The completion of the television deal should have been announced last week, but negotiations have been complicated by the presence of Sky, already heavily involved in coverage of football and cricket and looking to broaden the horizon at the expense of ITV. This will be Sky's first involvement in rugby union in the hope of persuading followers of the game to invest in a dish.
The BBC, meanwhile, will be parting with nearly three times as much as the cost of the last contract. Sky's rights will include coverage of Welsh games but they will also be able to show Five Nations matches an hour after the final whistle.
In securing their hold on the championship again, the BBC had to hold off a stern challenge from ITV following the coverage of the 1991 World Cup held in Britain, Ireland and France and last summer's tour of New Zealand by the Lions. ITV, nevertheless, will also be covering the 1995 World Cup in South Africa and also this summer's tours undertaken by England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
Regular BBC viewers, however, will find their programmes continuing much as normal, with live coverage of the internationals backed up by Rugby Special on Sundays, while ITV continues to sweep up events in the southern hemisphere during the summer. This leaves satellite viewers with the opportunity to watch the best of the domestic scene and Five Nations matches in the early part of Saturday evenings. Last night, Dudley Wood, secretary of the Rugby Football Union, said: 'The money from the BBC will be shared four ways. We agreed to that on the understanding that the Rugby Union would have the overwhelming share of the pounds 7m from Sky.'
England's benefit from Sky's input is believed to be a hefty 85 per cent, with the other home unions being allocated 5 per cent each. Wood said: 'We requested a majority of the income because the bulk of Sky dishes are in England. We think we have got the best of both worlds. Our supporters would not have liked it if we had agreed to restrict live coverage to Sky, whose outlooks are growing but are still limited.
'Clubs who feel that their gates will be reduced because of the attraction of live club games on Sky should remember that there are still comparatively few dishes and that only a minority of owners of satellite TV will be rugby followers.'
That is fine, then, though Sky took Premiership football away from ITV in a pounds 304m five-year deal 18 months ago. Neil Wyatt, managing director of BBC Network TV, said in the meantime: 'Securing this important contract has been part of a long-term strategy for the BBC. We knew that ITV were desperate to parade these matches in front of their advertisers, but we've been able to make substantial savings from operating more efficiently. It has enabled us to earmark the funds to bid competitively on behalf of our licence-payers.'
SKY'S MAJOR SIGNINGS
RUGBY UNION: English, Scottish, Irish: live rights to club, county, divisional, district plus Pilkington Cup and Five Nations one hour after internationals end (new 3-yr deal, pounds 7m; joint with BBC, pounds 34m total deal). Overseas games: including Bledisloe Cup, Test between SA and NZ, Fr and NZ, Aus and It.
FOOTBALL: Premier League: 60 live and exclusive games a year; 5-yr deal, pounds 304m, ends 96-97; joint with BBC. FA Cup: live and exclusive one game and one replay from first round to semi-final. England: all Wembley internationals, 5-yr deal, ends 96-97.
RUGBY LEAGUE: Stones Bitter Championship and Premiership live coverage; 4-yr deal, ends 95-96.
CRICKET: England tours: exclusive and live coverage of every overseas tour since 90; negotiated yearly. Sunday League: 5 live matches this summer.
BASKETBALL: NBA: live coverage of regular season, plus play-offs and finals; 2-yr deal just started.
BASEBALL: Major League: regular season games and live and exclusive World Series.
MOTORSPORT: Indy 500: live and exclusive; deal ends 97, subject to Mansell's involvement in 97. NASCAR: exclusive and live, where possible. World Superbike Championship: live and exclusive.
TENNIS: ATP Championship Series: exclusive UK coverage. Australian Open: live and exclusive. US Open: live, BBC has access to finals.
SNOOKER: Six events: including live and exclusive coverage of British, European and Welsh Opens.
DARTS: World Darts Council: live and exclusive World Championship and Match Play.
BOXING: Lennox Lewis: live and exclusive; long-term contract, three bouts remaining. Others: Hide etc, on a one-by-one basis.
RACING: Evening meetings: 53 nights scheduled this year of 'The Winning Post'.
GREYHOUND: Hackney meetings: regular live coverage from May.
FISHING: Individual tournaments.