Six nations rugby coverage weathered by the BBC

March 23, 2010

The eleventh outing of rugby’s Six Nations ended on Saturday night in somewhat soggy disappointment. Italy collected the wooden spoon for the eighth time in eleven attempts – and have still only beaten Scotland (5 times) and Wales (twice) since joining the tournament in 2000. The Scots finally secured a much-deserved victory, thereby depriving the Irish of the Triple Crown in the final match at Croke Park, a result which meant that France had already won the tournament prior to kick off against England.

The rugby in Paris was engaging but ultimately dissatisfying. Anticipated roles were reversed as England played with a gallic flair, but lost to a French team who played as if their roast beef had yet to fully digest. In terms of entertainment, the better team lost, although the inability to even come close to scoring a try did little to dampen French celebrations at the final whistle – unlike the weather.

Interviewed on the BBC afterwards, England coach Martin Johnson just about honoured the traditions of the sport, refusing to make excuses for defeat – even the occasional fan could see that wasting two glorious try-scoring opportunities in the second half was reason enough. In truth, however, England were undone by a sudden downpour and some questionable refereeing decisions, the former limiting further forays by their re-energised back three, the latter handing France six points following scrum-induced penalties.

A game with such complex rules requires considered and clear analysis, perhaps explaining why the BBC employed more than half a rugby team to enlighten the viewer: John Inverdale and three studio guests top-and-tail a two-man commentary team, alongside a stadium analyst and a touchline reporter.

The technique of randomly switching amongst voices for comment during play is reminiscent of The Fast Show:  “Eddie.”  “Sonya.”  “Eddie.” “Austen.” “Eddie.” This may be excusable if all of the voices had something incisive – and different – to say. Asked at half time to explain the penalty decisions, Raphael Ibanez avoided the question with a je-ne-sais-quoi that would make his President proud. It was difficult to listen to Jeremy Guscott without wondering why he was wearing quite so many clothes. The biggest culprit, however, was commentator and ex-England front-row Brian Moore.

I first came across one-sided commentary when Jonathan Pearce worked for Capital Gold Sport in the 1980s – he perfected the art of speaking as a fan of any London team, and during derby matches seemingly favoured the draw. This style of commentary has remained popular ever since, and although the BBC rarely opts for such acceptable bias, Moore speaks like a man who is wearing his England kit under his suit. He should not be criticised for wanting his country to win, but he must get his facts right, and before next year he needs to learn the rules of his sport – one particular rant after the referree penalised England in the second half following a quickly taken line-out was finally derailed by the authoritative voice of colleague Eddie Butler, calmly clarifying the laws of the game.

BBC sport appears progressively more obsessed with large panels of former players spending increasing amounts of time chewing the fat. At a time when spending at the Corporation is under much discussion, a return to simple, relevant, incisive (and ideally short) comment – preferably from people with expertise in broadcasting not participating – is long overdue. It’s also cheaper. With knowledge of the weather seemingly more important than knowing the rules, what’s the likelihood that next year sees John Kettley added to the panel of analysts?