Rugby Union: Careful with the cameras

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The Independent Online
THE LIVE televising of rugby, whether it be the frothy irrelevance of sevens, or the even more meaningless tens, or the real thing, will be a subject of grave debate during the coming weeks. The first two days of the world sevens at Murrayfield have offered conclusive proof that it is possible to have too much of a good thing and that a surfeit of tries, most of which defy analytical comment but are receiving it nonetheless, can be as indigestible as a scoreless draw in the 15-a-side game. Perhaps ITV will reflect on the wisdom of the extended live coverage of the pool matches.

The discussions over live television will coincide with negotiations for the televising of domestic rugby for the three years following next season when the BBC's current contract comes to an end. Last Saturday's live coverage of the Pilkington Cup semi-final between Leicester and Northampton was deemed a success and emboldened those who believe that the game would benefit from more of the same.

Courage, who have been admirably constant and responsible sponsors of the English Leagues since their inception, and have made a substantially increased investment in their future, are understandably keen to see increased television coverage of club rugby.

There is clearly a tacit agreement with the sponsors that the Rugby Football Union will use its best endeavours to persuade whichever television company wins the contract to put more resources into the live coverage of club games. Over-exposure could however, be a dangerous and damaging route to take.

Despite the steady advance in fitness levels and playing standards at the top of the English Leagues, the gap between club and international rugby is awesomely wide.

The mass appeal of the international game has not percolated down to club level, which remains the almost exclusive preserve of the aficionado. So far this season I can recall watching only two club matches capable of sustaining the viewers' interest over the full distance.

One of them very fortunately, was at Welford Road last Saturday, when Leicester produced their best rugby of the season in the first 40 minutes. Although the game was over as a contest by half time and Leicester slipped from their perch in the second half, the uncertainty of the live occasion kept the interest going. But only just.

The other contest worthy of extended coverage was the League game earlier in the season between Northampton and Bath at Franklins Gardens where Nick Beal's thrilling chase to the Bath goalline decided the game in Northampton's favour. Entertaining, but still short of the standards set most weeks on Grandstand by the professional code.

It is no coincidence either that both Welford Road and Franklins Gardens are two of the First Division grounds best equipped for television. They have the facilities and the crowds to promote the right ambience.

Bath, and to a lesser extent Gloucester, are also fortunate in this respect but even on those rare occasions when the weather, the crowd, and the event itself combine in spectacular harmony as they did at the Recreation Ground last month when Bath met Wasps in what was effectively the League decider, there is no guarantee of a spectacle fit for mass consumption.

Had that match been televised live it would have been a promotional disaster for rugby union. The loutishness of some of the players, a referee plainly out of touch and not helped by the determinedly controversial posturing of the two captains, created an unwholesome atmosphere of bitterness and disdain for the finer aspects of the game.

We had already seen it in the cup tie at Blundellsands between Waterloo and Harlequins and were to suffer more of the same at Sudbury when Wasps played Northampton.

If the clubs themselves want increased coverage of the game, and one assumes that they do, they must understand that the product has to be vastly improved, not only in respect of the behaviour of the players but also in the levels of skill and excitement. Taken on current standards, it will be some time yet before the game is ready for such a quantum leap.

The alternative, and it is one which I believe to be the best solution, although it has not found favour with either the RFU or the majority of clubs, would be a compromise whereby a small number of carefully selected club games would be played on a Sunday with extended highlights screened as soon as possible after the final whistle. It would have all the appeal of a live match without all of the warts.

The arguments against this are that clubs would find it hard to attract sponsors on a Sunday, which I doubt, and that it places yet more strain on the already overburdened players. This I find easier to accept especially after visiting Gary Whetton in France last week. The former All Black captain is currently playing some of the best rugby of his career for Castres and is deriving great enjoyment from it. His only complaint, however, is that Sunday rugby leaves him in no fit state for work the following day. Since taking up residence in France the Monday morning blues have been attended by a painful tinge of black.