Sport on TV: Channel hopping as sky clouds over the BBC

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THE television rights to rugby union are up for grabs and last Saturday the BBC used Grandstand to go public with its pitch - four hours of detailed and slightly desperate coverage from the England v Wales match at Twickenham, the message of which was: 'Please. Oh, go on, please.' As the Queen met the players on the pitch, our commentator Nigel Starmer- Smith remarked smoothly: 'Her Majesty - beautiful, delicate, soft, spring tones of the hat and coat.' Nice try, but I don't think the Queen has any say in the final distribution of sports franchises.

The BBC has seen Sky Sports stuffing its sack with the jewellery and there are increasing signs of panic. Rugby union is under threat and also Formula One motor racing. It's not safe to assume that next year's Cheltenham Festival will automatically be a BBC event, nor Wimbledon for which some speculate that ITV and Channel 4 may club together. The way things are going, there will be so little left for the BBC that Grandstand will be reduced to filming random games of table tennis in a Northampton sports centre, while Sportsnight pops up midweek to offer a round-up of that night's entertainment from the Romford Roller Rink. In fact, the situation could get so desperate that someone will have to invent a television version of Fantasy League football. (Actually, no: thinking about it, things could never get that bad.)

If you've been watching the cricket from the West Indies, you can too easily imagine the consequences of Sky Sports getting hold of rugby union - commercials whenever the ball is in the air, multiple shots of people in the crowd with nationalist underwear on their heads, etc. Not that the competition from Sky has not had any beneficial effects on the BBC. The channel re-thought its rugby league coverage when it saw the other lot doing it better. But at present the pressure is more evident in a kind of fright and a worrying tendency to ape the opposition. Hence this week's trailers for the Boat Race, in which that stately, age-old meeting between American postgraduates at two of Britain's oldest universities was vamped up to look like the Super Bowl. And hence the slightly crazed edge to last Saturday's Five Nations build-up.

The handling of the match was fine; it was what went before. In its length and its attention to detail (though really only in those things), it put you in mind of the glory which is the BBC's run-in on FA Cup final day. That, too, seems to go on for a whole morning and displays a touching concern for every second of the unfolding drama, to the extent of going over to one of the team's hotels with Barry Davies to discover how the players are shaping up, post-breakfast, for the big day. (Unfailingly - implausibly - it is Davies's annual duty to report that the team is 'relaxed and in good spirits'. Not once have we heard him say, 'I'm here in the Crowther Lounge at the Watford Ramada and I have to say I have never seen a bunch of people rendered quite so rigid with terror', words which might restore our faith in the documentary integrity of these scenes.)

At Twickenham, we met the players, the managers, the Welsh fitness adviser. There were videos and clip compilations modelled on Nike advertisements. As we listened to Sting's 'Fields of Gold', there passed before our eyes a collage of old, slowed-down highlights, some of them sepia-tinted. Words faded in and out: 'the Emotion', 'the Pride', 'the Glory'. The BBC used to make these little sports videos into an exercise of wit, not a vehicle for crudely manipulative bunkum.

'After the news,' promised Rider, 'we'll get as close as we can to England and Wales.' This is now the most urgent incentive for sports coverage - getting as close as we can, preferably accompanied by pop music. In the Welsh side's hotel, the film crew were not content to hang around hopefully in the vicinity of the reception desk like Barry Davies. Instead, they jumped into the lift and stormed the bedrooms, where the players were drinking Sprite (gasp]) and engaging in exhausting and unashamed bouts of signing their autographs on charity rugby balls.

The handling of the match was fine. It was only beforehand that you wanted to say: 'Relax: don't lose your head. Go out there and play your natural game.' I suppose all that chummy proximity did at least tempt you to believe that rugby players might be human. But then the documentary series Beloved Country (BBC 2, Thursday) came along to remind you that rugby players are, in fact, rugby players. The programme followed Patensie, a South African side who, after a victory, indulged in what one of the players insisted was a traditional Afrikaner celebratory ritual: the youngest among them crouched in the showers and the rest of the team emptied their bladders on his neck.

Even by the standards of the coverage last Saturday, these were explicit shots (though, of course, they did fall after the nine o'clock watershed, as it were). Anyway, nice one, lads.

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