‘It was like herd­ing cats’

Af­ter los­ing Six Na­tions cov­er­age, the days of in­ter­na­tional rugby on RTÉ are com­ing to an end

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY AUTUMN INTERNATIONALS - Gavin Cum­miskey

Once upon a time the sports jour­nal­ist was an au­thor­ity fig­ure. Es­pe­cially when they came bran­dish­ing RTÉ para­pher­na­lia.

To­day marks the end of an era. On Fe­bru­ary 3rd we will be watch­ing Ire­land in Paris on TV3. Un­less you crave the grow­ing pres­ence of Paul O’Con­nell on BBC.

“When we were about to win a Triple Crown in 1982 I had to bang down doors to do post-match in­ter­views,” ex­plains for­mer RTÉ rugby chief John D O’Brien. “BBC had just started do­ing it and we had never been al­lowed in Lans­downe Road. We won an­other Triple Crown in 1985 and by then we were up and run­ning but still didn’t have a panel or our own show. Short snappy in­ter­views with Ciarán Fitzger­ald in be­tween two race meets.

“The panel didn’t start un­til the mid-90s.”

Many post-baby boomers’ first rugby me­mory was Mick Doyle’s grav­elly voice.

“We tried out a num­ber of peo­ple,” says O’Brien. “I was some­what in­stru­men­tal in bring­ing Ea­mon Dun­phy back for the 1990 World Cup af­ter he swore to never work for RTÉ ever again.” Go on. “On the penul­ti­mate night of the 1986 World Cup, for the third and fourth place play­off, the panel con­sisted of Der­mot Mor­gan and Brush Shields ap­ing John Giles and Ea­mon.”

Dun­phy be­ing the gold stan­dard of Mon­trose chat­ter box­ing, John D rang and rang.

“We needed peo­ple to be watch­ing us and not the Brits. We needed acer­bic and con­tro­ver­sial and not out­ra­geous. We suc­ceeded in at least two of those.”

Seek­ing a rugby ver­sion of Dun­phy, RTÉ un­cov­ered some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent.

“Ge­orge Hook wasn’t well known but he had the de­sired ef­fect, be­cause he threw mud. Niall Cog­ley had been talk­ing to Brent Pope, who had been play­ing rugby in Ire­land for a while and coach­ing Clon­tarf. I knew him as he’d been on Rugby Af­ter Dark. That was when the panel was born. In and around the 1995 World Cup.”

Along­side pro­fes­sion­al­ism it grew and in­fu­ri­ated.

Sport to the masses

Novem­ber in­ter­na­tion­als will prob­a­bly reap­pear on RTÉ in 2018 but the Six Na­tions is gone.

Iron­i­cally, the two men largely re­spon­si­ble for pack­ag­ing rugby for the na­tional broad­caster – Glen Kil­lane and Niall Cog­ley – are still chan­nelling sport to the masses. Eir made Kil­lane its first head of tele­vi­sion last year. Pre­vi­ously, he suc­ceeded Cog­ley, son of the late rugby com­men­ta­tor Fred, as head of RTÉ sport in 2006. Cog­ley, who left to cre­ate Se­tanta (now eir), has been TV3’s di­rec­tor of broad­cast­ing since 2011.

“When I was grow­ing up as a pro­ducer ev­ery­thing BBC did ev­ery­one else did,” says Cog­ley. “Bill McLaren and a very vi­brant sports de­part­ment had po­si­tioned them­selves as the best in the world. I felt at a cer­tain point they stalled and we in RTÉ passed them out. Then Sky showed up and started to in­no­vate in a way that made BBC’s pre­sen­ta­tion look dated. BBC never put the score or the clock on a match. Sky came and did that. It just seemed such an ob­vi­ous thing once they did it.”

Cog­ley’s child­hood was im­mersed in RTÉ’s rugby cov­er­age.


“I used to go and take notes for my dad when he was com­men­tat­ing and I was still in school; sum­maris­ing so he was able to re­fer back to who scored what and in what minute. That was my in­tro­duc­tion to sports jour­nal­ism.”

Kil­lane’s as­cent, while less fa­mil­ial, was not with­out dra­matic ori­gin. The last work place­ment on the DCU board, af­ter his dream gig with El Ex­cel­sior news­pa­per fell through due to the im­peach­ment of Mex­i­can pres­i­dent Car­los Sali­nas de Gor­tariin in 1994, was sub-edit­ing in Dublin 4.

Suf­fice to say, both Kil­lane and Cog­ley cut their teeth on RTÉ’s rugby beat, tak­ing equal re­spon­si­bil­ity for gift­ing the viewer with mim­ics of the Bill O’Her­lihy, Ea­mon Dun­phy and Johnny Giles tri­umvi­rate.

“When RTÉ ac­quired the Pre­mier­ship, Bill couldn’t do both rugby and soc­cer,” Kil­lane says of his for­mer boss Tim O’Con­nor mak­ing him rugby ed­i­tor. “I was told to put to­gether a new rugby panel. Tim had al­ready selected Tom McGurk as pre­sen­ter. We took the model of the good cop, bad cop – Giles and Dun­phy – and got Ge­orge Hook and Brent Pope.

“There was method to our mad­ness,” Kil­lane ex­plains. “There was sci­ence be­hind it. I was look­ing at the view­ing fig­ures. At the time we were do­ing a lot of All-Ire­land League cov­er­age when sig­nif­i­cant crowds were show­ing up at Lim­er­ick der­bies be­tween Gar­ry­owen, Shan­non, Young Mun­ster. But view­ing fig­ures were very small, 30 to 40,000. For the Five Na­tions we were get­ting 250,000 to 300,000 watch­ing Ire­land.

“The O’Driscoll, O’Gara, O’Con­nell gen­er­a­tion sent rugby into the strato­sphere. Our view­ing fig­ures grew by 80 per cent on Six Na­tions rugby. That was down to the Ir­ish team be­com­ing such a rounded en­tity.”

For Ire­land ver­sus France this year 825,500 tuned in, nab­bing 63.2 per cent of the au­di­ence watch­ing tele­vi­sion.

The pub­lic trusted what RTÉ pack­aged and so grew the car­i­ca­ture’s dream team of McGurk, Hook and Popey.

“In TV land dull con­sen­sus is like poi­son. You don’t want peo­ple agree­ing with each other.”

Early hur­dle

The for­mula is proven but com­par­ing the rugby trio to Bill, Ea­mon and Giles glances off an early hur­dle. O’Her­lihy turned faux-naïf into an art form. Con­tro­versy aside, Dun­phy was a best sell­ing author (Only a Game and the 1987 U2 bi­og­ra­phy) and he was coached by Matt Busby at Manch­ester United be­fore play­ing 23 times for the Repub­lic of Ire­land. Johnny Giles is a leg­end.

“Once Conor O’Shea came in I feel the bal­ance was ad­dressed.” But... “It was ut­terly chaotic,” Kil­lane ad­mits. “Par­tic­u­larly when you put Ge­orge Hook and Tom McGurk into a room to­gether, it was like herd­ing cats. It was, to a cer­tain ex­tent, like deal­ing with chil­dren. They are very en­ter­tain­ing but it is im­pos­si­ble to put any shape on them.

“It was a lot of fun, it was quite stress­ful, and im­pos­si­ble to put man­ners on them. We just went with it. It did work be­cause peo­ple en­gaged and al­ways had an opin­ion on it. That’s good from a tele­vi­sion point of view.”

Cog­ley: “I hes­i­tate to say theatre but theatre was an im­por­tant part of it. At the time that cast­ing was con­sid­ered and de­liv­ered we felt that rugby was a bit im­pen­e­tra­ble. Partly be­cause of its elitism, partly be­cause it was so tech­ni­cal, how on earth do you of­fer ex­pla­na­tion to the large pop­u­la­tion who are tun­ing in be­cause it is a na­tional oc­ca­sion but re­ally don’t have the fog­gi­est as to what’s go­ing on?

“The in­tro­duc­tion of Ge­orge was a very de­lib­er­ate at­tempt to pop­u­larise the game.”

Kil­lane: “The Ge­orge Hook train rolled on long af­ter my time in rugby.”

But re­cruit­ing ex-in­ter­na­tion­als like Ronan O’Gara and Shane Hor­gan has brought a dif­fer­ent level of anal­y­sis, right? “It was of its time,” says Kil­lane. “Ev­ery­thing be­comes tired af­ter a while and you must recog­nise the need to re­fresh. I was man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of tele­vi­sion when Ronan and Shane came in. Ryle [Nu­gent, cur­rent head of RTÉ sport] and the pro­duc­tion team han­dled that tran­si­tion very

The pub­lic trusted what RTÉ pack­aged and so grew the car­i­ca­ture’s dream team of McGurk, Hook and Popey. “In TV land dull con­sen­sus is like poi­son. You don’t want peo­ple agree­ing with each other For RTÉ the Heineken Cup pro­vided a gold rush as O’Gara and Mun­ster flooded liv­ing rooms and pubs with their hero­ics.


For RTÉ the Heineken Cup pro­vided a gold rush as O’Gara and Mun­ster flooded liv­ing rooms and pubs with their hero­ics. For heady Cardiff days – the hand of Back onto Mun­ster reach­ing the promised land in 2006 – RTÉ was ever present. “Then we lost the rights to Sky.” That ham­mer blow landed in 2006. “It was a huge dis­ap­point­ment,” says Kil­lane. “Niall had gone to Se­tanta. It was just about se­cur­ing as many deals as we could. We re­newed the mid week Cham­pi­ons League, the Six Na­tions, the GAA cham­pi­onship.

“Then we got in­volved in box­ing. I ap­proached Bernard Dunne and Brian Peters. The rea­son I men­tion it is it cul­mi­nated in 2009 on the same day with Ire­land win­ning the Grand Slam.” Hours af­ter Ire­land’s nar­row vic­tory in Cardiff, Dunne cap­tured the su­per ban­tamweight world ti­tle by stop­ping Ri­cardo Cor­doba in an epic duel at the Point De­pot.

“It was a phe­nom­e­nal day but it took 15 years to get there.”

TV3 are well aware of the re­spon­si­bil­ity that comes with broad­cast­ing the Six Na­tions hav­ing learned from the 2015 World Cup. Cog­ley comes straight at crit­i­cism of their ad­ver­tis­ing breaks.

“I think it was a mis­take to be hon­est. Given where we were com­ing from and who we were re­plac­ing. You got to im­i­tate be­fore you can in­no­vate. I think we jumped the gun and didn’t han­dle it all that well.”

Crime scene

Plenty was made about the pub­lic miss­ing the full gruesome pe­riod when O’Con­nell was laid out on the Cardiff pitch at half-time against France.

“I think it is ar­guable RTÉ wouldn’t have gone to a break,” says Cog­ley. It was a crime scene. “The no­tion we ig­nored the in­jury be­cause we are in­ter­ested in the filthy lu­cre is un­fair. Hav­ing said that the things we would like to do bet­ter from the 2015 World Cup, in­clud­ing that, will be feed­ing the de­ci­sions in the 2018 Six Na­tions. We will be very re­spect­ful of the Six Na­tions cov­er­age up to now. While not try­ing to rein­vent the wheel on some­thing that has by and large been a very good job for 50 years we will be re­fresh­ing it with new voices.”

O’Gara is not to­tally lost to the Can­ter­bury Cru­saders.

Nor are RTÉ out of the rugby busi­ness en­tirely. The women’s Six Na­tions matches will re­main in the Sun­day grave­yard slot de­spite Nu­gent’s ef­forts to steer the IRFU into prime time. They have the un­der-20s and will scrap for the Cham­pi­ons Cup and World Cup free to air rights.

“RTÉ are far from out of it but the days when they are seen as the be­he­moth are over,” says Kil­lane, back in eir leader mode. “We are deal­ing with mas­sive global en­ti­ties. The fu­ture of sports rights is a fu­ture where the likes of Sky are go­ing to look small in terms of the mus­cle Ama­zon or Face­book or Google can bring.

“There is still room for our­selves, TV3, RTÉ and Sky but you have to keep up­dat­ing and see what is work­ing. We need to take a good look at rugby which is a bit of a gap for us as we build up to the 2019 World Cup which we have rights to. If the mar­ket isn’t de­liv­er­ing what we feel the value is we may launch a free to air chan­nel our­selves, po­ten­tially.”

Top: Brent Pope, Tom McGurk and Ge­orge Hook at the launch of RTÉ Sport’s cov­er­age of 2008 Six Na­tions. Be­low: Brent Pope, Ed­die O’Sul­li­van and Shane Hor­gan do some post-game anal­y­sis pitch side. PHO­TO­GRAPHS: STEPHEN MCCARTHY/SPORTS­FILE AND

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