What will ITV's coverage of the Rugby World Cup be like?
The tournament is vital to the broadcaster, and here's what fans and converts to the game can expect
The Rugby World Cup kicks off this week, and promises to take the profile of the game to new heights. But it won't just be new converts to the sport on a learning curve, seasoned rugby fans will also be getting used to the television coverage, which is once again on ITV.
Live rugby has been the preserve of the BBC, Sky and BT Sport in recent years, but the commercial broadcaster has a history of covering World Cups and is not so much dipping its toe in the water ahead of its Six Nations deal with the BBC, as diving in at the deep end, with live coverage of every single match of the tournament.
So, why has ITV entered the arena and what will the channel's coverage be like?
The tournament organisers "are determined the tournament will grip the entire nation", says The Guardian. For six weeks rugby will have "an unprecedented hold on the nation's media" and ITV "is determined to draw mass audiences in weekend prime time and use the tournament as a launch pad for its Six Nations rights deal from next year".
ITV will also be desperate to make a fist of it for another reason. "The commercial broadcaster, which has the exclusive UK rights to the tournament, has experienced a 5 per cent drop in viewing share so far this year," notes the FT. "Several key programmes have flopped, while others have lost audiences to BBC and Channel 4... But the Rugby World Cup, which starts on Friday, promises a particularly upmarket demographic that the broadcaster has struggled to attract."
In short, it cannot afford to drop the ball.
Not everyone is looking forward to it. TV critic David Munday of the Plymouth Herald warns his readers: "Every rose has its thorn and I am fairly confident that the prickly protrusion growing on the stem of England’s upcoming Rugby World Cup will be the television coverage... Anyone who has watched ITV's World Cup, Champions League or FA Cup coverage in recent years will know how poor they can be."
Who's in the studio?
With so much at stake ITV has drafted in some big names.
John Inverdale will be the channel's lead host and will be backed up by fellow anchormen Mark Durden-Smith and Craig Doyle.
The real talent is to be found among the pundits, who will include Jonny Wilkinson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Jason Robinson, members of England’s victorious 2003 team, and the coach Clive Woodward. Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll, former Wales captain Gareth Thomas, former Scotland coach Sir Ian McGeechan will also be watching the matches.
There will also be analysis from World Cup winning captains Sean Fitzpatrick of New Zealand, Australia's Michael Lynagh and Francois Pienaar of South Africa. Other faces include George Gregan, who won the trophy in 1999, England Women World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi, and former England international, David Flatman.
And the commentary box?
There will be some familiar faces at the matches too, with well-known commentators including Jon Champion, Miles Harrison and Nick Mullins behind the mic. ITV's roster of co-commentators includes former players Geordan Murphy, Scott Hastings, Shane Williams and Ben Kay.
Cult TV personality Gabriel Clarke leads the team of pitch-side reporters which also includes Jill Douglas, Fran Donovan and Martin Bayfield.
Will there be any innovations?
ITV claims to have been working on its coverage since 2011 and there will be the kind of saturation coverage sports fans have come to expect, with spidercams floating above the play and cameras on rails running along the sidelines. Referees will also be fitted with camera and there will be specialist 'cherry-picker' line-out cameras and tracking cameras behind the posts giving a perspective of oncoming play.
Each stadium will have at least 30 cameras, and the bigger arenas will have up to 40.
A mobile app has also been released offering news and match highlights, plus statistics, facts and figures. During live games fans will be able to vote on Television Match Official decisions and other crucial moments in real time. Games can be watched live via the ITV Player app.
In London ITV has also teamed up with Transport for London to relay live match information to commuters on the underground using information boards.
What about the adverts?
The biggest gripe is likely to be about the adverts, which many fear will get in the way of proper analysis. But ITV hopes to capitalise. "The audience is skewed towards the male, upmarket viewer much prized by advertisers," says Martin Kelner in the Daily Mail. "Watch out for the ads for premium lagers and male moisturiser."
Will it be any good?
It has to be as far as ITV in concerned, but viewers, particularly those who already know the rules, may be nervous about what's to come.
"The tournament is hugely important to ITV, which hasn't exactly been awash with ratings winners of late and has lost live Champions League football, a guaranteed crowd-puller, to BT Sport," says Kelner in the Mail, who believes that signing Inverdale could be a smart move.
"He is currently riding a wave of popularity by default, having been replaced on the BBC's Wimbledon highlights programme by the disastrous Clare Balding-fronted Wimbledon 2Day." He will also be popular with advertisers and sponsors, as he "looks like the sort of chap who might drive a Land Rover, and he almost certainly moisturises".
Fans who have lambasted ITV's football coverage for being too flippant may not like what they see. Mark Demuth, controller of sport at the broadcaster, suggests that the tone will be informal. "We intend to make our coverage inclusive and engaging," he says. "The serious business takes place on the pitch. We will address the editorial talking points and key issues, but we realise there'll also be lighter moments and we'll reflect those in our coverage during the course of the tournament. In that regard, it's the same as covering a Football World Cup."
He also hinted that the coverage may be aimed at those who are not experts. "We're mindful that not every viewer will be familiar with all the laws of the game," he adds.