Rugby viewers let down by BBC coverage

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The Independent Online
The BBC did not broadcast the opening and often fascinating matches of the Heineken European Cup. It could have but chose not to. Independent television had originally acquired the rights to these matches but then had second thoughts. The BBC could have intervened at this stage and picked up the contract but decided against.

There were protests in which I joined in this column and which, for once, seemed to have some effect. The corporation appears to have realised that it made a mistake. It promises to cover the semi- finals, Brive v Cardiff and Leicester v Toulouse, and to broadcast the final in the new year.

Last weekend saw a further example of the BBC's treatment of rugby followers as poor relations. True, there was full coverage of England v New Zealand Barbarians at Twickenham on BBC1. But on the next day Wales played Australia at Cardiff. The match was seen on television in Wales but not in England or Scotland.

There were numerous people in both these countries who would have liked to see it: the more so as David Campese was making his last appearance for Australia and Jonathan Davies his first for Wales since his return from rugby league. Indeed, the spectacle of Davies in a Welsh union jersey once again was something most of us had never expected to see. Hence the match was not only interesting in itself: it was also a romantic occasion.

All the BBC did was devote roughly a third of Rugby Special to it, the other part of the programme being taken up with France v South Africa and England v New Zealand Barbarians. Yet the majority of English viewers would, I am sure, fall into one of three categories: they would have been at Twickenham; viewed the match live on television; or taped it and watched it later, on Saturday evening, Sunday morning or Sunday afternoon. Besides, those who had been at the ground or watched it live on television might well have recorded it also for future reference or entertainment.

This argument against Rugby Special's indolent habit of running highlights of matches which most fans have already either seen or recorded is one of general application. It has, however, an additional force when a game of equal interest to Saturday's is taking place on a Sunday.

I do not see why BBC1 or BBC2 should not have rearranged its programming to broadcast Wales v Australia in England and Scotland. In default of that, there could have been an extended Rugby Special. Even at its normal hour's length, the programme could have given us nearly 70 per cent of an event which did, after all, happen on the day the programme went out.

Nor is it only the BBC that may be short-changing its rugby-watching customers. I wonder about the Rugby Football Union as well. Last week I was taken as a guest to that body's 125th anniversary dinner, held at Twickenham. The after-dinner speakers were Jeff Probyn and David Mellor, MP. Both made accomplished and funny speeches. Probyn's was slightly funnier.

But why was Mellor there at all? He is, as we know, a Chelsea supporter. These are troubled and interesting times for rugby supporters. Could not the RFU have rustled up someone - say, one of its own members, in addition to Probyn - who could have told us what was going on? It may be that the RFU does not know what is going on. Even so, the last person in England that most of those present wanted to hear was, I suspect, David Mellor.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the evening was the competition (entry fee pounds 10) to choose a Lions XV from the period 1971-89. There was a prize for whoever came nearest to Probyn's selection. This turned out to be:

J Williams; G Davies, J Guscott, M Gibson, D Duckham; B John, G Edwards; F Cotton, P Wheeler, G Price, P Ackford, W J McBride, R Uttley, D Richards, P Winterbottom.

My host, Donald Trelford, formerly editor of the Observer, and now sports columnist of the Daily Telegraph, got 12. Some low types had managed 13 and divided the prize. Trelford put in John Dawes, Wade Dooley and Mervyn Davies instead of Jeremy Guscott, Paul Ackford and Dean Richards. I got 12 as well. I put in Dawes, Derek Quinnell and Davies instead of Guscott, Uttley and Richards.

In short, we agreed that Dawes and Davies should be included rather than Probyn's choices of Guscott and Richards. Interestingly enough, these two players are still performing weekly, if they are given the chance. And both are considered not to be good enough to be in the current England team.