Saturday Interview: Wharfedale is the perfect World Cup starter

John Inverdale will be watching his Esher club at Wharfedale today ahead of fronting ITV's Rugby World Cup coverage. Picture: ITV
John Inverdale will be watching his Esher club at Wharfedale today ahead of fronting ITV's Rugby World Cup coverage. Picture: ITV
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“To be among a large crowd at a thrilling National League match at Wharfedale Rugby Club with the sun beating down from a crystal blue sky, the Yorkshire Dales rocking and rolling into the distance and lambs gambolling in the fields, with a decent pint of beer in hand (optional) was to have found sporting nirvana.

If there’s a more wonderful sporting venue in the country for serious competitive sport, I’ve yet to visit it.”

High praise indeed. The man who scribed those words is John Inverdale, the respected broadcaster who clearly has a great love for The Avenue, Wharfedale’s picturesque little ground at Threshfield, nestled in the Yorkshire Dales.

Given he has worked on the Olympics, football and rugby union’s World Cup, Wimbledon, the Six Nations and the Ryder Cup to name just a few grandiose sporting occasions, it says plenty about just how much.

He will be there again today for a chance visit that has cheered him no end given his imminent taxing schedule ahead.

The question is, though, does Inverdale still stand by his bold statement now, eight years after first writing it in his Daily Telegraph column?

“I absolutely stand by it,” he told The Yorkshire Post.

“Funnily enough, I’m presenting the Rugby World Cup for ITV and the only game that my club Esher has got in the first nine weeks of the season that I can see happens to be Wharfedale away.

“So, I’ve been looking forward enormously to going up to Wharfedale for September 12th which will be their first home game of the season.

“I’ve been many times and, obviously, geographically it’s beautiful, but it’s just real people, real passion and real commitment, too. I do love it up there.”

Of course, The Avenue has an official capacity of just 2,000, and charges admission of £10 which includes car parking, match programme and access to the grandstand.

It is a far cry from Twickenham, where more than 80,000 will be squeezed in, some having forked out upwards of £700 for the World Cup final where Inverdale will present live coverage from on October 31.

In contrast, those fans will probably not get much change from a tenner for the programme alone.

However, Wharfedale, the National One club who garner so much respect throughout the game for their ethos, spirit and adventure, is, of all places, where the 57-year-old feels most at home.

Now in its 20th season at this lofty level – the third tier of the sport – it is a shining example of what can be achieved despite being such a small village and having no wealthy benefactors pumping money in.

Furthermore, it is proof that clubs do not have to lose their soul in order to be successful.

With John Spencer, the former England captain and British Lion whose house overlooks the ground, its president for more than 30 years, they have strived to bring their own players through the junior ranks to act as the bedrock of their teams for decades.

“The first time I went there they had a live band playing and we kind of sang into the night,” recalled Inverdale, who hails from Plymouth but has been a long-time fan of Surrey club Esher, having played there himself for many years.

“In the modern way, it’s a bit of an anachronism really that the guys are semi-professional but the heart of the game was still beating very strong.

“I think Wharfedale’s achievement staying at that level of the game almost ever since the leagues began (in 1987) is great as well.

“They have never moved once they reached National One; any relegation battle they’ve just snuck out of while they’ve been close to promotion a couple of times but haven’t quite made it.

“The achievement of everyone involved there from John Spencer downwards to keep Wharfedale at that level is absolutely immense.

“The scenery clearly is just fantastic and far more importantly than anything else... there’s some great pubs.”

Once Inverdale has witnessed today’s game, and no doubt a few of nearby Grassington’s afforementioned hostelries, he will soon be back on duty for the looming event that is on every rugby union fan’s agenda – the World Cup.

He was unveiled as lead presenter as part of the ITV’s star-studded line-up earlier this week with the pundits he has on hand to quiz reading like a Who’s Who? of rugby union royalty.

For starters, there are three of England’s 2003 World Cup- winning side on the roll call – Jonny Wilkinson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Jason Robinson – plus its coach, Sir Clive Woodward.

But, further still, read this for a list of greats: Francois Pienaar, Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Lynagh, George Gregan, Gareth Thomas, Brian O’Driscoll and Sir Ian McGeechan.

Inverdale certainly will not be lost for insight and will not ever have to worry about awkward silences with those on hand.

As for the tournament itself, he does not believe, like many, that it will be a definite All Blacks win to send Richie McCaw’s stellar career out on a fairytale high.

“I thought Australia might beat New Zealand in Sydney last month and they did,” he said.

“And, though they lost the second game, I do think Australia might go on and win this and they are still the value bet.

“England v Australia is the big match in Group A and that’s the game that if England win then they have a really good chance of certainly getting to the final and maybe winning it.

“But if Australia win that match I think they will win the group and then I do feel they will go on and win the World Cup.

“That said, the All Blacks are clearly favourites because of their strength in depth and ability to produce rugby with an intensity that no-one can match.”

When it comes to potential stars of the tournament, Inverdale is relishing the chance to see Australia’s Israel Folau in action, the former rugby league international full-back who, remarkably, has also starred in Aussie Rules football, too.

“Folau is possibly the most talented all-round sportsman in the world at the moment,” he said, about a man who is only 26.

“If the Wallabies do have a good run, he could become a global superstar with his amazing catching of the high ball and ability to make space from nothing.”

Having covered so many World Cups during his broadcast career, Inverdale is adamant about his favourite tournament moment.

“The 747 flying over Ellis Park before the final in ’95,” he recalled, Pienaar’s Springboks famously going on to defeat the All Blacks.

“They were some of the greatest weeks of my life, which culminated in that extraordinary moment when (Nelson) Mandela walked onto the field.

“But when the plane came within inches of the grandstands just before kick-off, it was the closest I’ve ever come to – out of sheer fear – swearing all over the airwaves... at least deliberately.”