Rugby Union: Switching on to a new screen test: Chris Rea throws light on a way to boost the appeal of the Five Nations

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The Independent Online
THE TERM 'grass roots' has never seemed entirely appropriate in relation to sport. Whereas plants depend for their nourishment on the earth beneath them, for sport, and for the seething masses who participate at the lower levels, the food and fuel are supplied from above.

This is particularly true of rugby union, which is almost totally dependent on international matches for its promotion and prosperity. I can think of no other sport in this country that can command a nationwide television audience of 8 million one week and a week later, for a representative match involving more than a dozen international players, can only draw fewer than 300 spectators.

The jewel in Europe's crown is the Five Nations' Championship. It is both the breadwinner and the icing on the cake, and, despite the present disunity within the four home unions, it will remain inviolate. But the authorities have long been aware that a glorious opportunity is being lost, and that by playing two championship matches on the same day simultaneously, this mighty promotional machine is running on greatly reduced power.

It is, of course, quite impossible in such a congested domestic season to stage the competition over 10 Saturdays. It would be still less acceptable for those players with jobs to go to the next day, to hold them on Sundays, although this is certain to be discussed during the forthcoming round of negotiations for the next television contract.

There is now a practical alternative, however. With the ground developments at Twickenham and Murrayfield incorporating floodlights, and with lights already installed at the National Stadium, Cardiff, and Parc des Princes, the opportunity exists to play the two matches, back to back, on the same day.

From the opening round of matches in this season's championship on 15 January, for example, France's game with Ireland in Paris could kick off at 2pm and the game in Cardiff between Wales and Scotland at 4.30pm. Both would be televised live at home and overseas. The viewers who at the moment are restricted to one live match and the highlights of the other would be well satisfied.

The sponsors, happy to dip into their pockets to pay for the additional exposure, would be doing cartwheels of joy, and the four home unions, which are seeking a sizeable increase in their revenue from television, would be offering more value for money.

Promotion of the game was the recurring theme of an illuminating talk by Don Rutherford, the RFU's technical director, at Twickenham last week. England seem very close to getting their act together on this subject and when that day comes the countries on the Celtic fringe will feel the cold. Having been stripped of their dignity by the All Blacks and with an ailing domestic structure, the Scots are in the greatest trouble. They are looking farther afield to restore their status, but it could take them a long time. If the proposed marriage of England and Wales' top clubs does not make it to the altar - and despite the coy denials from headquarters last week the parties are still courting - then perhaps the Scots, Irish and Welsh will form a pact to counter English supremacy.

There are still a few blots on England's landscape. A league programme that is potentially ruinous to the players' health and welfare, and the unsightly heap of rubble that is the Divisional Championship are two. The Divisional final, due to be played at Twickenham on 3 January, will be between two under-strength sides in an under-populated stadium.

Unless, of course, the RFU were to play their trump card - Dudley Wood. He is a public relations man's dream and last week alone occupied more column inches than Mr Blobby. He was in lyrical mood at the pre-Christmas jolly: 'I always liken our monthly press conferences at Twickenham to a walk in a garden. Everything is going along pleasantly until, quite out of the blue, you step on a rake.' There must have been times since last Monday when the inestimable secretary not only felt that he had been hit by a rake, but also mugged by a gang of garden gnomes for good measure.

Wood and the RFU have been pilloried for their inaction over the eye-gouging incident in the match between Harlequins and Bath, criticised by the Australian coach Bob Dwyer for their failure to cite Jamie Joseph in the Kyran Bracken case, and vilified for voicing their concern over all newspaper articles written by the players.

There have been shabby attempts to convey the impression that the RFU is more concerned with the players' post-match ramblings than it is with violence on the field. But not even the most cerebrally challenged present at last week's press conference (and some of the fiercest critics were not even there) could have placed that interpretation on Wood's remarks.

Thuggery never has been and never will be condoned by the RFU, whose commitment to punishing offenders was reaffirmed by Wood last week. Wood was also right to speak out against some of the baser comments made by players in their newspaper columns, although I would take issue with his view that, because the game is amateur, the players have a freedom of choice and therefore a certain liberty denied to professionals. It is precisely because the game is no longer amateur that players are making the kind of comments that are an embarrassment to the game and, in some cases, to themselves.

The least appealing aspect of this latest assault on our cultural heritage is not the content of the articles so much as the motivation for writing them, and the motivation is, quite simply, money. The more controversial, the more sensational the material, the more sports editors warm to it and the more proprietors are likely to pay for it. Fellowship, admiration and respect are out, cheating, dirty and bastards are in. This cannot be good for the game, and the RFU would be failing in its duty were it to turn a blind eye.

(Photographs omitted)