Rugby’s battle to remain relevant not helped by disappearance of England games

England v Japan in the Rugby World Cup - Rugby's battle to remain relevant not helped by disappearance of England games

Even in the midst of this general election cycle, it will be difficult to find a press release loaded with more topspin than the announcement that England’s summer match against Japan – officially the Lipovitan D Challenge Cup match – will be broadcast on RugbyPass TV.

The Rugby Football Union proclaimed it an “exciting partnership” while a chap from World Rugby spoke of the “provision of world-class live content and unique storytelling” and “broaden[ing] rugby’s accessibility.” A more realistic assessment would be that it is another worrying sign of rugby’s appeal to mainstream broadcasters that an England Test match has ended up on a World Rugby subsidised website.

This may not be the highest profile match of the summer but it is one with perhaps the best narrative with Eddie Jones taking on England for the first time since his second most recent defenestration. Surely coverage of the press conference alone should be enough to entice BBC to bump a repeat of Money for Nothing from his early morning schedule. Apparently not.

The free to view element is welcome and the RFU privately claim to have turned down offers from pay TV broadcasters. Yet it is only free to view to the core English rugby demographic should they be able to download the necessary apps, register their details and remember their log-in in the early hours of the morning June 22. That is simpler for some than others, particularly those who are used to only viewing their sport via their traditional television. They cannot even fall back on radio coverage as the BBC will not be sending a team to the Far East.

Japan coach Eddie Jones will take on England for the first time since his sacking
Japan coach Eddie Jones will take on England for the first time since his sacking - AFP/Richard A Brooks

I am going to make a bold prediction and state that come 15 minutes before kick off on Saturday morning, there’s going to be an unholy amount of swearing up and down the home counties

Pah, they’re dinosaurs according to England Rugby’s marketing director Ewan Turney who has his eyes on the “younger audiences [who] are gravitating towards streaming platforms”. Presumably they are all going to be paying £200 for tickets to the England v New Zealand game this autumn which is going to fund the new Professional Game Partnership that is propping up Premiership Rugby. What’s that? It will actually be the old fuddies you don’t seem to value? Oh...

There is also a long and unhappy history of international sporting matches being streamed on websites – England v Ukraine in 2009 anyone? – that frequently end in disaster. RugbyPass at least has a history of broadcasting matches in the southern hemisphere. They are not a tinpot operation, in part because they are funded by World Rugby.

But this in itself raises another round of questions. Will their commentators and analysts be willing to call out a controversial refereeing decision? Or question the logic of World Rugby’s new laws? It is never quite clear what the degree of editorial separation is between the sport’s governing body and a supposedly separate broadcaster and accompanying news website. Certainly you cannot declare they are fully independent.

Another worrying development is the fact that Sky Sports will not be sending its own reporting team for the two-Test series in New Zealand. Again what does it say that one of our main broadcasters is prepared to cover potentially the last ever series against the All Blacks on the cheap?

Instead it will be left to a small band of newspapers – including Telegraph Sport – to provide boots on the ground, ask the tough questions and provide independent scrutiny for better or worse of England’s performances, on and off the field. That is probably just as well given that scandal never seems to be far away when England touch down in the Land of the Long White Cloud be that ferries, dwarves or good old fashioned sex.

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