Rugby Union: Hard news plus the soft option

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RUGBY SPECIAL is now being presented by a chap wearing a Lions jersey. He has as much connection with the Lions as I have with the Band of Hope - or, come to that, with the Lions likewise. Chris Rea, who used to present the show (and still commentates for it), really is entitled to wear the jersey. He would just as soon appear on the programme wearing a false nose. That is what is called a paradox.

This apart, the programme has picked up in some areas but become very silly in others. There is not the slightest justification, for instance, for having a running feature entitled 'The ABC of Rugby', with a dull item on the Calcutta Cup succeeded by an uninformative one on David Campese. As every journalist knows, the ABC of anything is a cheap way of filling space if you have no ideas, and doing so, moreover, in a completely unstructured and arbitrary manner.

But there are more hopeful signs. The discussions have improved, partly, I think, because they seem to be restricted to two participants and a chairman. And the programme is acquiring a sharp news sense. Nine days ago, that artful dodger Mike Burton was explaining his role in Scott Quinnell's movements. Two days ago, Jeremy Guscott was telling us his schedule for returning to full playing fitness.

The general impression the programme creates - and is no doubt intended to create - is that rugby is a much more exciting game than it really is. Hence the 'Try of the Month' competition and clips showing great tries from the past.

It is fortunate that on Saturday the programme had not elected to devote its full strength to the Wasps and Leicester match, in which two of the (in theory) most attractive sides in England produced about one and a half minutes of attractive rugby.

Now, if the programme had chosen to cover this game, it would not, I am fairly sure, have tried to explain why it was so dull. The reason lay in the fine art of denying the other side the ball, of which Dean Richards in particular is such an accomplished practitioner. To explain this would have required some knowledge of the laws and some mental effort on the part of both presenter and viewer.

To be fair, the old Rugby Special was none too keen on learned analysis either. In this respect I have always found Bill McLaren of the BBC and John Taylor of ITV more helpful and informative.

But the new programme is, in its presentation, pushing rugby nearer to football. It is bright; breezy; full of personalities. In a way, this is all to the good. It is, however, exactly what the organisers and publicists of a professionalised rugby union would want to see on the nation's screens.

It will not have escaped notice that the programme is now in the hands of an outside producer. At the BBC party during the Liberal conference at Brighton a couple of weeks ago, several Corporation apparatchiks bent my ear to tell me that they were being unfairly criticised for farming programmes out to independent contractors. It was not, they maintained, by their choice. They were compelled by law to sub-contract 25 per cent of their output.

However, I am informed that the contracting out of Rugby Special was not due to any requirement to fill the statutory quota. The 25 per cent was already accounted for. Instead, the pressure to contract the programme out came from the Rugby Football Union.

A programme designed to win RFU approval should contain: an admiring 'profile' of an obscure Union official; clips of Sir Peter Yarranton meeting the Queen; and a reading from the Laws of the Game by Dudley Wood. I think I rather approve of the young man in the Lions jersey after all.