Mick ClearyThu, 1 April 2021, 6:19 pm
Some broadcasters go out with a teary fanfare on retirement: John Inverdale brought the curtain down last weekend on 35 years of hosting rugby on television with cold pepperoni pizza in a hotel lobby in Salford.
The BBC’s rugby front-man across three decades will continue to operate in other sports such as tennis but has been obliged to step aside from the game that he “inherited from his father and is in his DNA” due to a conflict of interests now that he has accepted a role on the RFU as the representative for the 48 NCA clubs, the semi-professional tier below the Championship.
The 63-year-old leaves to something of a mixed reaction, ranging from praise for the accomplished, versatile broadcaster that he undoubtedly is to relief elsewhere that the ‘male, pale and stale,’ set-up of the BBC’s panel of pundits is breaking up.
“I absolutely endorse the need for diversity of race and gender but to get criticised for a recent line-up that included two Grand Slam winners [Sam Warburton and Jamie Roberts] and a World Cup-winning captain in Martin Johnson for the France-Wales game is bonkers,” said Inverdale.
“Of course there should be a Maggie Alphonsi on our screens but it is also about the context of the moment. I can see, too, that rugby does still have a perception issue, that it can be seen as a white, male, middle-class drinking enclave.
“The game does need to sell itself better. We had audiences of seven-eight million over the last two weekends even though England [with the biggest constituency] were not the draw card. Where do all those people go? Not to their local rugby club. Perhaps we need to change the word ‘club,’ which can give off a forbidding air.
“I know I’m officially one of the RFU ‘Old Farts’ now [a reference to Will Carling’s description of RFU committee men] and I’m white, male etc, but I can’t be anything other than how I was born. As Chris Evans was told by Terry Wogan when he took over that treasured slot on Radio 2, ‘Some will like you, some will not and there is nothing you can do about it.’”
Inverdale has suffered for his gaffes, notably the “horrible and idiotic” use of language when describing French tennis player, Marion Bartoli, after she won Wimbledon in 2013. Inverdale suggested that Bartoli had no choice but to work harder as she was “never going to be a looker” – an incident which prompted a torrent of complaints, not least from the then-Culture Minister Maria Miller, and a grovelling apology, which Bartoli accepted. The pair have worked together since and are on good terms.
“It’s there, it happened, it was wrong,” says Inverdale, whose many other actions point to an individual who is actually supportive of gender rights, a point underlined by his robust defence of colleague, Sonja McLaughlan who went public with her anguish at being abused on social media for her post-match interview with Owen Farrell.
“The way she was treated was awful, just awful,” he says. “All power to her for the way she does what is one of the toughest gigs in broadcasting.”
Inverdale has seen the BBC’s rugby portfolio diminish since the days when it was the sole broadcaster and he was the regular presenter on ‘Rugby Special’. In those days, he took to wearing a different rugby shirt each week to be more “down-to-earth, cool and inclusive”, the very things he is accused of not being these days. He was criticised by traditionalists for that look, too.
When he got a call asking if he would consider taking over the NCA role, Inverdale weighed up the pros and cons.
“Would I still be fronting rugby in eight years’ time (the length of his RFU position) when I am 71?” said Inverdale. “The answer to that is obvious. Could I go from poacher to gamekeeper by lending a critical perspective within the RFU for the future good of the sport? I’d like to think I can.
“Rugby is not without its issues but it is a fantastic sport, rooted in its communities, and offers so much. Broadcasting is changing. I would once go to the wall for free-to-air TV. Now that I have seen how many negative noughts there are on the RFU balance sheets, I can recognise another side to the argument.”
Inverdale, by dint of age and profile, may not be seen as anything other than one of the RFU blazers but he is a progressive at heart. He has been involved at one of the NCA constituent clubs, Esher RFC, for over 30 years, battling to use their £1million turnover wisely.
He rejects the notion that the game should revert to amateurism below a certain level to spare financial hardship, arguing that it would stymie “investment and aspiration”. He notes that club facilities, “leaky, smelly loos and the like”, need to be upgraded at many clubs if they are to attract new members as well as players. The semi-pro clubs should consider more “Friday nights under lights” fixtures to free up weekends.
“Rugby has to become more flexible and adaptable,” said Inverdale. “That’s the way of the modern age – for instance, to watch TV when you want, and not when schedules dictate. I want to help make rugby more accessible, more inclusive, more appealing and if that all sounds a bit hippy happy-clappy I make no apologies.
“Concussion is an issue that needs addressing, obviously, and if it means making tackling below the knee obligatory, then so be it. Who knows, football might need to ban heading if it prevents early onset dementia?
“I had a letter from a lady the other week asking if she should spread her husband’s ashes at Esher. I asked her why and she replied that in the early 50s he had played for Esher’s 15th XV and they had been the happiest days of his life. Well, much has changed but if we can keep that connection, that sense of enjoyment, for the next 70 years then we will be on the right path.”
An Old Fart with a modern sensibility.