View From the Sofa: ITV buys into a winning formula – star pundits who actually offer insight

Rugby World Cup, ITV1

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The Independent Online

ITV have taken the early-Noughties Chelsea approach to success: they have bought it. Not with their entire output – whatever they pay daily for the Loose Women panel, it is too much – but with their rugby World Cup coverage. 

They have had the contract for the tournament since anyone cared about it – and initially they made a right pig’s ear of it. Anecdotes abound about John Champion, who has a sound pedigree in football broadcasting, being flown out to South Africa to watch some warm-up games involving England before an earlier World Cup. It is said that he freely admitted he hadn’t a clue what he was watching. And lo, the coverage was awful. 

But this time around they have people who know their onions. They have roped in Nick Mullins from BT and a few Sky bods for commentary duties. And egg-chasing household names adorn the pundits’ chairs. Sean Fitzpatrick, Francois Pienaar, George Gregan, Ian McGeechan... and that is just the midweek team. 

On Saturday, for the England v Wales match they had genuine superstars – and Danny Cipriani – putting their opinions forward before the game. They even managed to grab Tom Jones for his insight into his compatriots’ injury problems. Tom Jones! He was a mate of Elvis Presley’s, for goodness’ sake. If only Jones, instead of Paloma Faith, had been employed to sing the theme tune.

On the sporting front the line-up was just as impressive. Jonny Wilkinson and Clive Woodward – who exchanged a few knowing glances to indicate the player-coach relationship goes on long after one hangs up one’s boots – were joined by Gareth Thomas in the Twickenham studio. 

But in this age of the superstar pundit, the viewer is hard to please. A groaning trophy cabinet is not enough: we need to be wowed with wisdom. And people like Phil Neville, Thierry Henry and Niall Quinn will all tell you it is harder than it looks.

But guess what? The words that came out of the Twickenham trio’s mouths taught us things. Actual punditry – who’d have believed it?

Nuggets such as Wilkinson explaining what Sam Burgess brings to the party. The same former fly-half on his awe of the “wall of people” on view as he came out of the tunnel at Twickenham. Thomas speaking ever-so tactfully about Warren Gatland’s version of man-management.

They were corralled by John Inverdale, who thankfully is yet to describe anyone as wearing eyewear the hue of women’s genitalia during this tournament (as he infamously did earlier this year on radio), and he has reined in his innate smugness. He just let the pundits talk, having fed them with open questions that we wanted asked. 

We were also treated to stellar analysis during the game. Lawrence Dallaglio and Shane Williams were Mullins’s commentary cohorts and the tension between the Englishman and the Welshman was crackling. 

And even though both Wilkinson and Woodward were disappointed by the result, they remained dispassionate enough to explain why, without banging their fists on the table, shouting: “Why didn’t you kick for the posts?!”  

Even the neutrals were left satisfied at the proof that you can buy success. But only if you shop wisely.

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