The first inkling that not all was well in the Stadio Olimpico commentary box came not long after the start of the game. Andrew Cotter, normally so melodic and crisp, was croaking into the microphone as if reciting us his last will and testament.
Then, after around four minutes’ play, he gave up the ghost completely. A long, pregnant silence followed, punctuated only by the occasional distracted mumble from Jonathan Davies.
If England’s win against France on Saturday was an education in the merits of having able replacements available, it was a lesson doubly learnt that day. Just as England’s ability to strengthen from the bench ultimately decided the game at Twickenham, the BBC’s coverage of Italy v Wales earlier that afternoon was fundamentally altered by Cotter’s sudden illness.
“Apologies for Andrew Cotter,” Davies announced. “He’s eaten something last night he shouldn’t have. I think he’s gone for a lie down.”
Cotter later revealed on Twitter that his unscheduled vacation was a result of a norovirus rather than one of those suspect prawn linguines that are as ubiquitous on the back streets of Rome as Pope Benedict XVI souvenir tat.
But at the time, there was a rather thrilling air of mystery to it all.
With Cotter indisposed, Davies was temporarily thrust into the hot seat.
When his pack began to flag, Stuart Lancaster was able to throw on the British beef of James Haskell, Tom Youngs and Mako Vunipola. In the BBC’s hour of need, by contrast, the only immediate option was to scramble Shane Williams from the studio to accompany a mildly startled Davies. “Right in the deep end now, eh?” he said as he breathlessly shuffled into position.
Unexpectedly granted the freedom of the airwaves, Davies threw himself into his new role as lead commentator with guilty gusto, like Ringo Starr during the Abbey Road sessions, sneakily recording Octopus’s Garden while John, Paul and George were out the back tripping balls on acid. And rather like Octopus’s Garden, his commentary was a spirited but ultimately rather muddled affair, featuring plenty of ambiguous imagery and an almost childlike enthusiasm.
In a way, the period following the departure of Cotter was the most effective endorsement for the virtues of the professional, well-researched commentator. Davies tried his damnedest, but regularly lapsed into analysis mode, and struggled to pick out many of the home players by name. “The Italians have the ball,” became a safe phrase of choice.
Not that this should reflect at all badly on Davies, who stepped valiantly into the breach in trying circumstances. Criticising Davies for not being as good a commentator as Cotter is like admonishing Ringo for not writing A Day In The Life. There was not a little relief all round when S4C’s Huw Llewelyn Davies arrived at half-time, allowing Jonathan to return to his favoured role: banging the drum for Wales. Different roles, different strengths.
And yet giving the right man the role that suits his strengths is often half the battle. Philippe Saint-André’s decision to shunt the gifted Wesley Fofana on to the wing for France’s first two games was almost as baffling as his use of the phrase “front up” in his pre-match interview. Restored to the midfield, Fofana duly scored the game’s only legitimate try. “What was he doing on the wing in the first place?” wondered Eddie Butler aloud.
“He was a victim of aberrant and abstruse French selection,” Brian Moore replied, the words rolling deliciously around his mouth as he uttered them.
At times, you could swear Butler and Moore were trying to out-orate each other. “Bastareaud!” Butler bellowed theatrically, as if describing a Parisian butcher about to slice the lugs off a filthy Aristo with a meat cleaver. “Incroyable,” Moore purred as Morgan Parra missed a kick at goal.
Such is the lyricism of their double act that the function of Sir Clive Woodward, operating as a sort of co-co-summariser, was unclear. Perhaps, given Cotter’s mishap, he was simply a spare man, to be deployed should Moore be taken ill. Either way, he rarely managed to get a word in, proving that even in Team England’s brave new age of adaptable, footloose utility-bots, where fours are now sixes and sixes sevens, commentary is one job that still needs the specialist’s touch.
By Jonathan Liew, Telegraph.co.uk