Pressure on as ITV takes each game as it comes

RUGBY WORLD CUP 1995: Broadcasters have as much at stake as players, argues Rhys Williams
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ITV badly needs a good World Cup. Last year's dismal showing at the round-ball version of the event (only Greece and Colombia performed worse) and the fiercely competitive market for television rights mean the pressure to deliver quality coverage is more than intense.

Trevor East, ITV's controller of sport, appears undaunted. "The Rugby World Cup is very important to ITV as one of the major sporting events, but we won't be trying especially hard. We will be looking to achieve the quality that we set for all our programming."

Still, there is no escaping how critical the tournament will be. The coverage is expected to attract around pounds 20m in advertising revenue (a hefty bulk coming from car manufacturers desperate to pick off young ABC1 men in the run-up to the new registration in August), while Heineken has already paid pounds 2m to sponsor programmes. But it is as a showcase for ITV's sporting prowess that the World Cup assumes significance.

Since the record-breaking pounds 304m deal for Premiership football, BSkyB has used sport as the catalyst for satellite dish sales, buying up the Ryder Cup, Britain's leading boxers and rugby league.

Terrestrial broadcasters have found it difficult to compete. The BBC may have held on to Wimbledon, but has otherwise had to content itself with slices of the action. Last year, it settled for shared coverage of cricket and domestic rugby union with BSkyB.

"The playing field is totally uneven with the money that Sky has at its disposal," East explained. "But fortunately there are still sports like rugby and cricket which are taking a long-term and sensible view and recognising the importance of their sport being seen by the widest possible number of people."

The World Cup is one of the few prizes ITV has in its trophy cabinet, and the network will want to prove it can still look after the silverware. The last final, between England and Australia, was watched by 13.6m people. With the viewing nation more attuned to rugby on ITV and England tipped to do well, audiences are expected to grow.

ITV will spend pounds 8.5m on transmitting a total of 70 hours of World Cup programming, including live broadcasts of 23 of the 32 games. Its coverage will be led by Alastair Hignell, supported by John Taylor and Chris Rea, with contributions from Steve Smith, Clive Norling and Gareth Chilcott.

Any doubts about ITV's commitment to the tournament will be dispelled next Wednesday, when Coronation Street moves to a later slot to accommodate Wales' match with New Zealand.

The World Cup follows a year in which many of the accepted wisdoms of television coverage of rugby have been challenged. BSkyB gained a toehold in the domestic scene while ITV continued to build its pedigree through a largely faultless presentation of England's summer tour of South Africa.

The BBC has responded robustly to the challenge with a radical revamp of Rugby Special. Produced by the independent Chrysalis Sport, the programme is sharper, sexier and, despite the dreadful selection of rugby shirts favoured by presenter John Inverdale, watched by an additional 200,000 viewers.

Neverthless, the unthinkable remains a distinct possibility - that BBC TVcould lose the Five Nations and that old Bill McLaren standards such as "that's got snow on it" will be consigned (as they are for they are for this World Cup) to Radio 5 Live.