Premiership TV deal gives fans a timely boost
Graham Jenkins
August 28, 2008

"Finally fans of English club rugby are going to get the kind of service their support of the elite end of the game rightly deserves."'s Graham Jenkins rejoices

The great and the good of English rugby gathered in a swanky London hotel earlier this week to herald the start of the new Guinness Premiership season.

With a host of new commercial deals, Premiership rugby remains a hot property both on and off the field - but it is the ordinary fan who has most reason to celebrate with the long-awaited return of a weekly highlights show to terrestrial TV.

Finally fans of English club rugby are going to get the kind of service their support of the sport, at all levels, rightly deserves.

From this season ITV, which has held the rights to the Rugby World Cup since 1991, will produce a weekly, hour-long highlights show that will go out on ITV4 at 6.30pm every Sunday through the season.

And for those yet to move into the digital/satellite world, this show will be repeated on ITV1 during the week.

The value of the deal was not divulged by Premier Rugby officials but for many fans it is priceless.

As fans we've berated anyone who would listen and grown more and more frustrated with the BBC's lack of commitment to the club game.

With the rights in their hands all they could muster this past season were half a dozen sporadic half-hour shows featuring just one game.

Simply not good enough. How many hours of Olympic coverage have we had to sit through the last few weeks?

As far as the Six Nations are concerned you can't go wrong with BBC television.

Wall to wall coverage with ordinary programming swept aside, enough statistics to keep the most avid fan busy and a great plethora of pundits to equally engage and enrage the viewer.

For those lucky enough to have a 'red button' there was also interactive extras if you couldn't get enough of Invers, Jerry, Jiffy and the Pitbull.

We can look forward to more of the same until at least 2013 under that deal with the Six Nations Committee.

But they should be ashamed of their recent treatment of the Premiership during a season regarded as the best-ever and one that coincided with a headline-grabbing run to the Rugby World Cup Final by the national side.

It wasn't always that way of course. Since the 1960s they had nurtured the club game with Rugby Special.

Many of us were brought up with this Sunday afternoon rugby fix with the dulcet tones of David Vine, Cliff Morgan, Chris Rae, Nigel Starmer-Smith and more recently John Inverdale guiding us through the latest highlights.

This past season armchair fans across the country became disillusioned yet further with the programme pushed around the network schedules as if its producers were trying to shake off the few loyal viewers that remained.

Changing priorities was the key according the BBC who cited their lack of a dedicated sports channel - what about the word behind the red button? - and a lack of an appetite for rugby highlights.

They were happy to offer us extended IRB 7s Series highlights but I know what I would rather watch.

To be fair fans can now get that same fix across any number of platforms - including the internet - and they need not wait in most cases.

But the Premiership was an exception with Sky Sports holding the live rights and not even the league's official site utilising the web highlights.

Sky's Rugby Club offered a pay-to-view option for highlights but the terrestrial viewers were left empty-handed.

"The foundation of everything is the quality of rugby we are putting out," Jon Varney, PRL's commercial director was reported as saying. "We are entering a very exciting phase for the club game."

Exciting times indeed for the Premiership moneymen who find themselves with a great product that is about to get exposed to a previously untapped source of revenue.

Let's hope that ITV come up trumps with their presentation, fronted by housewives' favourite Craig Doyle, and build on the good work they've done on the Rugby World Cup stage.

Talking of the game's showpiece event, could the BBC be keeping their powder dry in a bid to capture the sport's biggest prize?

BBC officials reportedly put the International Rugby Board's nose out of joint with a paltry offer ahead of the 2003 tournament but they were there to lend support to the initial tournament in 1987.

The rights for Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand have not yet been awarded and with the profile of the event at an all-time high demand is set to be high.

ITV secured the 2003 and 2007 rights for what seems like a remarkably cheap price of £40m. You can rest assured that price will be nowhere near what it takes to secure the next two.

Especially as according to IRB economics hosts will likely have to stump up £100m and £120m for the right to host RWC'15 and RWC'19 respectively.

Since effectively ruling themselves out of the RWC rights equation several years ago the BBC have had to sit back and watch England's most prolific period in international rugby.

They would have surely been kicking themselves as England wrote their way into the record books with victory in Sydney and defeat in the final in Paris.

Another multi-tournament deal is likely to be in the offing for the UK and with England amongst the favourites to get the nod to act as hosts in 2015 or 2019 the IRB could be forgiven for seeing nothing but pound signs.

Should the tournament be awarded to a country with an agreeable timezone for UK broadcasters, Monsieur Lapasset and co will be rubbing their hands with glee.

And let us not forget the great work being done by Sky Sports who provide fans with their 'live' fix of Premiership rugby. They have already confirmed 14 live games for this season with more to come.

In addition, their coverage of the international game and Heineken Cup has raised the bar and you will only be able to watch the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa with them.

Bring it on.

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