Sport on TV: Dearth of thrills as Beeb turns over new leaf

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The Independent Online
IT WAS such a thin week for sport on television last week that the coma-inducing Saga International Bowls tournament, which was on the week before, would probably have pulled an audience of 10 million had it been held back seven days.

Nowhere was the dearth of action more pronounced than on Sportsnight (BBC 1, Wednesday), a flagship of BBC Sport which looked more like a cardboard galleon on Captain Pugwash.

With the Coca-Cola football consigned to ITV and the rugby league match between Leeds and the Australians bagged by Wire TV, the centrepiece of the programme proved to be boxing from that Mecca of international sport, the Civic Hall, Wolverhampton. Even then they were second-hand highlights, the two bouts having already been broadcast live on satellite, so one careless flick of the Ceefax button told me the results, ruining whatever tension the fights could generate.

The main bout was the Commonwealth middleweight championship between Telford's Richie Woodhall and Canada's Jacques le Blanc. You could tell which one was Canadian because he was wearing a pair of shorts made out of his national flag, complete with red maple leaf over what boxers tend to call 'the family jewels'. Le Blanc was either boasting about his manhood, or getting in an obscure plug for French Canadian separatism.

Woodhall, presumably having decided that Union Jack shorts are naff even on boxers, opted for a pair of blue trunks with a throstle crest and the legend 'Baggies', a dedication to his favourite football club, West Bromwich Albion. Unlike his team, though, the shorts stayed up.

The chief interest in the fight was provided not so much by Woodhall's easy victory after a

seven-month lay-off, but by Jim Neilly's commentary. Neilly has recently taken over from the retired Harry Carpenter, who is now, by virtue of his longevity, deemed to be a sporting icon. Carpenter tended to play the stooge too often for my tastes, but he could usually be relied upon to deliver the odd good line when the occasion demanded.

Neilly, with an Ulster voice that is at the opposite end of the decibel scale to Ian Paisley's, seemed understandably tentative. His basic approach was to offer repetitive jabs of facts - Le Blanc had never been downed, or stopped, not even by Roberto Duran, we were told several times. When Neilly tried a flourish, it tended to land with an ineffectual thud, as with, 'Jacques le Blanc's middle name should be durability . . .' Really? Maybe he's just happy with 'Le'?

In any case, Neilly's commentating opportunities may be limited, as ITV and the satellite channels have a grip on most domestic boxing. And as a follow-up feature underlined, the four world heavyweight divisions look destined, once again, to come under the thrall of the Grand Puppet-Master, Don King, a man not noted for his willingness to do cut-price deals with public service TV.

Had he been watching, King would not have enjoyed the other principal dish in Sportsnight's buffet, David Gower bloodlessly trying to pin down Mike Atherton about his recent trials and tribulations. Ostensibly a prelude to the Australian tour, it had the feel of a gentle 'filler', with Gower's puckish interrogation style suggesting that he must think Torquemada is really a rather good vintage Rioja.

There was a brief flurry of smiling tetchiness when Atherton satirised Gower's notably relaxed views on training and net practice and Gower threatened to call in m'learned friends. But it was only half as interesting as it would have been if the BBC's official cricket correspondent, Jonathan Agnew, who called for Atherton to resign over 'Trousergate', had been sent in with the pliers.

The rest of the programme was made up of scraps. A Premiership update, via Sky, and, gosh, a live link-up with the Mansfield manager, Andy King, whose team had beaten Leeds the night before. This begged the question of what was dropped to make way for the tribute to the great Irish racehorse trainer Vincent O'Brien on his retirement. The homing pigeon championships?

In the event, the hurried dash to assemble library footage of O'Brien's kaleidoscope of achievements proved to be a decent stab, and Julian Wilson was hauled in on his way back from Goffs sale in Ireland to give a live endorsement. Thanks to Desmond Lynam's relaxing presence, 'Jules' was less pompous than usual.

The programme finished, as it had started, with low-key boxing, this time featuring Gary Jacobs in what looked like a pair of Bacofoil shorts. Now, fair enough, we all have dull, uninspiring weeks, but there remained the niggling thought at the back of my mind that BBC Sport is being stripped bare not just by satellite, cable and an aggressively populist ITV, but also by their own cost controllers. Indeed, Wednesday night suggested they were almost down to their last maple leaf.

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