - perhaps for Colgate or Listerine.

St Helens had a player dismissed for a neck-high tackle on Allan Bateman. At half-time, Scott Gibbs - St Helens' injured Welsh international - felt obliged to remark that he was "only grateful that Allan Bateman is still alive".

This kind of action is meat and potatoes for Stevo. Or rather, wine. Stevo often greets bloodshed with the words "the claret is flowing". A fellow viewer opined that Stevo was "one of the better operators of the chalkboard". There was no denying this. Nor his range of expression: from the outspoken ("Talk about losing your marbles!"), to the obscurely idiomatic ("He's going to earn his corn tonight!"), to the plain unfortunate ("Put that down to an 18-year-old piece of brilliance!").

"I'll tell you what, Stevo," Eddie said. "Every time we come to Knowsley Road, we get entertainment par excellence." Another piece of assertion masquerading as conversation. But at least this one didn't conceal anything which anyone would want to debate.