Crying over spilt milk

November 7, 2003

The quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup are around the corner and after 40 games Channel 7 is still wondering why its telecasting of the tournament has not drawn the audience it expected. Of course, if anybody from that venerable Channel had realised that the commentators were out of their depth, then they would not have expected much.

But that does not tell the whole tale. The telecasts so far have shown that Channel 7 knows little about broadcasting sport- or at least rugby. It does not take a genius to realise that when there are 40 league games and just five or six teams who are in a different class then there will be plenty of lopsided games. It does not take much to figure out that there are bound to be tight games between some of the lesser lights, games which any rugby fan would enjoy watching.

But this does not appear to have struck Channel 7. Indeed, one doubts whether anyone out there knew anything about the standard of any but the top teams. There were lopsided scores in all the games telecast live. And there were some games which would have had the fans engrossed - but they were shown at ungodly hours on working days.

What Channel 7 chose to show its viewers was buffoonery of a high order - something called the Rugby Clubhouse, full of inane comments, silly interviews and stupid banter. The action, be it highlights or a full delayed telecast, came after that. England were stretched by Samoa but office goers saw little of the game. The US and Fiji played out a close game - once again in the wee hours, the television played to an empty lounge. Why did Channel 7 bid for the tournament TV rights at all?

There were ads at irritating moments when matches were shown live - bits and pieces, often crucial ones, were lost due to the excessive greed of the station and the ineptness of its technical staff. Poor quality telecasts and pathetic commentary were bad enough without adding the poor scheduling as well.

The lesser lights had a horrible draw as well - Italy had to play four matches in 14 days. New Zealand had the luxury of having 24 days to do that. Australia's games were all on weekends. South Africa and England had a good itinerary as did France. Why were countries like Tonga and Samoa invited then? Just to make up the numbers?

The best commentator among the clowns whom Channel 7 has put up, David Fordham, has done just one match live to date. The others, the incompetent ones, have had a field day. Are there no decent sports commentators in Australia, a country which boasts a great sporting tradition in many games? Bruce McAvaney is pathetic, Chris Handy is full of hot air and Gordon Bray can live up to his surname. Period.

Meanwhile, New Zealand have written their own obituary and are sure to make their exit when they take on South Africa in the last eight. With vice-captain Tana Umaga out of action since the first game, the Kiwis surprisingly chose to play Leon MacDonald at centre for the last group match against Wales, the only league game which they knew would require some real effort on their part to win. The other centre was Aaron Mauger, a force to reckon with on his day, but on that occasion a man returning from injury for his first game of the cup.

Wales played their hearts out and MacDonald gave them gaps time and again to waltz through the line. One can't blame him, he has never played at that position - he has been a fullback for most of his playing life and occasionally played on the wing. A full-time centre, Ma'a Nonu, sat on the bench. Mauger was out of sorts and that compounded the problem. The New Zealanders managed to squeak through with the scoreline, 53-37, giving no indication of how close Wales came to defeating them after 50 years.

But the coach John Mitchell is persisting with MacDonald for the game against South Africa. What's worse, he has removed Nonu from the bench and installed Caleb Ralph instead. It is extremely likely that these moves have been made because this is MacDonald's last year as an All Black; he will be going to Japan to play out his career and is unlikely to play in New Zealand again. Ralph has played on and off for the senior team. Nonu is the one who should be groomed to take over from Umaga. He may be prone to error on occasion but surely he will not be worse than MacDonald; his ability to burst through has been on display time and again in earlier pool games and he is a person who has played at centre all his playing life. The biggest plus point where Umaga is concerned is the bruising tackles he makes; Nonu is built like Umaga and tackles hard too. MacDonald is a lightweight when it comes to taking it to the opposition.

The All Blacks blew it against South Africa in the final in 1995; they did likewise against France in the semi-final in 1999. They lost the third place playoff to South Africa in 1999 as well and have never beaten the Springboks in the World Cup. South Africa are coming into the game after having shown up England's weaknesses and thrashed the one team - Samoa - which stretched the Englishmen. It is unlikely that they will besmirch their World Cup record against New Zealand.