Rugby union: BBC lead in ratings battle

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THE FIVE Nations' Championship is almost at the half-way stage - but the battle for viewers has only just begun. Ratings for last weekend's fixtures correspond favourably to those at a similar stage last year, with the BBC leading the way.

However, although the Beeb have live coverage of eight of the 10 Five Nations games this season, the loss of England home games is keenly felt. Last season, the corporation attracted an average audience of 5.4 million for the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield, but were only able to muster 3.7 million for their live coverage of Ireland's win against Wales at Wembley.

In contrast Sky Sports recorded 626,000 - up almost 25 per cent on their live coverage of the England-France game at Twickenham last season. ITV pulled in 2.5 million for their highlights programme last Saturday. Sky paid pounds 87m for their exclusive contract to show England matches at Twickenham, which lasts until 2001. But the BBC have already set their sights on recapturing the full rights to the event.

"Obviously we would want more watching," said a BBC spokesman, Mike Day. "But we are happy. Rugby is an investment and when the England contract comes up again, we will be in their pitching."

A spokesman for Sky TV refused to comment on the figures, insisting they did not take into account the number of people who may have watched the game in pubs and clubs. However, he declared the company "satisfied" with viewing figures for rugby union.

England and New Zealand will be among 32 teams from all parts of the globe taking part in this year's World Junior Under-19s Championship. The competition, which takes place in Wales from 24 March to 4 April, has attracted every leading rugby-playing nation with the exception of Australia. Fifty-six matches involving 1,000 players will be held at venues in Wales.

The defending champions, Ireland, among 16 countries grouped in the first division of the tournament, begin their campaign against Georgia at Dunvant on 26 March.

England open up with a match against the host nation, Wales, on the same day, while New Zealand begin against Romania. Although competitors are bracketed in groups of four, the event is effectively a knock-out affair culminating in the final on 4 April at Llanelli. Emerging nations such as Taiwan, Morocco and Brazil will participate in the competition's third category.