Watching habit due for change

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THE SUCCESS which clubs such as Leicester and Bath have achieved in building up a local following, together with the large and enthusiastic crowds that turn up for First Division league matches, tend to conceal that rugby in England is two nations: the followers of the international matches, and the true fans.

Naturally the fans follow the internationals as well. But the majority of those who sit before their television sets every other Saturday afternoon from January to March hardly ever make the journey to their local club.

Last Saturday, for instance, I made the short trip to the Richmond Athletic Ground to see Richmond play Blackheath in the Pilkington Cup. This, as I knew beforehand (and as the Tannoy announcer reminded me several times in case I had forgotten), was the oldest club fixture in the history of the game.

I should have expected a fair crowd, well into four figures, even if the Cup had not been involved. The sole rival attractions in London were London Irish against Oxford University and Wasps against London Scottish, and neither of these was a Cup match. There was nothing on television either to make you stay at home except the rugby league international between Great Britain and New Zealand.

And yet the Richmond stand was, I estimate, a 10th full. The crowd standing around the touchline in the sunshine might have been watching a friendly match, with nothing at stake.

Rugby Special surprised me pleasantly by showing a clip from this belatedly exciting match, which Blackheath won by two points, having scored 20 in the second half to Richmond's three. However, the programme quite rightly concentrated on the London and North divisional game (clearly of more interest to armchair selectors in the south than to those who actually live in the north) and also on the Wales and Japan game in Cardiff.

But on the Saturday Australia had been in action against Aquitaine at Dax, while on the Sunday France were playing Romania at Brive. Yet, as far as I could see, neither of these French matches was shown on British television.

This is not an adverse criticism of Rugby Special. It is a programme which has improved immeasurably in recent years and is now perhaps the most intelligent of all the current sports programmes. In an hour it cannot cover everything.

Indeed, the chief criticism which can be made of it is that it tries to cover too much. In so doing it gives a misleading impression of the standard of the rugby or, at any rate, of the excitement provided by the match. This has been particularly true, or so I am told by my often disillusioned countrymen, of its otherwise excellent coverage of the principal Welsh club matches.

No, my grumble is different, and is not at all directed at Chris Rea, his colleagues and those who put him on our screens. Wales and Japan should have been shown on the Saturday, not necessarily on BBC1 (for Great Britain and New Zealand was clearly worth showing), not necessarily live either, not necessarily on BBC at all. Exactly the same applies to the French matches on Saturday and Sunday.

The most significant development recently has been that, with the World Cup, the BBC lost what had appeared to be a natural, almost god-given monopoly to cover rugby internationals. I often wonder why Rupert Murdoch does not also try to move in as well.

Perhaps he is already planning to do so. The followers of the Five Nations' Championship who sit fortnightly before their television sets from the beginning of January to the end of March are predominantly affluent males covering the entire age span. I should have thought they made up a desirable audience for advertisers.

Altogether, I am surprised that the BBC has managed to hang on to the Five Nations for as long as it has. I shall be even more surprised if Murdoch does not pounce before too long, and I shall with the utmost reluctance have to buy a satellite dish.