Rugby’s toughest conversion: switching over to TV3

After winning the rights to next year’s Rugby World Cup, the channel has a chance to shake up RTÉ’s sheepskin coat

TV3 has secured the rights to the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Only TV3 appears pleased by this. Judging by the reaction, many rugby fans couldn't have been grumpier if it had been handed to RTÉjr.

It would seem that rugby watchers are used to the way things are. They are used to Tom McGurk's bombastic prematch prose-poem montages of great clashes from years gone by. Him in a long coat walking through an abandoned nuclear silo. The Inception soundtrack. Men in kilts. Some reference to the second Peloponnesian war. Kyle. Gibson. Geoghegan. Tommy Booowwwwe!

They are used to Ryle Nugent describing every single substitution as a player being “called ashore”.

They are used to prematch and postmatch commentary that goes on longer than the match itself.


They are used to the final whistle being followed by analysis, not ads.

They are used to Popey. They are used to Conor O'Shea and, more recently, Shane Horgan and Ronan O'Gara. They are used to blokes in suits sitting around joshing with each other.

Most importantly, they are used to giving out about George Hook. Nobody should be robbed of his right to give out about George Hook.

TV3 has a job on its hands, because, despite its efforts, when people think of its sports coverage they think of ads and competitions. They think of football commentators often watching a match on a monitor in Dublin rather than high at the Bernabeu.

People groan about RTÉ's sports coverage, but they also discuss it and debate it, and papers report on it. Although it has had well-known names – Matt Cooper fronts its GAA coverage, for instance – TV3 has yet to truly imprint itself on the national consciousness.

The Rugby World Cup is the broadcaster’s chance to be the plucky underdog, written off only to turn things around and, when they return from the ad break, emerge triumphant.

Ripe for an overhaul?
Because no coverage is arguably riper for an overhaul than that of Irish rugby. Already, RTÉ's coverage of this year's Six Nations looked like it was entering a transitional phase between the old-school clubhouse pundits and a new breed of former players who spent much of their training day in front of a screen.

Rugby, perhaps more than any other sport in Ireland, is now steeped in a video culture. Its technical depth requires an enormous volume of video analysis. By that measure it should be perfect for television. Yet, so far, RTÉ (and TG4 in its Pro12 coverage) has remained shy of getting overly technical.

In the coverage of Sky's arrival into GAA, there has been much focus on how it could put it up to RTÉ. While Sky's rugby coverage has some excellent in-game use of video analysis, it has yet to obviously affect RTÉ's approach to that game. The approach has hardly evolved since the days of John Giles shouting "Stop it there" on soccer replays and drawing squiggly lines on a screen.

TV3's group director of broadcasting, Niall Cogley, talked this week of "freshening" up coverage to appeal to the expert and "inexpert" viewers, but his comment that "rugby is a very technical game" hinted at where the station's commentary might go.

In trying to win over the existing rugby viewership, it will have to strike a balance between technical rigour and accessibility.

Already, the likes of Off the Ball and Second Captains have capitalised on the technical insights brought by recent or current players, introducing a vocabulary that takes rugby analysis far from Hook's dips into classical history.

But while Cogley talks about TV3 looking at online possibilities – second screens, streaming and more – the web has better clues about how to reshape television coverage.

On Murray Kinsella has become one of Ireland's most innovative sports journalists, explaining aspects of rugby in fine detail through still images, YouTube clips, Gifs and language even the casual reader can understand. His analysis illuminates, demystifies and explains the game's relentless demands on body and brain.

Kinsella’s work has taken on and surpassed at least this aspect of traditional media’s rugby coverage. The dynamism of his pieces is in contrast to the static coverage elsewhere. TV3 may find lessons, and solace, in that success.