View from the sofa: Enlightenment dawns as a maligned sport emerges from the dark

Four Nations BBC 2

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The Independent Online

As preparations for a major tournament go, it is difficult to beat the Samoan rugby league team’s build-up to the Four Nations. In case you missed it, they went for a “meet and greet” with fans last week at a no doubt classy Brisbane nightclub called Hot Gossip. The meet and greet then segued into a meet, greet, drink, fight and get-pepper-sprayed-and-hauled-off-in-a-police-van-at-3am. Hardly an ideal advertisement for rugby league, unless you are a believer in the adage that all publicity is good publicity.

The piss-up-turned-punch-up didn’t warrant a mention in the BBC’s build-up to England’s tournament opener with Samoa. Then again this is a sport where you need to whack an opponent in a Grand Final not once but twice before seasoned onlookers are truly shocked.

The subject did not even come up in a pre-match interview with Samoa’s assistant coach, Sean Long, a former England scrum-half who knew of the odd scrape as a player – heck, his autobiography was called Booze, Brawls, Sex and Scandal.

The lack of chat from the host Mark Chapman and his pundits Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield and Robbie Hunter-Paul about the incident could have been because they were not quite awake, sitting in a Manchester studio 10,000 miles away from the Four Nations action, as bleary-eyed as we were in the pre-dawn dark. Hunter-Paul, in particular, was struggling with the early rise – although he perked up once Chapman promised him a bacon sandwich after the game was over. Later on, he even managed to say “proper preparation” without tripping over his tongue. Try it, it’s harder to say than you think. Especially before 7am.

Hunter-Paul did allude to Samoa’s scrappiness (referred to euphemistically as “physicality”) when the New Zealander spoke of playing the Polynesian nations in his formative years. “They weren’t interested in winning the game, they just wanted to win the smashes,” he said.

His summation of what England could expect from their opponents epitomised the honest, straight-to-the-point punditry from the whole trio.

They really got into their stride at half-time, after England had made hard work of their 14-10 lead over the Pacific Islanders. Hunter-Paul praised Joe Westerman’s performance in his debut while Sinfield was simmering with anger over England’s mistakes.

It once again showed that rugby league is one sport the Beeb does well. It begs the question why it doesn’t bid for more of it – as the games themselves are decent entertainment as well.

Yes, the BBC has the Super League Show, broadcast well past the witching hour during the season, but this is little more than lip service to the game. Internationals are too few and far between, as are Challenge Cup games. It needs to show regular matches. Sure, Sky might get a little uppity, but the punters would benefit – as would the game itself.

And then quite possibly the general public might discover there is more to rugby league than punch-ups.

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