McCusker deploys Special forces

The Beeb's old faithful is returning under radical new management next week
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The old theme tune has been jazzed up, there are two new presenters, a cosy biscuit- beige set and a ground-breaking editor who happens to be a woman. Rugby Special, a programme which went through several makeovers in a 31-year career before being relegated to the bench, returns to a screen near you on Thursday.

Bill McLaren may be retiring as the voice of rugby but the BBC is once again picking up the ball and running with it. "We want to re-establish ourselves as the home of rugby," Josephine McCusker said. "We are not apologising any more, there is a new emphasis and we're going for it. Our rugby is good and there are a lot of moves to make it better. We're throwing all our toys into the pram."

Jo, only the second female editor in the history of BBC TV sport, has Jonathan Davies and Keith Wood fronting the show, Eddie Butler and Nick Mullins working on news and commentaries, John Inverdale (the programme's last presenter five years ago) providing a "State of the Union" feature, Rob Henderson with a mystery personality slot, "Through the Kitbag", and Austin Healey as the first studio guest. "Jesus," she said, "I've got a cast of thousands."

What Jo hasn't got – and this is like covering Wimbledon minus the Centre Court – is action footage of England. Sky's contract with the RFU expires at the end of the season and the BBC, which has access to most of the Six Nations bar what it describes as the jewel in the crown, is determined to complete the circle. "More people watched the Italy-Scotland game on the BBC than England's match with Ireland," McCusker said. "People want and expect to watch rugby on the BBC."

In the meantime Sky, not surprisingly, are playing hardball. Despite repeated attempts to beg, borrow or buy highlights from yesterday's France-England clash, Rugby Special was facing the prospect of going on air with nothing to show from the key Six Nations match. Like the European Tour, which sold the Ryder Cup to Sky, the Rugby Football Union found the satellite channel's money irresistible but is coming under increasing pressure to satisfy a larger terrestrial audience.

The BBC is hoping that in addition to showing live rugby from the Six Nations, club (they have limited contractual rights to the Zurich Premiership, another Sky property) and Heineken Cup, the reincarnation of Rugby Special will persuade Twickenham that Television Centre at White City is indeed the home of the sport. The 40-minute programme will go out at 11.20pm on Thursday on BBC 2 for the next 12 weeks. It will follow not only Newsnight but Sky's weekly chat and action show, The Rugby Club.

There is an obvious drawback – it is too late for kids. "I wanted it in its old slot of tea-time on Sundays," Jo said, "but the game has moved on and so has the programme. There is now so much live output that people are not so desperate for highlights. I've had to change my perception, making a magazine-style programme that is neither preview or review. My biggest job is to get the balance right. If you're into fashion you're happy to listen to people talk about it but you also want to see the clothes. I want players and fans to feel involved and I want viewers to form affinities – 'I can't stand that John Inverdale but I love Rob Henderson'." Or vice-versa.

Tomorrow Davies and Wood will have their first rehearsal on a set designed to make viewers feel they have been invited into somebody's sitting room. "In this role Jonathan and Keith are rookies," Jo said. "If it works, great, if it doesn't it's only a slight gamble. They're both naturals although they will have to work hard. Gary Lineker was so wooden when he started but he worked at it and now he's one of the best. We're going for quality so I hope the programme's not judged solely on audience figures. I'm hoping it will develop a cult following. If we get a million a week I'll be happy."

It also represents a big break in Jo's career. The eldest of seven children from Co Donegal – "I'm just a convent educated foot soldier" – she trained as a PE teacher and became a lecturer at Leeds University before joining BBC Leeds. On her 30th birthday 10 Aprils ago she got a job as a trainee assistant producer on Grandstand. "I've worked on everything: golf, rugby league, rugby union, horseracing, Football Focus. I've had a lot of short straws to be honest with you."

She has also been praised as a documentary maker, the most recent a tribute to Bill McLaren. Eight years ago she persuaded Alan Davies and Bob Norster, then in charge of Wales, to let her into a closed session and she got an exclusive on how the management, with the aid of tapes and large speakers, were trying to familiarise the players with the atmosphere they could expect at Twickenham.

Any cock-ups? "Jesus yeah. I did a women's football match between Everton and Liverpool with one camera. I was assured such occasions produced half a dozen goals. The moment we moved the camera the play swept from one end to the other resulting in the only goal and we missed it. Afterwards I asked the players to re-enact the goal. They weren't happy but at least we got something on film. It didn't look quite right. I wouldn't do that now."

If Sky continue to say "not tonight Josephine", she might have to.

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