Rugby: Why cannot the BBC show both internationals in full, the recorded match after the live one, every Five Nations Saturday?

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Most people who are interested in rugby gain their impressions from television rather than from watching matches in the cold, or even in fine weather. It has always surprised me that, before Sky Television was even thought of by Rupert Murdoch, our old fashioned independent television companies did not outbid the BBC for the Five Nations' Championship. I should have thought the competition would be the thing most advertisers wanted, guaranteeing as it does what the market research trade calls an AB audience of all ages, even if predominantly male.

Instead, coverage of the Five Nations is to be split between Sky and the BBC, England having sold their rights in home internationals to Mr Murdoch's earthly representatives, while the Celtic nations remain loyal to the old Corporation. Whether the deal is as good as Mr Murdoch and his representatives presumably think it is I rather doubt.

After all, there will be only two internationals played at Twickenham out of a total 10-match season. Whether the BBC is altogether deserving of the loyalty of Scotland, Ireland and Wales I also doubt.

I realise, naturally, that in these hard, commercial times, talk about loyalty, and whether people or organisations deserve it, maybe out of place. Let us put the question differently. Has the BBC been fair to rugby enthusiasts in the period up till now, when it has enjoyed virtually a complete monopoly except for coverage of the World Cup?

Criticising Rugby Special is admittedly as much a recreation among enthusiasts as shouting abuse at the referee (an old Welsh practice that has now spread to Twickenham, with the difference that the English crowd are rather shakier about the laws.) This does not mean that the failings of the programme cannot usefully be pointed out from time to time.

The principal failing is not the responsibility of the programme makers, but of BBC2. It is that you can never be entirely sure what time the programme will go out. I thought it had settled down to 4.55. Last Sunday, however, it was at 5.55, and a shorter programme at that.

A few weeks ago I paid tribute to John Inverdale's interviewing talents - I only wish he would exercise them more often. In the past year, rugby has been going through the most rapid and profound changes in the history of the game. They may all end in tears - or, at any rate, with players having to slink back to their old jobs.

Yet from the programme you do not get a hint of this. It seems content to act as a public relations agent not, I agree, for the Rugby Football Union (which, in any case, is split) but for the aim of rugby generally. That should not be its propagandist function.

It also tries to cover too much in too short a time. Last Sunday, for example, it should have covered only Wasps v Gloucester (played on Sunday), one other Courage League match from Saturday and Swansea v Llanelli, and then had an extended look at next Saturday's internationals.

The programme announced that on this coming Saturday the BBC, starting at 2pm, would be bringing us the first hour of the match in Paris, from 3pm the whole of the match from Twickenham, and, afterwards, the rest of the Paris match in full. The reason for this extensive coverage is presumably the English interest; for if Scotland beat France, and England beat Wales, England win the championship on the points difference they have already established, even though England and France will each have won three matches out of four.

Fine - though I think this outcome unlikely. I shall be having a double on France and Wales. I welcome the full coverage, though I should have preferred the Paris match to follow the one at Twickenham. But why cannot the BBC show both internationals in full, the recorded match following the live one, on every Five Nations Saturday? There is no good reason I can think of why we should be palmed off with edited highlights. In France both matches are shown in full.

Moreover, the highlights we are allowed to see are sketchy in the extreme. The principal reason for watching Rugby Special on the next day is that the highlights it shows are rather fuller than those BBC1 has broadcast on the Saturday.

The advent of Sky will necessarily alter things. But will the BBC give live coverage in England to, say, Wales v Ireland, when England v Scotland is being shown live on Sky? I think it should. But I have my doubts about whether the Corporation will fulfil its duty to followers of rugby.

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