Sport on TV: Stevo's fight against a league of stereotypes

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The Independent Online
THANKS to the efforts of the late Eddie Waring, the culture of rugby league has always been saddled with an 'Early bath/Ee-lad/Well I'll go to the end of our road' image, which may have had some truth in the strict geographical sense of the game's roots in the north of England. But now that it is established on an international scale, with our own league peppered with players from Australia, New Zealand, France and the Pacific islands, the old stereotypes will not wash anymore.

The game, as well as being big, intercontinental business, is just about the most physically demanding team sport that exists on this planet, with players requiring a phenomenal level of fitness. It can make the 15-man game look like hop-scotch, so perhaps that is the real reason the union authorities will not countenance a reconciliation of the two codes?

BSkyB's coverage attempts to reflect the new modernity of rugby league, showing live domestic games on Friday and Sunday nights, as well as the main Australian club matches throughout the week. In every sense the programme title, The Big League (Sky Sports), is deserved. 'Seize the Day' intones a deep, non-Northern voice as the titles roll, not to colliery brass-band, Hovis-ad themes, but to thoroughly energising rave music.

And throughout the match action, there is a welter of on-screen statistical information - tackle count, handling errors, possession percentages - which is not just window-dressing. It genuinely conveys the ebb and flow of a live match, adding substance to what the eye is trying to perceive. Yes, you pity the poor sod who has to log the tackles - there were 257 in the match I saw recently, which must have been like trying to count penguins in the Antarctic - but his, or her, consolation should be that the statistics are very much appreciated.

But the real star of The Big League - apart from the 26, highly mobile players on the pitch - is the programme's 'colour commentator', Mike Stephenson. Dubbed 'Stevo' to add familiarity, the man needs no help in establishing his credentials as an outstanding performer with the microphone. The former Dewsbury forward has spent time Down Under, and brings a New World enthusiasm to his work. Yes, the general tone of both his and Eddie Hemmings's commentary is hyper- ventilated - 'we said it was going to be warm, woh], turn up the heat]' - but there's more than just rabble-rousing to Stevo's form of delivery.

Like the Australian horse-racing commentator J A McGrath, he has a bag full of his own colloquialisms which don't have that recycled or show-off feel to them. The recent Featherstone Rovers v Bradford Northern match, which was chock-full of vengeful undercurrents because of the presence of several old Rovers in the Bradford set-up, produced a flurry of clattering tackles. 'There's some low-flying aircraft out there tonight]' Stevo exclaimed, capturing in one phrase the mayhem on the pitch. When a player was spitefully decked after scoring a try, Stevo saw the implications in an instant - 'if you want to put paraffin on an already large fire, that's just what's happened]'

Stevo has a laser-eye for the game's rougher moments, frequently spotting incidents before the action replay has had time to pick them up. His terse judgements - 'Spear tackle] Whuh] Tried to clean him out. Came round and smacked him] Crunch time]' - clearly let you know that you're not tuning into Come Dancing. But there is also an astute tactical awareness at work.

Unlike a lot of ex-players turned commentators who can see what is going on but can't, or won't, get the words out, Stephenson is a great analyser. 'Stevo's chalkboard' has a corny graphic, but it gives a clear picture of the tactics employed in a game whose pace is often too fast for both eye and camera.

Rugby league has come a long way since my early days of spectating at Liverpool City's ground with its cinder terraces, and the memory of the visiting Wigan winger Billy Boston taking a head in his mouth and then calmly spitting out a tooth on to the touchline. The Big League provides eloquent testimony to just how far the game has progressed, although I'm not sure what Boston would have made of a closing credit which reads 'Eddie and Stevo dressed by Yves St Laurent'. Eve St Laurent? Wasn't she that bird in Room at the Top?

Meanwhile the Horse Racing coverage (BBC) at Ascot last week continued its drift back to the Edwardian era. Julian Wilson remains the only living commentator who uses the word 'orff', and he's now been joined by Clare Balding, pukka daughter of the royal trainer Ian. Clare will be more at home here than she is reading the football results on Radio 5 Live - Stoke County was one of her recent creations, together with a link between Glasgow Rangers and Middlesbrough that went, 'still in Scotland . . .'.

Yah, well, they're both up North somewhere, aren't they?