David Flatman: TV deal is great but ugly side of rugby on show

View from the front row with Bath and England prop
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The Independent Online

You can always tell when one of our matches is being televised; Duncan Bell turns up looking like the hairdresser has added some distinguishing white flecks and lowered his ears for the occasion while Daniel Browne arrives with hair so perfect and shiny it might be made of Lego. Why he has to de-hair his entire body as well I do not know, but it seems to make him feel better about being seen on the big screen. Reassuringly, though, whatever the magnitude of the event or level of pressure involved, David Barnes always presents looking like a tramp who found a Bath tracksuit. Makes us all feel better about our worsening appearance.

I have been known to run the clippers over what is left of my cranial cultivation but this is, I promise, because my wife makes me. Sadly, there is little I can do about the universal trend for super-tight jerseys and shorts except hit the treadmill and knock off a couple of stones. "I need to be heavy for scrummaging," is the excuse I have been using since the age of eight, but the likes of "Compo" Barnes – all lean and sinuous – seem to be doing their level best to undermine my default get-out. One would assume there are high-end sporting garments on the market in this day and age to act as some sort of performance corset, but no. I only hope that rugby continues – with its ever-increasing popularity and media coverage – to be the game for all shapes and sizes. Any sport that sees Paul Hodgson competing nose to nose with Census Johnston should be voraciously preserved.

A new deal struck with sports giant ESPN will see the number of live Guinness Premiership matches being beamed out next season climb to an unprecedented 69. That translates roughly as three games a weekend. It would be over the top to say our Sunday helping of first-class rugby on BBC2's Rugby Special seems like yesterday, but even for me it sits clearly in the mind. I used to get to the television half an hour early to see clips of Dean Richards and Chris Oti, Dewi Morris and Jeff Probyn, just in case somebody at BBC HQ had seen fit to change the scheduling for fun. Instead, I grew to be quite the winter sports aficionado after enduring hours of Ski Sunday – the only memorable bit was the theme tune. Now we will struggle not to be watching rugby in our spare time. This must be what it is like to be a football fan.

While this thoroughly modern arrangement will no doubt bring our beloved sport bang up to date in terms of profile, there are one or two issues which must be nailed from the outset; firstly – and I apologise for remounting my soapbox – the laws must be tinkered with so that the game we loved watching, as recently as last season, can be produced more often. I do not believe that these much-maligned breakdown regulations have become an easy excuse for the cautious head coach. Playing all-out attacking rugby now carries a huge risk so what came first, the caution or the rules? Actually, Bath are a good case study. We have the same coach as last year – a year when our high-tempo, breathless style won us regular plaudits – but now we seem to be easier to subdue. Yes, we are working on this and I believe our season will turn around but teams simply kick us the ball, let us run it back, and pile into the breakdown once a tackle is made. Cynical but effective, and winning is what matters after all.

Secondly, the coverage needs to be up to scratch. You might be forgiven for accusing me of bias, but Sky Sports has the best rugby coverage in the world. Commentators who glide, co-commentators who add lexicon and nuance to the most Neanderthal of worlds and analysts (perhaps not the ones from the murky depths of the front row) who combine tomorrow's technology with a knowledge only available to those who have existed out in the middle. ESPN's coverage of the French Top 14 is less polished. Of course, it has never been a major sport for them so they would not have had the same resources, but they will need to invest heavily, taking this game seriously, if they are to match what we already have.

I am sure that ESPN will shape up and that rugby will continue to grow into the role of Britain's second sport. The pressure will now fall rightly on to the broad shoulders of the players and coaches to deliver to the public a product which is worthy of their spare time. The rulesmiths may have a role to play but, ultimately, we all want to enjoy ourselves out there – and to see our sport grow – so we will find a way.

It's the pressure of looking good, though, which could cause the biggest kerfuffle round the league; High Definition means there is no hiding place. If only we all looked like Olly Barkley. I'll just have to make sure I walk out next to Belly every week.

* Gareth Thomas' announcement of his homosexuality came as no surprise. Rugby is a small world and word travels fast. Word came around a good while ago and the general reaction was both predictable and appropriate: "Is he really? Fair enough."

To mention Thomas' quality as a player is to state the obvious, but perhaps more relevant is people's perception of him as a bloke. Tom Shanklin, Thomas' Cardiff and Wales team-mate, described him as an "absolute diamond, best bloke going". When I asked if anyone gave him any grief about his sexuality, the answer was clear: "You could try, but he's massive and he'd knock your block off. Anyway, no-one's bothered."

I read that he was anxious as to potential reactions and future treatment at the hands of the public and rugby-playing fraternity. He has nothing to worry about. Though not many at Bath know him personally, a player's reputation is all important and, at the breakfast table yesterday morning, with the papers and his story being perused by all and sundry over toast and coffee, there were only words of support and admiration. A good man has got something huge off his chest and now, we hope, he can get on with being a legend.

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