Sport on TV: Hostages of fortune and dream debutants

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The Independent Online
WE MAY have become used to televised sport being in the front line of the war between terrestrial and satellite broadcasters, but occasionally the appearance of newly won territories, the revelation of strange alliances, and the sudden parading of a captured hostage or turncoat can baffle senses familiar with the reassuring routine of permanent faces, voices and rituals. This week has seen changes which have you checking the front-door key and furniture to ensure that you are in the right house.

First came the arrival of live coverage of the Courage Clubs' Championship (Sky Sports 2, Saturday). Sponsorship has imposed the clumsy title Ford Maverick Rugby Union on the programme - presumably because 16 of the 30 players on view look like four- wheel drive trucks - but the coverage seems elegant enough from the excerpts I was able to see.

The opening titles, in which a referee and a linesman walk through four generations of rugby dressing-room - from sepia- tinted, whiskered players listening to a wireless to a fluorescent, hygienic space blessed with colour TV - are almost too clever. I think the subliminal message is that rugby coverage is emerging from the Dark Ages, but it could equally be that hairstyles don't matter much in this sport. Backed by thumping music - as if Carl Orff were being performed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo - they should ensure that those not already playing rugby, or out there watching it, are suitably tempted.

Fronted by a blazered Stuart Barnes - the gap between retirement from sport and the start of a media career grows ever shorter - Sky's approach is more sober than might have been expected. The commentators Miles Harrison (ex- BBC radio) and Jamie Salmon (former England international) don't go in for orgasmic screaming, but are a little more willing to toss aside the euphemisms when dirty play rears its head.

The BBC's much revamped Rugby Special (Chrysalis Sport for BBC 2, Sunday) seemed only too eager to take the issue of violence even further. Snazzy new credits featuring black-and-white action shots and Guardian-style graphics reach out and grab you by the lapels. Indeed, the shot of a gap- toothed forward inserting his slimy gum-shield is sure to be a winner come those winter afternoons when grandma is passing tea round the living-room.

'Same name, different style]' announced the new presenter John Inverdale in his red-and- white rugby shirt. Given Inverdale's other job as a Radio Five Live presenter, the choice of costume is dangerously close to Alan Partridge territory, but his debut was confident, despite his lack of international credentials - Inverdale turns out regularly for the wild men of Esher RFC.

The programme itself featured edited highlights of the same Bath v Bristol game that was seen live on Sky, but with Nigel Starmer- Smith at the mike. Deja vu was dispelled by the snappily edited features, particularly an item on rugby violence, which the journalist Stephen Jones suggested had 'almost become chic and fashionable'.

Well, it certainly seemed essential to this new version of Rugby Special, as we were treated to X- certificate action from the Welsh League - head-butts, late tackles, stomping - which prompted the thought that if they will do this to their own countrymen, what the hell are they saving for the English? More macho business seemed to be implied in the commentary on the match between the French Barbarians and the international version. We all know of the Frenchman with the unfortunate name, so extra care must be taken to avoid lines such as: 'And Condom goes in there]' Unfortunately, it wasn't.

But those used to the blokeish, sweatered bar-room chit-chat of the old programme will have been shocked to their socks at hearing a woman's voice presenting the 'A- Z of Rugby', one of several introductory features designed for new viewers. The enterprise is doomed of course, not because of the welcome female intrusion, but because these A-Z features run out of steam around 'K' or 'L', with the letters 'S' and 'B' being reserved for those who thought it up in the first place.

Finally, an old new face popped up on ITV. Bob Wilson, veteran of countless slots on BBC Breakfast TV, Football Focus and Grandstand when David, Des or Steve were on holiday, is the new anchorman for Champions' League (ITV, Wednesday), replacing the hapless Matthew Lorenzo, who hampered ITV's World Cup efforts. He will do a steady, if unspectacular job, especially when not lumbered with Denis Law, who is beginning to look and sound like a ventriloquist's dummy.

Wilson is a quick learner, too - launching into a sentence with 'We've eulogised . . .', a deadly smile of embarrassment spread over his face. Maybe it was the producer screaming in his ear, but the BBC phrase was swiftly altered to the more colloquial 'spoken highly of'. Words, not the truth, are the first casualties in this war.