Rugby World Cup: Pundits primed for the on-screen ruck and maul

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MORE THAN 13 million viewers watched ITV's coverage of the 1991 World Cup final between England and Australia, the largest ever rugby audience generated in this country. That is ITV's target as the terrestrial channel undertakes its third consecutive Rugby World Cup in the role of official UK broadcaster - that, and the elusive chemistry which can occur among presenters and commentators in the course of marathon sporting events such as this.

Starting with Wales's opening game against Argentina on Friday, the host broadcasters will be offering what they describe as the most comprehensive coverage of a Rugby World Cup ever seen on British television. All 41 matches will be screened live - 24, including the key Group matches and latter stages of the tournament, on ITV and the other 17 on ITV2.

There will be experimentation, too. Both Twickenham semi-finals will feature a new CamCat, an overhead camera which will track play at speeds up to 40 mph, offering a birds' eye view of unfolding action for replay purposes.

But what ITV is especially hoping for is an action replay of the kind of banter and repartee which made its 1991 coverage - involving the likes of Frank Bough, Gordon Brown and Gareth Chilcott - such a roaring success, a chemistry that was by general consent less in evidence during coverage of the 1995 event.

Pundits assembled include the man who lifted the Cup four years ago for South Africa, Francois Pienaar, Australia's highest points-scorer in international rugby, Michael Lynagh, and the former New Zealand skipper Sean Fitzpatrick.

They will be joined by other former team captains such as Will Carling, Gavin Hastings, Ieuan Evans and Gareth Edwards, while the reporting staff includes the former England hooker Brian Moore - "Pitbull" to his friends - who is likely to be sinking his teeth into a fair few interviewees in the course of the next month.

Jim Rosenthal will provide a steady, professional presence as studio anchor man, and for the evening highlights programmes the job will be handed over to an intriguing newcomer, Nicky Campbell. The former Radio 1 disc jockey and host of Wheel of Fortune was, by his own admission, a "fancy pants" stand-off as a schoolboy enthusiast, and he has returned to his sporting roots in recent years with a hard-hitting Radio Five Live show.

When Campbell meets up again with Carling, he is unlikely to press once again for an answer to the question he put to him when they last spoke on air, namely whether he had slept with Princess Diana. But they are likely to find other arresting topics of conversation...

John Taylor, the former British Lion who will once again be ITV's chief commentator, believes that personal tensions and rivalries could provide an enormous draw for viewers. "We will not be shy of setting the southern hemisphere against the northern hemisphere or England against Scotland," said Taylor. "Take Carling and Hastings, for example, They didn't have a particularly brilliant relationship while players, and they are both forthright characters, so that could be an interesting discussion."

As for a television pundit emerging in the way the Leicester City manager, Martin O'Neill, did during the football World Cup last year, Taylor points to the recently retired Fitzpatrick as a potential contender. "If he talks as much on TV as he did to referees, no one else will get a word in edgeways," Taylor said.