ITV and Jonny hit all the right notes
Inverdale proves a steady hand at the tiller, with 2003 heroes to the fore
For the seventh Rugby World Cup in succession ITV began its coverage with a new version of World in Union and 24 years on from its debut tournament, one doubts there are many people left who instinctively sing the words to I Vow to Thee My Country along with the anthem. It would be almost impossible in any case, given the perky, vocally acrobatic re-working by Paloma Faith, but the same old song in yet another guise emphasises the riskfree sense of familiarity the broadcaster strives to foster.
To appease advertisers and battle the preconceptions of BBC diehards, the quadrennial rejuvenation of the format is always more spruce-up than radical surgery. Perhaps it’s the very least ITV can do to make up for the intrusion of prolonged commercial breaks during one sport that genuinely benefits from sustained analysis.
It would be unfair not to recognise a trio of positive innovations, though, from the recruitment of John Inverdale, an informed and experienced rugby anchor, to succeed Steve Rider and Jim Rosenthal, to the Tackle Hunger Together initiative and the deployment of a three-man commentary team, following the Australian model of sweating your assets. Joining BT Sport’s Nick Mullins in the box, Ben Kay and Lawrence Dallaglio avoided the ‘too many cooks’ pitfall by contributing only with discretion making it sound like a coherent conversation, not a battle to be heard.
Kay and Dallaglio were merely two of England’s 2003 heroes on show and the presence of Sir Clive Woodward and Jonny Wilkinson, typically the only member of the panel to wear a tie, alongside Inverdale, Jason Robinson manning the dreaded pitchside podium and Martin Johnson representing his country at the opening ceremony suggested a rather shallow talent pool as if nothing before or after really counts.
Perhaps it’s a case of overatonement after the Boys of 66 were treated so dispassionately, and one benefit is they all feel at ease in each other’s company.
The crowd singing along to Sweet Caroline before the formalities accentuated why ITV had opted to hire them and also accounted for the showing of that magic moment in Sydney for the umpteenth time: “Good times never seemed so good.” The yearning for an encore was the driving force of Inverdale’s line of questioning.
The host had started with a monologue as he walked down a virtual reality corridor of frankly elephantine, Albert Speertype proportions. “Ballet with brutality brings the world together,” he said, maybe straining a little too hard for portentous resonance. Yet he then settled into a difficult job well, eliciting enough for the novice viewer while not neglecting the knowledgeable audience that cringes when its intelligence is insulted.
Woodward trotted out his usual mantra – ‘be smart and pragmatic’ – Dallaglio his paradox – ‘be emotional but with cool heads’ – so it was left to Wilkinson to add some tactical insight in his dissection of George Ford’s performance against Ireland in the last of the warm-up games and his admission early in the second half that England’s pattern and strategy were too jumbled. Mercifully, unlike four years ago, they did not make the studio guest wrestle with the gizmos. Wilkinson would have been practising on the telestrator all year had ITV gone down the Gary Neville route. The ceremony itself was compassionately brisk and Prince Harry’s appearance furnished Inverdale with his best quip, that the hirsute honorary president of England 2015 would fit right in with the beards and quiffs of the dressing room.
There was a lot of clichéd psychobabble about ‘journeys’ in the pre-match interviews. For all that, though, ITV set out on theirs with hardly a missed step.
‘It was left to Wilkinson to provide tactical insight and observation’
Gold standard: Jonny Wilkinson was a must-see presence