Sunday, March 9, 2008


The specialist rugby writers are like the long-serving cast of Coro, Eastenders or Neighbours. They are the journalistic equivalents of the actor who plays Ken Barlow, smug and content in their own little world and without the ability, or the ambition, to move on to new challenges. Most of them have been around as long as William Webb Ellis.
When someone like Stephen Jones of the Sunday Times quotes a CV that includes something like five World Cups, 20 Five/Six Nations and six Lions tours my reaction is not to admire his staying power but simply to think: "You sad bastard."
Unlike football, there is little or no competition among the national rugby union press.
For years they had been staying in the same hotels, attending the same press conferences, interviewing the same players . . . and producing the same stories. They all sing from a universal hymn sheet written and supplied by the various clubs or unions. They are corralled and shepherded like tourists in the Kremlin.
For proof of this, we had only to listen on Saturday to Robert Kitson, of the Guardian, who made a rare TV appearance to give his views on the Danny Cipriani affair from Murrayfield where a Cipriani-less England were taking on Scotland.
Asked for some insight into the dropping of the Wasps wunderkind, the best Kitson could offer was: "Well, we'll have to wait for the facts to emerge."
Excuse me, Mr Kitson, but isn't that your job? Aren't journalists employed to uncover the truth and inform readers? Or are you paid simply to swan around from Rome to Paris to Edinburgh every 12 months, with the odd tour to sunny climes in between?
So far, all we have had from rugby journos - and ex-players playing at journos - is ill-informed comment about the rights and wrongs of dropping Cipriani, without a single fact.
Kitson's presence in Edinburgh - and that of every other "chief rugby writer" - also begged the question: Why? The Scotland-England match was between two also-rans and Wales were playing for the Triple Crown in Dublin on the same day.
Still, the Calcutta Cup clash did yield one of sports broadcasting's greatest faux pas, relayed live to millions of viewers.
"And over to Jill, down there where it's wet and sticky," said Eddie Butler.
Touchline interviewer Jill Douglas's husband, I am delighted to point out, played for Scotland and is somewhat younger, and bigger, than Butler.


Can someone at the Independent - preferably with more than a couple of years in journalism - PLEASE take Angus Fraser to one side and demonstrate how to compose an intro? And while you are at it, Simon Kelner, can you also tell him that any half decent writer should be aware that adjectives are the curse of modern sportswriting?
Here's the former England trundler on Ryan Sidebottom's Hamilton hat-trick:
"Ryan Sidebottom became the eleventh England bowler to take a Test hat-trick in a remarkable spell of bowling that produced a sensational turnaround in the first Test."
Eleventh? Hardly unique, nor even particularly remarkable.
Like many of his ilk - and cricket's press boxes are full of them - Fraser attempts to mask poor writing with useless statistics, none of which belong in an opening paragraph.


Saturday's "guest predictor" in the Guardian (if you haven't caught this it's a bit of typical Guardian furniture in which notables are paid to make fools of themselves with some sporting soothsaying) was Krishnan Guru-Murthy who, as it turned out, was not a Guru at all.
He had Chelsea to win 5-1 at Barnsley, Manchester United to beat Portsmouth 2-0, Liverpool to beat Newcastle 1-0 and Blackburn to beat Fulham 2-0.
Now you know why the Guru is still slaving away as a humble newsreader on Channel 4, rather than sunning himself in happy retirement in the Seychelles.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Provincial newspapers have always had to struggle by on minimal editorial resources. It shows in the quality of their writing staff and it shows in the breadth of their coverage.
A glance at the rugby pages in today's Scotland on Sunday is a microcosm (and the SoS microcosm is getting even more micro by the week) of the problems sports editors in the sticks face under the strictures of the bean counters upstairs..
As with every other native (and that includes players, fans and coaches) charged with following the fortunes of Scotland, "chief rugby writer" Iain Morrison can't let an intro go by without a mention of the brave boys in blue and the number of "positives" to take from another thumping defeat. Morrison is an abysmal chronicler of events and despite having played for his country, and presumably having a few contacts, still can't produce a half-decent news story. He is as much a journalist as, say, the newpapers' statutory columnist Nathan Hines, whose ghosted piece also concentrated on the "positives" of the Dublin drubbing.
Morrison shared the stage with former SoS sports editor Richard "Freebie" Bath who maintains some sort of droit de seigneur there and provided the match report of the France v England match from Paris.
I say provided, because it goes without saying that Bath wasn't in Paris; he was 1,000 miles away in Edinburgh alongside a TV box and thus, with the benefit of the BBC's prolonged action replays, able to inform us that Jamie Noon knocked on in the build-up to England's first try.
I was in the Stade de France and this was impossible to spot with the naked eye in live action.
So my newspaper (and several others) spent around £1,000 (and I haven't done my exes yet) on a weekend in Paris only to be "scooped" by a hack who wasn't even there.
Let's pray the bean counters don't spot this, or we'll all be covering major live sport from our living rooms.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Who on earth needs Frank Gorshin, Mike Yarwood or Alistair McGowan when you can tune in to BBC Sport?
"Super Saturday" kicked off with Football Focus and the great Garth Crooks, who does a Burt Lancaster (as Elmer Gantry) which has to be seen, and heard, to be believed. Elmer was succeeded by Sir Matthew Pinsent, impersonating an investigative reporter, and on the loose in Beijing at licence payers' expense.
Backed up by Gabby Yorath dolled up in her winter finery a la Julie Christie in Dr Zhivago, Matty gave us the lowdown on Human Growth Hormone, how to get it, and where, along with the startling revelation that it can't be detected.
Quite apart from the fact that I can get this insider's info (and a month's supply) with a couple of clicks of a mouse and without leaving my seat, if Matty really wanted to give us a new slant on a doper's Olympics all he had to do was have a word with Jurgen Grobler, his former GB rowing coach who knows a thing or two about this subject. On then to the rugger with Sonia (Hyacinth) McLoughlin. Sonia's interviewing technique consists of shouting, at around 115 decibels, one of two questions: How disappointed are you, Nick/Frank/Brian? Or, how delighted are you, Warren/Eddie?
The girl will go far, but probably not as far as Jill Douglas, unsurpassable exponent of the How? question.
Finally, from Paris came the curtain act, Laurel and Hardy, aka Eddie Butler and Brian Moore. One thing has always puzzled me about Eddie. How can he spend 80 minutes commentating on an international rugby match while at the same time producing 1,000 words or so for the following morning's Observer? Or does he simply, as I suspect, concentrate on his newspaper work and get Alistair McGowan in to call the match?


Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing at the Daily Star? Does the sports desk ever converse with the news desk, or vice versa? Are editorial conferences spent on anything else apart from debating the size of the bazookas on page one?
Like, for example, content?
Page One today reveals that Cheryl Cole is set to spoil "love rat" husband Ashley's big Wembley day and shun the Carling Cup final between Chelsea and Spurs at Wembley tomorrow.
The back page (just across the fold) reveals that Cole isn't going to play in the Carling Cup final between Chelsea and Spurs at Wembley tomorrow.
Is there anyone still alive on the Star, that disabled asteroid which should have been shot down long ago?

Monday, February 11, 2008


When I started out in this daft business the first lesson hammered into me by my first sports editor was that when you wrote a headline the words had to be reflect what was in the intro. The second was that you always include a name.
Whichever Sunday Times sub came up with England Can't Cut the Mustard to illustrate England's one-day cricket defeat by New Zealand got it right on the second point and wrong on the first. Mustard wasn't mentioned until the third or fourth par and the story wasn't about him.
But which sub could resist the possibilities offered by his name?
There are obviously sportsmen and women who lend themselves to abuse by production journalists stricken by pun fever - and Mustard is one of them. Other prime examples are anyone called Bird, Rose or King. The former Celtic player Rafael Scheidt also comes to mind. There are just as obviously other names that will remain immune to puns, notably Mustard's team-mate Dimitri Mascarenhas and Celtic's Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink.
The greatest news pun headline never written (as yet) is the one to announce the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu - Ta Ta Tutu.
The greatest sports pun we will never see - regrettably since their careers did not overlap - concerns the dream scenario of a punch-up between two psychotic second row rugby fowards, Danny Grewcock of England and Jean Condom of France.
The Englishman is a karate black belt and would undoubtedly have won, but I guarantee the headline, Grewcock Fills In Condom, wouldn't have appeared in the Sunday Times.