Sinéad Kissane: ‘Sport is my downtime, it’s my up-time. It’s kind of everything’
As TV3 prepares to host the Six Nations for the first time, its new rugby correspondent is ready for the challenge
Sinéad Kissane: "People always say 'you must be looking forward to the Six Nations’, but I’m not getting too far ahead. I know the hard work that has to go into it"
Let’s get one thing straight: television is not glamorous. Nothing brings this home more than a trip to your local broadcaster’s canteen. Whether it’s the furrowed brows surveying egg and chips in RTÉ, or the remoteness of TG4’s fare, or indeed, the plainness of TV3’s eating quarters, the sparseness of where TV staff retreat for a cup of tea speaks to the grind of daily television, the type of thing a politician might call “a job of work”.
Sinéad Kissane has done the committed broadcaster and reporter’s slog, climbing the ladder rung by rung, respected by her peers, and ready to step into her biggest role yet, as TV3 prepares for its first rugby Six Nations as television rights holders. She was recently made rugby correspondent for TV3, and will be the lead touchline reporter, conducting pre- and post-match interviews, and will present a Six Nations highlights programme on Sundays at 9pm.
“Six Nations is massive for us,” Kissane says, sitting in the canteen with a cup of tea. “It also comes with great pressure. RTÉ have set the bar with its Six Nations coverage. We know we have a lot to live up to . . . there is a lot of pressure that comes with it. People are always saying to me ‘you must be so excited, you must be so looking forward to the Six Nations’, but I’m not getting too far ahead. I know the hard work that has to go into it.”
To smooth the transition, TV3 has taken familiar faces on board. While Joe Molloy from Newstalk’s Off The Ball will anchor the coverage, former players Ronan O’Gara, Shane Horgan and Shane Jennings, as well as former Leinster and Scotland head coach – and Irish Times columnist – Matt Williams will make up the panel. Dave McIntyre and former Irish international Alan Quinlan will be in the commentary box.
“People don’t like change, in general,” says Kissane. “I think TV3 worked it wisely . . . the guys are going to give the same excellent analysis on TV3 as they did on RTÉ. I think the fact that they’ve done that [been on the RTÉ panel] will lessen the sharpness of the sense of change for people watching on. I think that’ll definitely help.
“Also, we’re not new to the party. We’ve done Rugby World Cups before, two of them, so I just think the landscape for sports TV has so changed now that people have to go along with more than they would have before . . . you’ve got different channels, you’ve got different people on.”
You can tell Kissane likes being as close to the action as possible.
“There’s a different ecosystem when you’re working pitch-side. You feel everything.” She cites a pitch-side update she was doing with Peter Stringer when Ireland were playing France during a World Cup, and suddenly the Irish team ran on to the pitch behind them, the atmosphere in the stadium flipping. Or sitting right behind the bench listening to the replacements talking throughout a match, a different feeling to sitting in the media area in the stands.
She says she enjoys a good working relationship with Ireland rugby coach Joe Schmidt, while recognising the unusual status he has in Irish sport. “What I find so funny when people talk about Ireland and Joe Schmidt, is that we talk like we know about Joe. If you listen to the amount of times analysts talk about Joe and they say, ‘Joe doesn’t like this, Joe doesn’t like that’ . . . when it comes to Joe, we all know Joe Schmidt’s standards . . . I think Joe has set the standard for everybody. Even just listening to the players, the way they approach training. It is such an intensive camp.
“It’s almost like we can all learn from Joe Schmidt in some ways. The standards he has set people. Look at how Ireland beat the All Blacks. I wrote a piece [before the game] saying he is not going to think this team is unbeatable. And he doesn’t. He thinks differently. He doesn’t see obstacles, he sees opportunities. That excites me.”
She then chastises herself for doing the thing that everyone else does, “Here I am saying ‘Joe thinks this!’ . . . That’s the thing about sports journalism. You have your passion for it, but being a journalist has to supersede everything. While you can appreciate everything Joe does, you always have to make sure you question if things are not going well. I like to think that is something I always do. I think things should always be up for debate if they’re not going right.”
Sport is in Kerrywoman Kissane’s blood. Her uncle, Tom O’Riordan, represented Ireland in the 5,000m at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. (Her cousin Ian O’Riordan is the Irish Times athletics correspondent).
After completing an English degree in UCD, Kissane completed a masters in journalism at DCU, and began to work for Off The Ball on Newstalk.
“The likes of Ger Gilroy, the Second Captains lads, I would have worked with them all. You’re talking about standard-setters. That was the best way to start out any career in journalism. Ger Gilroy would have been my boss and gave me my break. He had to be very patient, I’m sure, because I had a lot to learn . . . Working with them was the best foundation. It showed me what standard you need to be at to thrive.”
Before that there was “the club”, St Brendan’s athletics club in Ardfert, Co Kerry, and then running for UCD. “I never won a National schools’ title,” Kissane says. “I just wasn’t good enough.” She missed out on a schools’ championship one year, going over on her ankle while doing plyometrics – or “jump training”.
“I’ll never forget the next year – I can’t even believe I’m talking to you about this – I remember running in the Munster schools’ [championship]. I was so determined. I was in the outside lane, running around. 150m to go, I remember my friends down at the high jump saying ‘you’re doing great, Sinéad, you’re away, you’re away’, next minute I heard them say, ‘eh, you better hurry up’. There was a girl coming in on the inside . . . . I could feel her coming up on the inside. There were a few hundred people on the bank on the home straight.”
When she considered the possibility that she might be beaten, she said to herself, “‘No. Way’. When it came to the finish line, I literally threw myself over the line, cut my knees, everything, but I just didn’t care. I looked up and the guy came over, and he said ‘you got it’.” She tilts her head back. “I don’t know why that’s making me emotional. That’s mad.”
When Gerry Thornley, Irish Times Rugby Correspondent and outgoing chairman of the Rugby Writers of Ireland (RWI), approached Kissane at a recent awards ceremony, it was to tell her that she had been nominated as vice-chair of the RWI for a period of two years, which leads to a second two-year stint in the chairperson role. She will be the first woman to fill the position.
“Sometimes I think it takes the support of your colleagues to put you in positions you never would have seen yourself in before,” Kissane writes in an email a few days after we meet.
‘Work experience girl’
That support wasn’t always to the fore. In 2007, Kissane was on the pitch interviewing the then Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan following the defeat to Argentina in the Rugby World Cup in France. She asked him if he was going to reconsider his position, basically whether he thought his time was up.
O’Sullivan almost balked at the question, asking for it to be repeated before answering, “absolutely not, no”, twice. Despite the tension, Kissane persisted. “Where do you think it went wrong for Ireland out there tonight, Eddie?”.
Back in the TV3 studio, presenter Matt Cooper asked his panel what they made of her question and the response. Panellist Jim Glennon, said: “I take my hat off to Sinéad, she’s obviously not looking for a career in sports reporting,” laughing.
Cooper riled in the way he does. “She has a career in sports reporting, a very good career in sports reporting, because she asks hard questions,” he said.
Over in the Setanta TV studio, Matt Williams called Kissane a “work experience girl”, a sickeningly patronising and sexist summation of Kissane’s audacity. Ten years later, she is rugby correspondent for TV3, and Matt Williams will be part of TV3’s panel.
I asked her how long it took her to get over that remark. “The Matt Williams thing. Oh. Yeah. It just, to be honest, it really, really didn’t . . . I don’t think it affected me as much as it might have affected other people. Would I have stood for that, if that had happened now? I don’t know.
“Matt is part of TV3’s Six Nations panel. There are no problems whatsoever there. To be honest, that 2007 tournament was just one of the most frustrating tournaments in terms of Ireland’s performance.
“Things happened back then, and to me it was all part of a bigger picture of a very frustrating time, do you know what I mean? I moved on from that fairly fast, to be honest with you.”
Elaine Buckley, the co-presenter of the Irish podcast Fair Game, which focuses on women in sport, says of Kissane, “She’s never afraid to ask the difficult questions. She doesn’t shy away from any sort of controversy, and that’s what I really like about her . . . She’s very tuned into the governing body issues in women’s sport. Her speciality is rugby, but she does go beyond that as well.”
Always on . . .
The weekend before we meet, Kissane was off work on Saturday and Sunday, but took out her media pass and went to the Leinster game. “I want to be there. I want to see Jordan Larmour play. It’s so weird then, because you’re going ‘where is my work time, and my [other] time?’ It definitely blurs. I wanted to see Leinster play last weekend. It isn’t a nine-to-five job. You are constantly on. I can’t sit down and just watch an Ireland match without using the same sort of mindset I use every time I watch an Ireland match. You are looking. You are analysing.”
When she finished her English degree, for years afterwards, anytime she read a book, she would be back in analysis mode, dissecting the writing. Last summer, she went to Key West in Florida, visited Ernest Hemingway’s house and picked up an edition of The Sun Also Rises, a book she loves.
For the record, her favourite sports books include Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open, and A Good Walk Spoiled, John Feinstein’s 1996 bestseller about golfers on the PGA tour.
Kissane says she’s not the best person to watch a match with, and earned a reputation among her colleagues and former boss Bob Hughes in TV3 for “going mad” watching matches in the office. Her friend once took a video of her during “that time, 40 phases, Ronan O’Gara”, she says, referring to the 2011 Heineken Cup Munster v Northampton Saints match at Thomond Park where O’Gara scored a drop goal with over 83 minutes gone to win the game 23-21. Disposition? “Lunatic”.
I wonder if she does anything in her free time that’s not sports related? “I’m so terrible. The fact that I went to the cinema last weekend was great. I hadn’t been to the cinema in a year.” The film was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, (she did also see the Conor McGregor documentary, Notorius, in the cinema because she has a brief cameo in it.) “What else do I do? So, eh, I like cycling. I did the Greenway in Waterford.”
I point out that cycling, is indeed, a sport. “Oh God. Okay, non-sport. Reading isn’t a sport! If you’re not reading sports books.” She pauses to rack her brains. “If I have time off during the summer, I love going to Croke Park.” Ah here. “I’m trying to take up yoga again. I used to do outdoor yoga years ago. I’d like to restart that, but I always say that and never get around to it. But do you know what? A bit of yoga during the Six Nations would be absolutely great.
“You see, sport, it’s your downtime, it’s your up-time. It’s kind of everything.”
- The 2018 Six Nations Championships begins on Saturday, February 3rd. Follow alll the action on irishtimes.com/sport