Richard de la Riviere, the author of ‘100 Days That Shook Rugby League’ (available to buy here), analyses BBC television’s coverage of Friday’s World Cup opener between Australia and England.
The BBC may have been heavily criticised for moving its World Cup coverage from BBC 1 to BBC 2 in favour of ‘Homes Under The Hammer’, but at least they gave Friday’s opening match between Australia and England a lengthy build up.
Given their treatment of Rugby League down the years, few viewers would have been surprised with a preview of just five minutes, but we were treated to over an hour.
Presented by Mark Chapman, the studio guests were the former England captain Kevin Sinfield, the ex-Kiwi international Robbie Hunter-Paul and the St Helens coach Justin Holbrook, all of whom certainly bring a wealth of Rugby League knowledge and expertise.
But how do they rate as pundits? Rugby League broadcasters in this country have always shied away from summarisers who might actually say something critical, in stark contrast to every other major sport. So when two-thirds of the chosen pundits have some sort of vested interest, it doesn’t bode well.
You know immediately that Sinfield, as an employee of the Rugby Football League, isn’t going to offer an adverse critique. He’s captained England very recently and has friends in the squad. And, sure enough, for much of the hour’s build up, he fielded questions as though he was responding in a press conference.
When he pointed out that Jonny Lomax “had an outstanding Four Nations last year,” it was at complete odds with all analysis from 12 months ago. It sounded like it should be part of an in-house motivational speech. As St Helens coach, Holbrook was never going to be in a position to offer objective analysis on his players. He was hardly going to say, as a neutral pundit might, that Stefan Ratchford should have been chosen at fullback ahead of Lomax.
As for Hunter-Paul, he doesn’t appear to be the most popular TV pundit around, if Twitter is any barometer. At least with him safely located in the Salford studio, there was no chance of him wandering onto the field.
Even worse than the choice of pundits was the inexplicable decision to ignore the colour and the vibrancy of the opening ceremony. The BBC instead chose to flood us with pre-recorded interviews. Over on Premier Sports, the ceremony was there in its full glory as past legends, music and colour added to a growing atmosphere in the stadium. Back on the Beeb, we didn’t even see the full coverage of the players walking onto the field, which is always accompanied by a crescendo of noise.
Nor was there so much as a nod to Rugby League’s glorious World Cup history. There have been 14 previous tournaments, not that you’d know that by watching Friday morning’s coverage. Neither was there any discussion on why we’ve failed to win one since 1972.
The other major cock-up may not have been the BBC’s fault. In the opening moments, the pictures were a few seconds behind the commentary, so viewers knew that Jermaine McGillvary had scored well before we saw him do it.
It was too irritating to watch so it was back to Premier Sports for me, until it was sorted out. But by that time – given the drab monotony of the BBC’s build-up – there may not have been too many new viewers still tuned in.