Alan Watkins: Even Wilkinson can do little to kick-start enthusiasm on the home front
Tuesday 18 November 2003
Early on Sunday evening I watched both the principal digital news channels, BBC News 24 and Sky, to discover, more out of interest than anything else, what they made of England's entry into the rugby World Cup final. I also thought there might possibly be an interesting remark from Clive Woodward, the England coach, or one of his players, to supplement what he had said earlier in the day on ITV.
No such luck. Not only was there a distinct absence of Woodward or any of his charges from the screen, but the result of the French match was not even one of the main news stories. We had to wait until the sports news later in the programme before we were even given the result. Then we were told there would be "fuller coverage" later in the programme.
We were - or, at any rate, I was - compelled to hang on for BBC1's traditional, terrestrial 10 o'clock news, before England's appearance in the final was placed where one would have thought it belonged, among the top stories of the day. It was followed, after a reasonable, but not over-lengthy, interval, by some footage of Jonny Wilkinson dropping one of his three goals.
From all this I conclude not so much that the television news channels are failing in their duty to the game - for they have no such duty - but rather that the World Cup has not taken off in this country as almost everybody connected with the game says it has, conveying as much to the England side in various messages of support. If it had taken off, the digital channels would have given England's performance a higher priority than they did on Sunday.
This is not the fault of the sports pages of the broadsheet papers, including The Independent. Additional columnists have been hired for the length of their experience and the weight of their opinions. About this I, as a regular columnist, make no complaint whatever - let 1,000 flowers bloom is my motto. Interviews abound with players or with coaches of varying degrees of surliness. Matches are covered, sometimes twice over. Stephen Glover, the press columnist of The Spectator, complained about the "endless" articles on the World Cup.
All the extra publicitydoes not seem to have had much effect, except on those who would have been fascinated by the event anyway. The blackboards in front of the pubs announcing "Live Rugby" bear a forlorn aspect. It has never, I confess, been my practice to wander around central London at nine o'clock on a Saturday or Sunday morning unless I have a very good reason for so doing. But why should anyone enter licensed premises at this hour if the spectacle in question is available at home on ITV, without special equipment or special charges? There is, admittedly, a certain pleasure to be derived from watching a match with a group of supporters, as there is, which is rarer, from watching one with knowledgeable companions. But pubs have not been packed with rugby supporters during the past few weeks.
Just as it is not the fault of the broadsheet papers that the World Cup has not taken off, nor is it that of ITV. John Taylor has been a model commentator. Steve Smith has given his well-loved impression of the terrier-like Englishman. So one could go on. Early in the competition, there were fears that the less obviously appealing matches might be shunted on to ITV2, which can be received only by digital viewers. Apart from one match involving Scotland, when ITV quickly reversed its plans, these fears proved groundless. We have been able to see all we wanted to see.
It is certainly not the fault of Wilkinson. To make a wide, popular appeal, it seems that all sports need to possess and to display a talisman-like figure. Perhaps it was always thus, but today it is even thusser. Cricket has missed Ian Botham, though there are signs that he may be replaced by Andrew Flintoff. Football has David Beckham. Wilkinson, through no desire of his own, was being transformed into England's rugby talisman. On Sunday, after some weeks backsliding, he more than justified this position. Frédéric Michalak was, by comparison, a stuttering wreck, poor boy.
But still, the enthusiasm is there only among rugby supporters. Perhaps it is inevitable. I was about to say I was happy to be among a discriminating minority, but I am not entirely sure. It is, after all, a disconcerting experience to be asked by your companion, "Why have they all stopped?" and to have to reply, "I'm not sure. John Taylor will tell us." It is even more disconcerting when Taylor does not know for certain either, but that is rugby as it has always been and, I am afraid, still is.
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