Aidan Smith: BBC can’t stand still on Six Nations

Rugby on the BBC: 'A bit too chummy and clubby and polite.' Picture: BBC
Rugby on the BBC: 'A bit too chummy and clubby and polite.' Picture: BBC
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IF YOU thought the esteemed Eddie Butler was ladling on the lyricism a bit more than usual on Friday – and if you thought his trusty bulldog Mooro had cranked up the snapping and yowling at rubbish refereeing and lousy game intelligence – then there might have been a very good, and very desperate reason, for this.

Similarly you may have reckoned that the state broadcaster’s coverage of the Six Nations continued yesterday with a snappiness not usually associated with John Inverdale’s slouchy, grumbly pub-chats – that in showing off the archive of past matches and chucking new features into the mix, the BBC is doing its darnedest to avoid being accused of complacency over one of its crown jewels.

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The Beeb doesn’t want to lose rugby like it has just lost golf. The Open Championship has just gone to Sky and Six Nations organisers have revealed they’re to consider offers from pay-TV for their next rights deal. As a famous old rugby commentator was wont to say, they’ll be talking about that one down at the Greenyards, in Ebbw Vale and Connemara.

Presumably Invers and his rugger cronies will be examining the shakedown from that golf contract to see what they can learn for their hour of reckoning, assuming it doesn’t just come down to money and the highest bidder, which might rule out the BBC in any case.

There was a lot of talk last week about the Royal & Ancient doing golf a disservice by restricting the Open to Sky’s paying sofa-spuds and how this would harm the sport’s appeal and cut participation numbers.

But then the R&A pointed out that numbers were falling anyway, with the Active People Survey showing that more than 200,000 men and women had put away their clubs since 2008. Rather than compound the problem by causing an even bigger drift, golf’s ruling body insisted the extra money from the £75 million deal which takes the Open to Sky from 2017 will be used to boost participation.

The R&A stopped short short of blaming the BBC for the slide, as if the issue was an especially tricky hazard or out-of-bounds, but others waded right into the middle of the rough – the Beeb’s coverage of the Open had been poor for years. The million viewers it managed to attract was a pathetic total. And, among the young, golf’s fuddy-duddy image was only enhanced by Peter Alliss, bless his Argyle-patterned socks.

Golf, I would imagine, is a tricky one for the determinedly modern BBC and I wonder how many tears are being shed about the Open in Corporation corridors, especially at its trendy, rock-the-provinces Salford base. There, the Beeb isn’t your auntie any more and it isn’t the patriarch of old. Rather, it’s trying to be your groovy older cousin in tight, bright trousers, a chap with lots of multicultural mates. I know Ian Poulter wears tight, bright trousers but maybe golf – historically a more egalitarian sport in Scotland than elsewhere but one which has struggled with issues of elitism and sexism – simply isn’t the BBC’s inclusive thing now, no matter the brilliance of Rory McIlroy.

You rather get the impression, though, that the Corporation doesn’t want to fumble the rugby ball. “The BBC cherishes these great sporting moments that bring the nation together, captivating people of all ages, and we are delighted to see rugby union’s centrepiece continuing to thrill audiences.” This is Barbara Slater, director of BBC Sport, in the promo for this Six Nations. Some would call the World Cup rugby’s centrepiece – ITV, for instance, which tends to screen the tournament. But the Six Nations has the heritage. Well, the Five Nations had the heritage, but you know what I mean. And it’s on what we used to call Channel 1, right? Where it should be.

Well, yes. I still miss Bill McLaren and think I always will. Butler is great, and even better at what you might call sport’s state occasions, or dusting down the files of what the BBC didn’t burn or lose for a special documentary, but rugby is obviously his big love. He speaks in tones which suggest he’s taking a pass from Richard Burton and setting up Dylan Thomas for a touchdown, but I like that. I also like Andrew Cotter, who commentates on golf as well, and it’s just the Scot’s luck that his twin specialities are under threat.

Jings, I even like Mooro. That is, I like being irritated by Brian Moore, which is surely the point of the man. He’s there, threatening to spontaneously combust, for our amusement. The tension between him and Butler is palpable, especially when Wales are stuffing England or when Mooro thinks he’s getting the upper hand, commentary-wise, and Butler appears to flick a switch and cut him off, and there should be more of this in the BBC’s coverage.

It’s a bit too chummy and clubby and polite and well-spoken, which will doubtless please these fellows’ old schoolmasters, but doesn’t really entertain me. There are too many nice, recently-retired backs with their carefully-knotted cashmere scarves, and not enough wild ex-forwards with cauliflower ears and provocative opinions. Maybe this doesn’t sound very BBC but Russell Brand has been popping up on Question Time for a while now (though I’m no fan of his). TV fads are ever-changing, as are the ways we watch. The most intriguing programme of the coming week is the drama Better Call Saul, a spin-off from Breaking Bad, which was set in Albuquerque, about a chemistry teacher-turned-drugs lord, and is only viewable through an on-demand internet streaming service (come on, keep up).

There promises to be lots of clips of vintage rugby this year. The companion show Six Nations Rewind is, if you like, a riposte to on-demand internet streaming services and seems designed to remind rugby’s blazers: “We looked after your game when it was amateur and dominated by public schools, when it could be quite boring with scorelines like 3-3, and we did this with love and with Hawick Balls. Try not to forget that, or us. Please… ”

Rugby, more than many sports and certainly more than golf, wallows in its history like those mudbaths of bygone days when referees let haymakers go unpunished. We love the game for its old, bent-nosed heroes as much as anything. The BBC knows this and can use it. But it cannot stand still like a XV’s last pick who’s stuck out on the wing. That’s not even true of rugby any more.