Rugby Union: With every month, Sky's grip on the game becomes ever tighter

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The Independent Online
Several people have suggested that Great Britain's performance against Australia in the rugby league international was the consequence of the decline of the game in this country. They go on to say that this decline has been brought about, partly at any rate, by Rupert Murdoch's virtual takeover of the sport.

Another explanation has been put forward: that rugby union, at any rate at its top levels, is now more professional than rugby league ever was, and that consequently league is the poor relation.

Attaching names such as "Bulls", "Warriors" and so forth to famous clubs is clearly pretty silly, as is having matches in the summer. Irrespective of whether the decline has or has not been brought about by Mr Murdoch, he or his earthly representatives have clearly had an effect on the game.

What will the effect be on rugby union? For with every month that passes, the grip over the game exercised by Sky Television becomes ever tighter. A few months ago I wrote that I would hold out for as long as I could but that I might have to succumb in the end. Well, that moment has now arrived.

It was becoming closer during the Lions tour of South Africa, most of which I managed to see either on local licensed premises or in the pavilion at Lord's cricket ground. When the new season began I found I was following the same paths, though I did not go to Lord's.

Sky was showing matches which I wanted to see, Leicester against Bath for example, and which I could now see without making the journey to Welford Road. There was the Heineken Cup as well. Above all, there was the deal the Rugby Football Union had struck with Sky.

A hasty reading of the newspaper accounts of a few months ago gave a misleading impression. So did the headlines "England's bluff called" and the like.

The RFU had tried to enter into a contract whereby all England's Five Nations internationals, at any rate those involving Ireland, Scotland and Wales (for France has its own separate arrangements), would be broadcast exclusively on Sky. The Celtic nations then dug in and replied that, unless their matches were broadcast on terrestrial television, they would withdraw from the competition. "Five Nations saved"; or so the headlines claimed.

Those who read the account rapidly might have been forgiven for thinking that the competition would be not only retained in its own form but broadcast in the traditional manner as part of the BBC's Saturday afternoon Grandstand coverage, with uncle Bill McLaren and all.

But this is to disregard what I call the "Twickenham option" which the RFU has retained. This means that all England's home internationals will be broadcast exclusively on Sky, with "extended highlights", whatever that may mean, on independent television later on the Saturday. Scotland v England at Murrayfield will be shown on the BBC, but France v England on Sky, though that match is in Paris.

The attendance at international matches will clearly remain unaffected. Whether the attendance at First Division matches is less than it would otherwise be because of Sky, I do not know. I shall certainly stay at home more now on Saturday afternoons. What is evident, however, is that attendances generally are not sufficiently high to justify a fully professional game.

Professionalism is now being maintained partly by a collection of very rich men - the Halls, the Wrays, the Levetts, and so forth - and partly by one very rich man indeed in Mr Murdoch. The possibility of a loss of interest by the former group has been canvassed often enough. But what if Mr Murdoch loses his enthusiasm for the handling code? He was not previously known as a devotee. What then? What indeed.

At the moment, certainly, there is no sign of such a withdrawal,though Sky moves in mysterious ways. Last Sunday, for instance, a showing of Wasps v Newcastle was advertised in some papers, Wasps v Sale (the match was actually being played), in others. What the channel in fact showed was a game of ice hockey.

A spokeswoman for the professional clubs' organisation, Epruc, which negotiates with Sky, told me that the match originally scheduled had been the rearranged Wasps v Leicester. Even so, why could the Sale match not have been broadcast instead?

One of the two installers employed by Mr Murdoch was explaining about the card, the channels and the various buttons. "I suppose you want it for the rugby," he said. I assented. He had no means of knowing that I was interested in the game - still less that I earned part of my living by writing about it. Evidently there are no flies on Mr Murdoch, or on his employees.