Yes, TV pulls rugby strings
Rob Houwing’s ‘Tops on the Telly’ column
It’s not every day that around 70 000 people crammed into a stadium - and even with the floodlights working fine! - are told minutes before scheduled kick-off of a Test rugby match that it has been called off.
So South African TV viewers were as bemused as everyone else, I’m sure, when the plug was pulled on last Saturday night’s tasty France v Ireland Six Nations encounter just as SuperSport’s studio panel - anchor Gerald de Kock and guest Dion O’Cuinneagain, the Rondebosch old boy and former Ireland loose forward - thought the crossing to Paris for live coverage had come.
Needless to say there was a worldwide media backlash, with some particularly strong views coming from Peter Bills in the New Zealand Herald, under a headline: “Paris debacle reveals sport controlled by television”.
Personally, I found those words about as illuminating as something like “Cops can be corrupt”, given that TV’s influence has been massive - only increasingly so - across all major ball games for many years, but he did make some forceful points all the same.
With the scheduling of the game for 21:00 (22:00 in SA terms) in the middle of February, coldest month of the northern winter, the unusually deep-rooted “big freeze” always seemed likely to put the fixture at risk.
As Bills said: “Here was conclusive evidence, if still needed, that the Great God of TV now runs this sport; the IRB long ago ceded control to the men with money.
“Given the forecast for the weekend weather, there was no earthly reason why this match could not have been called off 24 hours earlier; only the arrogance of the rugby authorities prevented such sense.”
He was right on that particular score, but also showed a certain gullibility, I felt, in then asking: “Why is it New Zealand can’t play a major Test match now with a 15:00 kick-off? Families would hugely benefit and conditions (be) far more conducive to producing skills than one which begins at 19:30 on a cold, damp winter’s night.”
Admirable sentiment, in theory, but if the All Blacks were hosting arch-rivals the Springboks, for instance, they’d almost always have to - and even want to? - bow these days to the much larger, telly-watching constituency in South Africa, altogether less keen to awaken at 04:30 in our winter than around 08:30 or thereabouts.
Like it or lump it, TV revenue - and by extension, convenience of scheduling to serve television’s needs - dictates rugby’s health, not the loyal, sometimes long-suffering souls who drag their sodden shoes through stadium turnstiles.
I can’t see any change to that situation soon ...
Rob’s Awesome Foursome
1. Lions v New Age Impi, T20 Challenge cricket
Potchefstroom, Friday 18:00, SS2, CSN & SHD
Ah, first look at the new, much-touted seventh franchise! Paul Collingwood’s side are up against the Lions in “Potch” or their opener and it should give us a good idea of their competitiveness. Although usefully infused by some overseas names, the side has certain similarities to the Impalas, the team drawn from several minor provinces which campaigned in the Benson & Hedges night series between 1984 and 1994. Just for the record, the Impalas played their last match against Eastern Province in PE in January 1994 - featuring such names as Wayne Schonegevel, Finley Brooker and Gary Kirsten’s wicketkeeping younger brother Paul - and went down by 91 runs.
2. Kaizer Chiefs v Moroka Swallows, PSL soccer
Soweto, Saturday 18:00, SS4 & SHD
The break in the campaign was so prolonged that it almost felt as if a new campaign had just started on Wednesday night! In reality, of course, we are at a reasonably advanced stage of the season and this important encounter pits third-placed Chiefs against the team in fourth. Swallows come off a cobwebs-banishing victory over ailing Santos, whilst the Amakhosi were probably a little disappointed to be held 1-1 by Jomo Cosmos. (Mind you, it took a late Majoro strike just to bank a lone point.) Back in mid-August, Chiefs won the first-round meeting between these two old rivals 2-0 at Dobsonville.
3. Sunderland v Arsenal, FA Cup soccer
Sunderland, Saturday 19:15, SS3, Maximo & SHD3
Several Premiership teams play minnows in the fifth round of the Cup this weekend, but this is a decent-looking fixture between two sides both in the top league. The stakes have been raised quite a lot, too, from a Gunners perspective because this competition now seems to represent their last crack at silverware for the season, following their Euro first-leg fiasco in Milan in midweek. Even the most patient of Arsenal fans are now turning on long-time boss Arsene Wenger: I wonder what his future holds if the Black Cats - contrastingly resurgent under Martin O’Neill! - snatch this one? Last weekend these teams met at the same venue in the Premiership, with the visitors perhaps a little fortunate to claim all three points in a 2-1 win.
4. New Zealand v South Africa, 2nd T20 international cricket
Hamilton, Sunday 08:00, SS2, CSN & SHD
By the time you read this, the first Twenty20 international at Wellington may well be just about over, so instead here’s a punt for the second of the three at Hamilton - it’s an attractive accompaniment for your Sunday breakfast. Remember that this not being on South African soil, SABC television coverage sadly ceases to exist, so if you don’t have DStv you’ll have to knock on the door of a friend. This trio of games really marks the start of the Proteas getting their ducks back in a row for the ICC World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka later in the year, so how new faces like Richard Levi and Marchant de Lange (assuming he is blooded in this format) perform is going to be of major interest.