Rugby: The BBC has thrown in the towel, not only with rugby but with sport in general

ALAN WATKINS ON RUGBY
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The Independent Online
A man of settled habits - perhaps too much so - I have long spent the first two or three weeks of September wandering round France. I usually go to the parts where they play rugby, not because of the rugby, but because they happen to be the parts I like best. I early discovered that, on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon or early evening, it was possible to see a club match on television if you pressed the right buttons and twiddled enough knobs.

Thus if you were in Toulouse you could see Toulouse or Colomiers (who are a Toulouse local side and not, as Rugby Special used to imagine, from Paris) play Agen. Or, if you were in Bordeaux, you could see Begles, the local side there, play Beziers or whatever the team happened to be. This service, which was available well before the advent of Rupert Murdoch, satellite and cables, was provided principally by local television, though national channels showed some club rugby as well.

It is often said in this country that French television is "awful", "silly", "pathetic" and so on. So it is, in many respects. The real difference is that the French do not take their television seriously, whereas in this country we take it so seriously that, to many people, and to the whole of the tabloid press, the distinction between appearance and reality has completely disappeared, so that characters in soap operas are regarded as real persons.

But at least the French show club rugby on their ordinary channels. All we were ever given was what was then the Pilkington Cup Final, and sometimes only edited extracts of that, together with Rugby Special. This was the programme which every rugby follower loved to hate because he (or, sometimes, she) thought it could be done so much better. But at least they watched it.

It traversed several phases, from straight, edited extracts through a scholarly period under Chris Rea (who laboured under the disadvantage of knowing a good deal about the game) to the man with a thousand jerseys, John Inverdale. Along the way it produced several scoops, with Jeff Probyn being rude about women rugby players, Geoff Cooke being rude about other administrators, and others again being rude about Geoff Cooke.

In our sitting rooms we were rude about the programme, because we could have done it better ourselves and about the people who were appearing on it, because we thought they were taking nonsense. But we cherished it really, because it was all we had, silly jerseys, silly signature tunes, Nigel Starmer-Smith and all.

And now it is gone, phut. In a puff of smoke, with no explanation from the BBC except the usual one which the Corporation gives when it kills off any half-way decent programme: that the time was ripe for a change, all good things must come to an end, and so forth. But there is no replacement programme of any kind. There is a perfect and absolute blank.

One of the BBC's several chief executives, Will Wyatt, is an enthusiastic rugby follower. Others may be also, for all I know. But they are clearly not giving those licence-payers who are rugby followers likewise a fair deal. Today it is not so much that they are not getting value for money. They are not getting anything at all apart from the Five Nations. Indeed, the impression I am left with is that the BBC has given up, thrown in the towel, not only with rugby but with sport in general. It has conceded the fight to Murdoch.

In my opinion, he deserves his victory. Last Saturday, for instance, you could have seen Leicester play Toulouse live, followed by a full recording of Harlequins playing Cardiff. Very exciting both matches were too. I watched them in the pub down the road rather than at home because I do not have Sky Television, though I may shortly be forced to acquire it.

It is quite wrong to say, as some do, that Murdoch "outbid" the BBC. If Sky had not existed, the Corporation would, on its past record, simply have ignored the European matches. It seems always to have proceeded on the assumption that the only competition worth bothering about at all is the Five Nations' Championship. Accordingly, the World Cup was covered, to begin with, by ITV and, most recently, by Sky.

So I am no longer persuaded, as I used to be, and as the Welsh, Scottish and Irish Rugby Unions still appear to be, that the BBC has some divinely ordained right to broadcast the Five Nations. It certainly does not deserve any such privilege. It has shown that about rugby union football it does not care a jot.

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