When the World Cup comes around every 4 years, the excitement can be slightly dampened when we remember it is ITV who have the television coverage rights.
We have all become accustomed to watching most of our rugby internationals on the good old BBC, who for all their faults (not everyone loves Jeremy Guscott and Jonathan Davies), give most of us a feeling of ‘being at home’ with the coverage. Sky, and latterly BT Sport have changed the dynamics of the way game is covered. They have added more tinsel to the Christmas tree and provided a depth of analysis which the BBC does not, and that has been good to see. They also have those annoying half-time interviews with breathless players. But ITV…..well it’s rather like having to go to a stranger’s house for your Christmas lunch once every 4 years, when you would rather just stay at home.
ITV launched into coverage of the event with Paloma Faith’s murderous version of “World in Union”, and the star-studded array of pundits will have taken one last look at their well-prepared notes, which were doubtless filled with a multitude of stats, facts and clever one-liners.
ITV are determined to make their coverage a success, they will be sharing the 6 Nations championship with the BBC from 2016, so they need to prove their worth. To this end, they have unashamedly pulled out some big guns (most of them borrowed from other channels). John Inverdale was our lead presenter for the opening game, with analysis in the studio provided by Sir Clive Woodward, Lawrence Dallaglio and Jonny Wilkinson. So far, so England.
In the commentary box we had BBC and BT regular Nick Mullins assisted by even more England world cup winners in Ben Kay and Dallaglio (again), and finally on the touchline stood Martin Bayfield towering over the diminutive Jason Robinson who must have a right pain is his neck. And finally there was – wait for it – Francois Pienaar; our token voice looking in from an independent point of view. Representing Fiji perhaps? Needless to say he was given very little air time.
With the host nation kicking off the competition, it can come as little surprise that ITV filled our front rooms with retired England internationalists, but it did feel at one point that the entire 2003 world cup winning team might appear in camera shot. There was little sense of neutrality for a show which was of course beamed out beyond the borders of ‘England’s pleasant pastures’. There was much experience in the punditry line up, much knowledge to share with an audience just waiting to be fed a meal of intellectual wisdom from on high. However, Inverdale duly informed us that there will be many viewers new to rugby and therefore they would have to explain why England were awarded their first half penalty try;
“What on earth was going on there Clive?” he asked. Rarely will Sir Clive have had to provide such a simplistic answer, who’s answer seemed to be that a Fijian got “their body under the ball”.
The commentary team generally worked well together, although Nick Mullins has an annoying habit of giving us a snippet of information on every player when he touches the ball for the first time. As a result on several occasions he lost track of the unfolding action of the game. There is nothing worse than listening to a commentator who is trying desperately to catch up. We hear his voice shift from the steady tempo of providing background information, to the elevated and excited tones of a great try scoring opportunity, and all within half a second. I find myself telling him just to “watch the game!”
Also Mullins did himself no favours when he referred to Fijians back home watching the game, as being “around one television hoping the generator doesn’t fail them”. Nick may be getting a ticking off for that one!
The opening game itself was a huge physical battle and much of it was error strewn. It was ignited on 27 minutes when our old pal Niko Matawalu broke from the base of a scrum and ran close to 50 metres before appearing to touch down for a try. Referee Jaco Peyper awarded the score, only to refer to the TMO as a result of several big screen replays which he happened to see just before the conversion was taken. Jonny Wilkinson was spot on when at half time he said that there needs to be some protocol around just how far back a decision like this can be made. Woodward asserted that if even though it wasn’t a try, it should have stood. And although Fiji scored only 2 minutes later, the game in general was littered with too many TMO decisions. Things began to drag.
With so many familiar faces and voices from the BBC, Sky and BT Sport, I was starting to forget that it was ITV who were broadcasting, but then……half-time came around, and we were all invited to enter a phone in competition to win tickets, laptops and £2,000 amidst a flurry of ads. All we had to do was phone a number and we could be one of the lucky winners. At this point, I may as well have been watching X Factor.
Despite some panicked voices in the commentary team when Nadolo blasted through at least 3 English tackles with the score at only 18-8, England eventually delivered their bonus point victory. It was fitting that the TMO had the final word of the game when he confirmed that Billy Vunipola had managed to dot the ball down on the whitewash. And that was it, England 35 – 11 Fiji. The game never quite lit the touch paper as we hoped it would, and England will move on from this potential banana skin and look ahead to the next game against Wales which will demand an improved performance.
As for ITVs performance, well it fell way short of the glitter and depth which Sky and BT Sport provide. It was safe but unspectacular. Perhaps it is a compliment though to say that the coverage was not as bad as I feared it might be. At the end of the first evening’s entertainment and with 6 weeks to come, there is still some scepticism that that despite inviting everyone over for lunch, ITV still don’t really believe in Christmas.
For a bit of fun, here are my ratings for those who were on show;
John Inverdale (5) – solid and reliable, but as exciting as an actuaries night out. Looking forward to seeing Craig Doyle have a crack in this position.
Clive Woodward (6) – has been there and done it, but can’t help feeling he knows this, and dominates the conversation with a hint of smarm. His comment about fancying Watson one on one against Nadolo was way off the mark.
Lawrence Dallaglio (5) – didn’t really add anything of great value to the discussion.
Jonny Wilkinson (8) – talks with authority and in a way which makes you feel he’s in the dressing room with the players. Relevant, recent and appears to know his stuff.
Martin Bayfield (7) – competent as a presenter.
Jason Robinson (6) – didn’t feature much. Please give him a step to stand on next time.
Francois Pienaar (6) – never got a look in, but liked his comment about their opening game in the 1995 World Cup “the testosterone was bouncing off the walls and the roof”.
Nick Mullins (4) – he’s no Bill McLaren, struggling to keep up with the action, and verging on being disrespectful to the Fijian nation.
Ben Kay (7) – finds it difficult to remain impartial, but is detailed in his analysis of the game and cuts in with good observations.