TV bias leaves a bad taste

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The Independent Online
Shortly before the England-France encounter I ventured to cast doubt on the theory that it would decide the Five Nations' Championship. England, I pointed out, had won the equivalent match in the last six championships (seven victories including the World Cup). Yet in this period, 1989-94, France and England had each won the competition twice, while Scotland and Wales had each won it once.

Suddenly everyone is agreeing with me. I do not flatter myself about the reason for this change. It has little to do with the merits of the argument. It has everything to do with maintaining an interest in the competition. Journalists, broadcasters, PR men, administrators, even players can all unite in this popular cause.

Not only England but Scotland also can still win the Grand Slam. And irrespective of what happens on Saturday, Scotland will still be able to go for the Triple Crown. So, of course, will Wales if they beat England.

I was going to place an early bet on the little-recognised reigning champions, not out of sentiment, but because I thought the odds would shorten over the week. My bookmaker, however, had not opened his book, saying the firm would do so on Thursday or Friday, when the final teams would be known.

We know that, unless some disaster occurs, the England team will be as announced. Ieuan Evans, Nigel Davies, Nigel Walker, Hemi Taylor and Emyr Lewis are back in the Welsh side. But the injury problem still hovers over them, like a great black bird flapping its wings. As I write, there are doubts about both John Davies and Mike Hall.

Hall's value is that his strength and speed act as a foil to Nigel Davies' more delicate qualities. For all his promise, I cannot see that the future Harlequin Mark Taylor is a full substitute, though he has not let Wales down so far. John Davies is, like Hall, very strong. Though his possible replacement, Huw Williams-Jones, is a good player (who can play on either side of the scrum, as can Mike Griffiths too), Davies' absence would be felt.

What is the matter? Is it sheer bad luck? In former times it could plausibly be maintained that Welsh rugby was an altogether rougher business than the English variety, and so more liable to bring about injury. No longer. I cannot believe that the Heineken League is any tougher or more demanding in other ways than the Courage League now is.

The prediction is that Neil Jenkins and Robert Jones will harass Mike Catt and the Underwood brothers with high kicks. France, it is said, did not test England in this way, which is true enough - indeed, confirmed by Pierre Berbizier afterwards. I hope that Jones and Jenkins, two of the most accurate punters in the game, aim for the corner flags rather than for three supposedly vulnerable individuals. England are strongest keeping the ball tight, moving forward in close formation in the middle of the field. Stop them doing that, and you are half-way to winning.

Most followers of the game will derive their impression of Saturday's match from television. The commentator will be Nigel Starmer-Smith, the summariser Phil Bennett. I trust neither will be as chauvinistic on behalf of their respective countries as Starmer-Smith and Bill Beaumont proved in the England-France encounter. In Paris the broadcasters for the France-Scotland match will be Bill McLaren and John Jeffrey. This is as unsatisfactory as the Starmer-Smith/Beaumont pairing of 10 days ago: though, because the people involved are different, I do not suppose it will be as offensively nationalistic on Scotland's side as the Starmer- Smith/Beaumont duo was on England's.

My proposal is that the commentator-summariser combination should be neutral. The two should come from one neutral country or, preferably, from two. Thus the Cardiff match would be covered by McLaren with Jeffrey or, better, Philip Matthews; the Paris match by Starmer-Smith with Beaumont, Bennett or, again, Matthews.

The system would break down for England v Scotland because the BBC has only two principal commentators who are English and Scottish. I know there are several excellent Welsh commentators. I have no doubt that Ireland can offer just as many. Is it not time for the BBC to break the McLaren/Starmer- Smith commentating duopoly?