Rugby Union: Five's exit leaves terrestrial TV devoid of rugby

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been reported that negotiations have broken down between the Rugby Football Union and Channel Five television about materials for the programme that was meant to restart this month.

It was broadcast last season between six and seven on Sunday evenings and was a substitute for Rugby Special on BBC2, which had been killed off by the corporation.

The spokesman for the RFU was quoted as saying that Channel Five had "nothing to offer". Whether he meant money or lively ideas for the programme was not entirely clear. Perhaps both.

At all events, the result is that until the international season starts and the viewer is allowed the few crumbs that fall from Rupert Murdoch's table - matches that do not involve England on BBC, and recorded, cut versions of matches that do involve England on ITV - there is no rugby union of any kind regularly on terrestrial television.

There are two questions here that are separate even though connected. One is the buying up of the leading English clubs by Sky television. The other is the absence of any programmes on rugby of any description from terrestrial television.

Obviously, if a channel in the latter category - BBC2, Channel Five or even Channel Four, which is, after all, to broadcast Test cricket - wanted to run excerpts from a match shown on Sky it would have to obtain the company's permission, pay a fee and make due acknowledgement on the reproduced pictures.

Why ever not? Both the main BBC and ITV news bulletins on Saturday evenings already follow this practice. If their sports editors consider one of the afternoon's club matches sufficiently interesting, important or dramatic.

Ten years ago a short clip from a club match might have been shown if the cameras from Rugby Special had been around. But I cannot recall any examples. Today, by contrast, it is not wholly unknown to have clips of club matches in the sports section of the main news bulletin.

This mitigation of my complaint that there is no rugby on terrestrial TV is, however, more apparent than real, because the clips are very short - a few seconds merely - and the commentary is unilluminating, quite unlike Stuart Barnes's baroque effusions on Sky in the afternoon. "If he was an Indian," he once remarked of John Bentley during the Lions series last year, "he'd be one of the Untouchables."

In any case, the new, unofficial Anglo-Welsh matches that started this season (with Cardiff leading the equally unofficial table) are presumably outside the scope of any agreement between Mr Murdoch and the clubs.

I realise that you could not organise a Sunday evening programme around a series of matches involving Cardiff and Swansea (although, as it happens, I should be more interested than perhaps the majority of viewers). Even so, there is still a lot of rugby going on that has not yet been swallowed up by Mr Murdoch's giant maw.

And though he may have bought a lot of matches, he has not bought all the people who organise them, who play in or referee them, or who write about them. He has bought a few, such as the great Barnes (though that does not prevent him from writing a column in what the old journalists have been taught to call another newspaper) and also Dewi Morris, who seems to be a permanent studio guest.

Last Saturday, for example, Sky mounted a discussion after the Leicester v Richmond game involving Barnes, Morris and the former Gloucester hooker, Phil Greening - who is now to go to Sale and who is what a woman friend of mine would call "rather a worrying sort of person", as indeed most hookers seem to be these days.

There is no reason I can see why Greening - or Dean Richards, Joel Stransky, Darren Garforth or any of the others who put in spasmodic appearances - should not have participated in a similar studio discussion on the Sunday, with Barnes and Morris being replaced by two equally eminent journalists or former players.

Likewise, the unedifying scenes which followed the Gloucester v Wasps match on the Saturday two weeks previously, with the referee, Brian Campsall, certainly being abused and perhaps (accounts vary) threatened as well, would have provided ideal material for replays and a studio discussion.

The advent of Mr Murdoch, in short, does not mean that the BBC and ITV are compelled to jettison their responsibility to the viewer. Alas, responsibility is the last thing these organisations now have on their minds.