On Rugby: Television is insidious: the director and the lens create their own heroes

Click to follow
When last I commented on the Heineken European Cup, I received numerous not exactly abusive letters - for rugby followers are the most civil of correspondents, more so by far than political enthusiasts - but certainly unfriendly communications, chiefly from my fellow countrymen. Their complaints were as follows:

First, I had given my opinion that Pontypridd were lucky to get away as lightly as they did for the behaviour not so much of their players in France as of their fans. Second, I had got the score of the Bourgoin- Cardiff match wrong, saying that Cardiff had won an undeserved victory east of Lyon. And, third, I had written that the progress of the competition thus far reflected badly on the general standard of the top clubs in England and Wales and the provincial sides in Scotland and Ireland. Let me take the complaints in order.

On the first one I do not unsay a word. I realise that the case has yet to be adjudicated on in France and a final decision reached. From my knowledge of the French judicial system, this may take a long time. But on the admitted facts, some of the Pontypridd supporters behaved appallingly. It is all very well for followers to back "our boys". But there is no reason for journalists to be expected to do the same.

On the second complaint I plead guilty. Instead of Cardiff winning undeservedly by one point, which is what I wrote, they'd lost deservedly by one point. I hope that makes my Welsh correspondents happier. I am sorry about the mistake, for I try to get things right, but we are none of us infallible. To conclude that, because a writer makes one mistake, therefore everything else he or she writes is questionable, makes everyone who has put pen to paper or finger to keyboard equally suspect, which is absurd.

What I wrote to bring about the third complaint - that the Cup had shown up rugby here - has been abundantly justified by the course of events. In the semi-finals of the two competitions, the European Cup and the European Conference, the British Isles had two representatives, respectively Bath and Newcastle. The other six clubs were all French. Bath survive to go on to play Brive in the final at Bordeaux.

It is no disrespect to them or to Brive that both semi-finals could easily have gone the other way, in which case the finalists would have been Pau and Toulouse. Brive won because they scored an extra try, two to Toulouse's one, though their first try was clearly questionable, as Stuart Barnes (who is turning into a most acute commentator or, if he prefers it, a summariser) demonstrated conclusively on Sky television.

They won also because Christophe Lamaison kicked some crucial penalties in extra time and was not reduced to a wreck by his failure to kick a conversion which would have won the match after 80 minutes. "Oh, the poor lad," the commentator Eddie Waring said spontaneously when Don Fox missed a conversion in similar circumstances in the League Cup final at Wembley many years ago.

Oddly enough, and for whatever reason, I could not summon up quite the same sympathy for Lamaison. It may be because his team were being given another chance, which they narrowly took, whereas Fox's team simply lost.

Bath won because of the ultimate reliability of Jonathan Callard's boot. It should do the club a lot of good. Tony Swift, their chief executive, was quoted on 18 December as saying that Bath were operating at a large financial loss and would decline further unless their Rec ground was redeveloped. A European Cup final will not by itself rebuild the ground. But it will certainly help.

The club or, rather, the first team, have certainly had an up-and-down time lately, chiefly down. Perhaps it is the curse of television. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, allowed the cameras in, and look what has happened to it since. Bath rugby club did the same and, though their plight is not nearly so desperate, they do not bestride the rugby universe as once they did.

Television is an insidious medium because both the director and the lens itself, operating as an independent optical force, create their own heroes and, not villains exactly, but anti-heroes.

Thus Jon Sleightholme should not appear live on camera unless he is keeping his mouth shut and doing what he is good at (even if Bath do not appear to realise it), which is playing rugby. John Hall wore an expression of perpetual puzzlement throughout, as well he might in the circumstances. Graham Dawe, by contrast, was a star, someone the camera evidently loved.

Swift was not quite in Dawe's category. But he seemed sensible and incisive, both qualities in short supply at the Rec these days. I wish him well.

Comments