What is our response in this country? It is one largely of indifference , tinged at the edges by a kind of churlishness

Click to follow
The Independent Online
We are in the middle of the most interesting and exciting rugby competition since the inaugural World Cup. It is something which a few of us have been urging over many years. Now it has actually come about. It has already produced at least one great match, several upsets and some unexpected successes. And what is our response in this country? It is one largely of indifference, tinged at the edges by a kind of churlishness.

I refer, of course, to the two European competitions that are now proceeding simultaneously, the European Conference and the Heineken Cup. And I ask myself: what on earth is the matter with us?

On Saturday I took myself off to Loftus Road to watch Wasps beat Toulouse magnificently and comprehensively. It was a great match. Wasps may also have been involved in another one, when they lost narrowly but deservedly to Cardiff, or so everyone wrote afterwards. Unfortunately I missed it. However, I was determined to reach the Queen's Park Rangers ground on Saturday, and saw the finest display be any side since South Africa put up 78 points against Swansea.

Certainly Wasps were magnificently supported, and responded to that support. As they did to the stadium itself, so different from the ramshackle surroundings of Sudbury. But the support was magnificent in volume rather than in numbers. The pre-match publicity said they were expecting a crowd of 12,000. It turned out to be something under 7,000. When Brive beat Harlequins on Sunday they were cheered on by 15,000 Frenchmen and French women. When Cardiff played Llanelli after the war, they could draw 20,000 to Stradey Park (whose capacity has now been reduced to 13,500).

Yes, I know perfectly well that the size of post-war sporting crowds - 30,000 to watch Middlesex at Lord's, 80,000 to watch Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough - can be misleading today. It may be also that if Wasps had not lost their previous two matches, against Cardiff and Munster, so putting themselves effectively out of the competition, they would have attracted a larger crowd.

Even so, Loftus Road is a perfectly convenient ground for Wasps' local supporters to reach. They were playing the undisputed champions of Europe. I should have expected a bigger turn-out.

On Saturday evening I switched on the BBC television news to see what they made of it. They did not make anything at all of it. There was some rather dreary football. "Ah," I thought to myself, "there's just time to show one of Nick Greenstock's tries." Not a try. Not a sausage. Not even a chipolata. "To summarise the main points of the news... " Peter Sissons said, and that was that for the night.

And yet this was the equivalent, as somebody wrote yesterday, of Arsenal beating Juventus 6-1. Such a result, in football, would not have been tucked away in the sports news. It would have been among the top items. But then, both the BBC and ITV news have always neglected club rugby.

The Five Nations' Championship, by contrast, they have always covered generously, perhaps over-generously. It is as if the international players concerned had sprung ready made out of nowhere.

Nor was there anything of Wasps' triumph on the following day. For the duration of the European competitions, it appears, Rugby Special is off the air. It has gone into hibernation. John Inverdale is no longer seen in our kitchens or sitting rooms on a Sunday afternoon.

I do not blame Mr Inverdale, any more than I do Mr Sissons for his neglect on Saturday evening. They are presenters, front men. The decisions are taken by other people entirely. But whereas television news has traditionally neglected club rugby, Rugby Special is - or is meant to be - for a specialised audience. This is the very time when the programme should have come into its own, not least because many of the European matches are played on Sunday or late on Saturday.

Two days ago, for instance, the programme could have shown selections from Brive v Harlequins and Wasps v Toulouse, with shorter extracts from Bath v Dax and Pau v Leicester. Again, not a chipolata. What has happened - or, rather, not happened - is not only bizarre, it is, I would argue, a breach of the corporation's obligations under its charter.

Comments