Rugby: Why fragmented television coverage threatens appeal of Five Nations

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The Independent Online
There is a tendency for observers of the rugby scene to write about the administration of the game rather than about changes in the game itself. This is natural and, up to a point, laudable.

There is the silly money which is changing hands and may yet send several clubs into the arms of the receiver. There are the proposals of Cliff Brittle, of the Rugby Football Union, that the union should contract directly with English international players and that there should be only 24 professional clubs divided into two divisions.

The logical consequence of Brittle's proposals is that there should be one set of laws governing the game, but two governing authorities comparable to the Football Association and the Football League.

In the past 30 years we have seen First (or, as they are now called, Premier) Division football teams that have come to resemble conferences of the United Nations. We have also seen the clubs show - to put it at its most polite - rather less than full co-operation towards the national teams in the British Isles.

The consequence of these developments is that in football the Home International Championship has been extinguished, to be replaced in public esteem by the World Cup, the European Championship and various European competitions involving the clubs.

I do not think rugby will inevitably go the same way. But it will go part of the way. Indeed, it has already travelled some of the distance.

The Five Nations' Championship will no doubt retain its appeal. It has, however, already lost part of that appeal. Come 2.30 or three o'clock on alternate Saturday (and now Sunday) afternoons from January to March, rugby followers will no longer be able to switch on BBC1 in the confident expectation of hearing the reassuring tones of Bill McLaren. Instead, for all England's Twickenham games, and for France v England from Paris, they will have to pay handsomely for the privilege of listening to Miles Harrison and Stuart Barnes on Sky.

This fragmentation of television coverage - part of the competition on Sky, part now on ITV and part still on the BBC - is bound to have an effect on the general appeal of the competition. Those who think tradition conquers all should remember that in football England v Scotland, whether at Wembley or Hampden Park, was one of the great events of the winter sporting calendar. Today it is no more, gone, in a puff of smoke.

I am not predicting that England v Wales, at Twickenham or the unnecessarily rebuilt Cardiff Arms Park, will go the same way. But forthcoming international fixtures are not carved in tablets of stone.

Apart from all this, what about the game? This season has seen rugby union become more and more like rugby league. The two teams spread out and advance on each other until their noses are virtually touching. Though I have not done a count, more and more penalties seem to be awarded for encroaching. Referees do their best and keep shouting "get back."

Mention of counts brings me to the statistics - "stats" as they are called - which now play the principal part in post-match analyses by television commentators and team coaches alike. Tackles made, tackles missed, turned possession; on and on it goes, and no doubt it is all very valuable.

But statistics are often wrong. When I have kept a line-out count to help a colleague who was reporting a match, I have usually found that my figures were different, sometimes markedly so, from the official version. If a forward from the Reds leaps, catches the ball cleanly and brings it down but the ball comes out of the ensuing ruck or maul on the Whites' side, it seems perverse to say the Reds won the line-out.

Possession is now meant to go to the throwing-in side, and the hooker is blamed, often unjustly, when it does not. At scrums, possession has long gone to the side doing the putting-in, partly because the scrum-half has been allowed to get away with a crooked feed.

This season front rows have, however, been collapsing more frequently than usual. How long will it be, I wonder, before scrums become meaningless and messy formalities, as they are in league, where the scrum-half simply bounces the ball off the outside leg of the loose-head prop?

And the interpretation of the law about tackles is in a mess. There was a time when referees would penalise virtually any high tackle as being dangerous. I have long argued that this was incorrect and that there were circumstances in which a player could legitimately be "smothered" or have his shoulders held. But the interpretation has now gone too far in the other direction. Tacklers are being allowed to get away with what may literally turn out to be murder unless something is done about it.