I spent many long afternoons as a child forced to play rugby in Lancashire mud. There are few things more miserable – or, if you like, character-forming – than chasing a leather ball around a wet field in a freezing wind, wearing boots like lead and with no feeling in your hands.
I’m not bitter. In fact, for some reason, I still love the game, although over the past few weeks of the World Cup I’ve realised whatever scars my rugby education left me with, it didn’t leave me with a firm enough grasp of the rules.
Not for the modern game of rugby union, which is so legally fraught the England players have a QC with them on tour – I kid you not – to defend them for on-pitch misdemeanours. (Off-pitch misdemeanours are another matter.)
Take rucks. Rucks are what a rugby game mostly consists of – not the weaving runs you spend 80 minutes hoping for – and they’re a madhouse. As soon as a player is tackled and goes to ground, it turns into a tightly regulated massacre with a ball implicated somewhere or other. Men built like mountain ranges batter each other in a heap. As eyeballs are secretly gouged and studs raked, it looks like a living hell.
Then out of the blue, the ref blows his whistle for an infringement and, let’s be honest, 99 per cent of us watching have no idea why. That’s when we need a decent commentary team to enlighten us.
And that’s when ITV’s coverage lets us down. Their key pairing of Nick Mullins (commentator) and Phil Vickery (summariser and former England World Cup winner) are about as much as use as getting Shaun Ryder to explain the Euro debt crisis.
The rugby authorities long ago equipped the refs with radio-mics so we can in theory (if Nick and Phil pipe down) hear them explain why they’ve given a penalty. The mics also bring us splendid TV moments where we eavesdrop as the ref gives players – usually forwards twice his size – a good talking to.
This being rugby, the players don’t answer back but accept their tellings off with heads slightly bowed and looks of puzzled innocence, like the Kray twins at a first communion.
The trouble is, we usually miss this because we’re either watching a replay or listening to Phil say something along the lines of “They need to give the half-backs good, clean ball”, the kind of tactical insight applicable to every single rugby match ever played.
If we’re going to get fully immersed in the quarter-finals this week (where the home nations involved must win or go home), we need a bit more help from these guys.
It’s hard enough to comprehend anything much at 7am on a Saturday morning, let alone the breakdown laws of rugby union, so help us out, Nick and Phil, and say something useful.