Peter Corrigan: Bravo for Jonny but Beeb need new act

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The Independent Online

Apart from winning the World Cup, England's rugby team also created the largest bowl of gravy on earth, and the latest to dip their bread in will be the British Broadcasting Corporation when they stage their 50th Sports Personality of the Year awards tonight. Even after the flavoursome liquid has done the rounds of London's crowded streets, Buckingham Palace and the professional gravy-dippers of Downing Street, there should be plenty left in which the Beeb can wallow.

The adoring nation won't complain at that, nor at the chance to vote for Jonny Wilkinson as this year's recipient of the silver television camera. However, the history of this event has taught us not to take anything for granted.

When the English football team won the World Cup in 1966, the award went not to Geoff Hurst, the hat-trick hero of the 4-2 win over West Germany, but to the captain, Bobby Moore. Whether Martin Johnson can also turn the tables or, indeed, whether the phenomenal Paula Radcliffe can stave off this late but overwhelming challenge to her second successive award, will be revealed tonight.

I think I'm almost ready to watch the Wilkinson drop-goal again, so I look forward to seeing the results of the BBC's deal for the reproduc-tion rights. However much it cost, I bet it hurts. When this programme was first introduced in 1954, the corporation were undisputed purveyors of what sport we watched on our screens, but they have gradually lost the control they once thought was God-given. I suspect the programme was created in order to squeeze a couple of hours of extra airtime out of all the sporting footage the Beeb had lying around.

I don't blame them for that - many of us in the media take advantage of a bit of retrospect at this time of the year - but the proprietorial attitude with which the programme was presented used to grate. They carried the air of mill-owners patronising those who had been slaving away on their behalf all year. There are still traces of the old arrogance, best portrayed in the old days by Peter Dimmock, but they can hardly claim to be the big cheeses of sporting television any longer.

Indeed, if there was an award for the negative rugby performance of the year, the BBC would share it with the European Rugby Cup people. Between them, they have robbed the terrestrial television audience of the opportunity to follow up their new-found zest for watching rugby by ensuring that the Heineken Cup is available only on Sky.

Credit Sky with diving in with a late and juicy bid that enticed the ERC to sell them the rights. No one was to know at that time that a Six Nations team would win the World Cup, but an upsurge in rugby interest was bound to be the result whoever won it.

Now the extra money the ERC receive will have to be balanced against the much larger audience they and their sponsors would have undoubtedly gained. As for the BBC, to allow this excellent competition to slip from their grasp, whether by tardiness or complacency or both, is unforgivable.

Our first view of rugby on terrestrial TV since the World Cup will be when England play the New Zealand Barbarians on Saturday, but drop-outs are devaluing that match by the day. So, the Beeb's fawning over rugby tonight will have a certain slamming-of-the-barn-door irony to it but, whoever wins, there isn't likely to be as much controversy as the previous awards have caused.

Every recipient has had much to commend them, but the terms of reference for deciding the winner have always been vague and sometimes unsatisfactory. The word "personality" widens the criteria beyond pure accomplishment, and comparing achievements across various sports is a difficulty they overcame by a viewers' voting system conducted in absurd secrecy that was bound to excite suspicion.

Last year they revealed for the first time the number of votes cast for the leading candidates, and I hope they continue with this transparency. Had they done so in the past we might not have so many lasting mysteries that the sports pages have been making much of during the past week.

This evening's programme will also contain a popular vote for the best BBC sports personality of the last 50 years. And it was only on examination of the runners and riders concerned that so many missing names have come to light. From George Best to Stanley Matthews, Peter May to Geoff Boycott, Roger Bannister to Colin Jackson, Lester Piggott to Tony McCoy... it is difficult to select a top name if that's the calibre of those not even being considered.

And since we are on the subject of rugby union, let us examine the scene when one of our greatest rugby teams returned victorious to these isles. The Lions of 1971 conquered New Zealand in spectacular style and were rightly presented with the Team of the Year award. But Barry John, the Wilkinson of his era, finished only third in the individual award - Princess Anne won it and George Best came second.

Appetites have obviously changed since then, particularly when you realise that Gareth Edwards never reached the first three in any year of his great career. In the 1970s, the Welsh rugby team won the Grand Slam three times without winning the team prize. England won the Grand Slam in 1980 for the first time in 17 years and were voted Team of the Year.

This is not an accusation of bias. Since the vast majority of viewers are English they are likely to look more favourably on their own. In its first 30 years, one had the distinct impression that the bulk of the voting power lay with matronly ladies in spa towns who revelled in the BBC's coverage of sports such as athletics, equestrianism, ice skating and motor racing. Many such sports have gone to other channels or disappeared from the screen altogether.

Things have changed and, judging by the hundreds of thousands who turned out to honour the English rugby team last Monday, there are new priorities to be considered. The surge of patriotism that sport can create is what the Scots, Welsh and Irish have been living on for decades. Now that the English are plugging into the same power supply perhaps we had better find a new way of deciding who has had the best year.

And while we are on the subject of imperfections, why does this programme invariably take place with over two weeks of the year still to go? The English cricket team are usually playing a Test series on the other side of the world at this time so it would be very embarrassing for all concerned if one of our boys took 10 wickets and scored 200 runs. But don't panic. This is not likely to happen in Sri Lanka this week.

Smoking and steaming

Smoking is to be banned from football's touchline technical areas, where managers and coaches prowl during matches. Uefa have ruled that this zone will be smoke-free at all matches in their competitions from the start of next season. This will be particularly bad news for the Juventus coach, Marcello Lippi, who often puffs frantically at a cigar while his team are in action, as does former Valencia boss Hector Cuper. Uefa's executive committee decided smoking by coaches so near to the pitch was bad for the image of the game and set the wrong example to young players and fans. Offhand, I cannot think of any Premiership managers who would suffer from the move - unless they ban smoke coming out of the ears.