BBC struggle to make their special case

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The battle for television audiences is hotting up in the wake of England's World Cup success. Sky have the field to themselves for the next four weeks, with their wall-to-wall Heineken Cup coverage, but the BBC will respond by bringing back Rugby Special on Sunday nights when the Six Nations' kicks off in February.

The BBC's head of sports planning, Pat Younge, returns to London tomorrow from an overseas break to finalise the latest revamp of Rugby Special, whose optimum starting time has long been a favourite topic of conversation among the sport's followers. There was a great fanfare when the programme came out of a five-year hibernation in March 2002, but after a 12-week run late on Thursday nights, presented by the likes of Keith Wood and Jeremy Guscott, it was relocated into Sunday Grandstand last season. This year, with John Inverdale presenting, it moves again, to 11.45 on Sunday nights on BBC2, with a repeat the following Friday afternoon. After the Six Nations, in April, the programme will revert to a Sunday lunchtime start, at 1pm.

Last November, ITV attracted 15m viewers for the mid-morning broadcast of the World Cup final, a figure that surprised even hardened industry insiders. But barely a month earlier, the game's place on terrestrial screens took a knock when the BBC lost the Heineken Cup rights to Sky. Private accusations of complacency circulated around the corporation after the BBC's offer of £15m over three years - replicating the £5m per year they had paid for the previous contract in 1999 - was trumped by a £20m offer from the satellite company.

The BBC cited a 12 per cent reduction in audiences last season, when no English club made the semi-finals, even though the peak audience of 3.3m for Gloucester v Munster was much higher than Sky are likely to have achieved for yesterday's repeat fixture. European Rugby Cup Ltd, the body responsible for negotiating television and sponsorship contracts on behalf of the participating clubs, were not impressed. At the 11th hour in October - or, to be precise, at 12.20am on the Friday in question - they switched to Sky.

"Revenue is important," said Derek McGrath, chief executive of ERC. "We have hungry stakeholders, as the Welsh merger being talked about demonstrates. As to the terrestrial versus satellite argument, Sky have eight million subscribers in the UK and we felt that made them a significant player. We've been delighted with the way Sky have grabbed hold of the tournament - there has been real quality from start to finish. They have been showing five live matches each weekend, and that is important to the rugby fan, who can see games from France, from Ireland and, in time, from Italy, to get a better understanding of what the European Cup is about."

ITV eked everything they could from England's capture of the Webb Ellis Cup. Though they have nothing other than Sevens until the next World Cup, the £40m ITV paid for the 2003 and 2007 tournaments is starting to look a bargain. The BBC, who gave terrestrial coverage a shot in the arm by securing exclusive rights to the Six Nations a year ago, have some catching up to do. They upset Clive Woodward by inviting David Campese to present his team with their award at the Sports Personality of the Year show. And their influence in altering this year's Six Nations fixtures to conclude with France v England, kicking off at an unprecedented 9pm in Paris, may yet backfire. The original choice, England v Wales, leapt in appeal after the exciting World Cup quarter-final in Australia.

The dedicated channel-hopper with the right connections has access to a startling array of rugby, from Friday night matches on BBC2 Wales through to French club games on a Tuesday - with Welsh commentary - courtesy of S4C. In the next 18 months, Sky will cover the home unions' summer tours, including England in New Zealand and Australia, the autumn internationals at Twickenham and the 2005 Lions tour of New Zealand. BBC policy can be difficult to fathom. They show the Celtic League in Wales and Scotland, but though they have the rights to Zurich Premiership highlights in England, they have ignored the competition this season. "We have contractual obligations to other sports," said a spokeswoman.

Before the England v New Zealand Barbarians match, the Beeb's on-screen plug had supporters rushing for their diaries by promoting the channel as "the only place to see England between now and Easter". But not, of course, the only place to see England players, who still spend far more time on Sky than anywhere else. Getting their retaliation in first, as Willie John McBride used to say, Sky's Sunday night Heineken Cup round-up is entitled European Rugby Special.

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