PETER BILLS was glued to his TV set over the first weekend of the Rugby World Cup. He just wishes there were fewer “experts” crammed into the commentary positions
If the first weekend of the Rugby World Cup was a blizzard of players, penalties, collisions and quotes, then you have to say UK rights-holders ITV matched it with their own army of commentators and experts.
At times, you felt ITV was just itching to get their own XV onto the field.
If you hadn’t won dozens of caps or coached a World Cup team, a Lions team or a national side, you had no chance of making an appearance as a pundit. In no particular order, we had the likes of Jason Robinson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Shane Williams, Ben Kay, Martin Bayfield, Gareth Thomas, Scott Hastings, the knighted Ian McGeechan and Clive Woodward, the (doubtless) eventually to be knighted Jonny Wilkinson, Brian O’Driscoll, Francois Pienaar, Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Lynagh, George Gregan and a multitude of others offering their two-penny worth.
Among the few names not called into action by ITV were Prince Obolensky, Bleddyn Williams, Carwyn James and Jack Kyle. Perhaps the only reason for their absence was that they are all, sadly, deceased.
The trouble with this star-studded line-up is that they are all former players, not former commentators or seasoned professional broadcasters. So the standard of coverage was somewhat patchy.
Some stated what Basil Fawlty once called “the bleeding obvious”, some offered bland comments and few understood the concept that you talk behind a TV picture only when you have something to add that will enhance the viewers’ pleasure or knowledge. The late, great Richie Benaud understood this better than anyone, but on the first weekend’s evidence, playing 50 times for England, Wales or anyone else does not necessarily qualify you for this role.
For me, the one guy who came over better than most was Gareth Thomas for his insight, knowledge and calm delivery. In terms of presenters, John Inverdale, who knows rugby and has a journalistic background, stood out for the way he immediately highlighted the mess and muddle of the TMO – Television Match Official- process. Inverdale picked it up at half-time in the England v Fiji match on the opening night and, as he suggested, the issue became the No1 talking point from the opening weekend. At least, until Japan turned over the South Africans.
You have to say the opening titles and scenes were about as subtle as an old-style saucy postcard from the seaside. In front of the castle at Medway, in Kent, all sorts of individuals had been drafted in to attempt a version of the haka.
This scenario of unknown people waving their arms, slapping their thighs, rolling their eyes and lolling their tongues was enacted against the warbling of the World Cup’s theme tune, “The World in Unison”.
How much nicer (and simpler) it could have been to record a South Sea island choir on a beautiful Pacific beach at sunset, singing the tune.
Of course, it is four years since ITV last had live coverage of a rugby tournament to offer, when they previously showed the World Cup. So their commentary and presentation teams are a mixture of faces and voices more familiar to us from the BBC, Sky Sports and BT Sports’ coverage of rugby, with commentators at Twickenham and Wembley, Cardiff, Gloucester and Brighton. As with the stadium-full of experts, we had, in no particular order, commentators Nick Mullins, Miles Harrison, Martin Gillingham, Jon Champion and Simon Ward.
ITV also appeared to have fallen back on using production teams experienced in covering the game for the other broadcasters, so there were no TV horrors like missing a try to go to a commercial break. Indeed, such was the excitement surrounding the match in Brighton between Japan and South Africa that the broadcaster stayed with the action and reaction, over-ran and cancelled regional bulletins in my region.
Sometimes, though, less is more. When the weekend schedule finally finished, we were left wondering who would next walk into the studio as the new expert – that renowned Italian lock S Berlusconi? Or maybe that gritty, super-fit former Russian scrum half, V Putin?
The one-time playing greats all offered a similar line. It might have been nice to get the views of others, albeit briefly, such as a few people from the crowd and the media. It would have offered some variety.
Rugby has so many stoppages these days, there is ample room for such innovations.
The trouble was, with all the same sort of people giving their views, it became rather similar. The one “expert” who would really have earned his corn this first weekend was a former referee who might have helped unravel the shambles of the TMO system.
But no-one had thought to invite one of those…
- Veteran rugby writer Peter Bills has reported from every Rugby World Cup. His autobiography, 400 at 5.30 With Nannies: Inside The Lost World of Sports Journalism is published by Pitch, and is reviewed here
- The SJA is the largest member organisation of sports media professionals in the world. Join us: Click here for more details
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UPCOMING SJA EVENTS
Tue Oct 6: Entry forms for 2015 SJA British Sports Journalism Awards published
Tue Dec 1: Young sports journalists’ networking drinks – Details to be announced