At a quarter to two on Saturday afternoon I started to press buttons on the television remote control with growing ill-temper to try to locate ITV Sport 2, on which the Castres v Munster Heineken Cup semi-final was apparently being broadcast. No luck, so I watched Wigan v St Helens in rugby league's Challenge Cup final instead, and a very good match it turned out to be.
Now, the BBC is always going on about the unfairness of life – in particular, about how Rupert Murdoch's Sky, with its seemingly infinite resources, can outbid the Corporation for any sporting rights that may be up for auction. But the Corporation has at least cornered the Heineken Cup, or so it claimed. Was it really impossible for it to show the Castres v Munster match, either after the Challenge Cup final on BBC 1, or on BBC 2 as it was happening? Apart from a brief clip of John Kelly's try later on Saturday, we were confined to the highlights – always an unsatisfactory form of viewing – before the Leicester v Llanelli semi-final was broadcast on Sunday in full.
Here there was a clear case for activating the Eddie Butler-Brian Moore commentating team. Instead, we had Nick Mullins and Jonathan Davies, who was suffering from a throat problem. Incapacitated as he was, he should have been one of the two wise men in the glass box, with either Matt Dawson or Jeremy Guscott as his partner.
The presence of Moore somewhere on the scene would have been invaluable, as he is currently the only man on the telly who has any real conception of what goes on in the front row. He could have told us whether the referee, David McHugh, was right to award Leicester the penalty whereby Tim Stimpson won the match.
It derived from a scrum inside the Leicester half. McHugh accused Martyn Madden, the Llanelli loose head, of collapsing it. Madden denied this. The Llanelli coach, a somewhat distraught Gareth Jenkins, said the Leicester front row had been in trouble throughout the match. Madden added that Darren Garforth, the Leicester tight-head had rested one hand on the floor for the entire time. My own view is that here Llanelli were hard done by, though on previous occasions McHugh's decisions had gone more their way than they had Leicester's.
You may think: well, he would say that, wouldn't he? Not a bit of it. Three times in the Heineken Cup Llanelli have gone down because of kicks in the dying minutes: by Paul Grayson for Northampton, Elton Moncrieff for Gloucester and, now, Stimpson for Leicester. This is wretched luck. But no great cosmic injustice was done on Sunday.
Time after time Davies (a former Llanelli player himself, though he played for Neath as well) told the viewers that it was folly for Llanelli to try to hang on to a two-point lead with a long time to go before the final whistle. And so it proved.
In the old days at Stradey Park one of the frequent injunctions heard from the aficionados in the stand was: Play football, Llanelli! This meant the reverse of what it seemed to mean: not that the home side should rely on the boot, whether directed at goal or at the touchline, but, rather, that they should try to play intelligent handling rugby. This, after all, was what they were famous for, together with Cardiff, Harlequins and the Barbarians. Though they produced some great forwards – such as Rhys Williams, Delme Thomas and Derek Quinnell – their pride was in the backs.
Admittedly the side coached by Carwyn James which beat New Zealand in 1972 and included the young Jenkins at open-side flanker did not win by playing pretty rugby. There is little to be said for being, as the authors of 1066 And All That wrote of the Cavaliers, Wrong but Wromantic.
Jenkins' error was to be too inflexible in his approach. He got his team where they were by means of a heavy and aggressive pack and the usually infallible boot of Stephen Jones. On Sunday the forwards did everything that could have been expected of them but Jones' boot let him down, and the rest followed.
To turn to the season as a whole: France had a bit of luck (against Wales, for example) but were deserving champions. The after-effects of the Lions tour of Australia in 2001 lasted longer than most people had expected. It was a series which they could and should have won. If they had managed this, the consequences would not, I think, have been so deleterious as they turned out to be. This would have been so despite the excessive training (which left many players crocked before they even took the field) or the wrangles over team selection or the failures in communication by the manager, Graham Henry. As it was, Wales, Ireland and, to a lesser extent, England were all affected adversely.
I am now signing off for the season. My thanks to my correspondents, whose courtesy is greater than that of the people who write to me on political matters.Reuse content