Rugby on RTÉ: ‘It was like herding cats, like dealing with children’

After losing Six Nations coverage, the days of international rugby on RTÉ are ending

Brent Pope, Tom McGurk and George Hook at the launch of RTÉ Sport’s comprehensive live coverage of 2008 RBS 6 Nations. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Brent Pope, Tom McGurk and George Hook at the launch of RTÉ Sport’s comprehensive live coverage of 2008 RBS 6 Nations. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

 

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-nineties.”

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 play-off, 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.

Tom McGurk, Brent Pope and George Hook in 2003. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Tom McGurk, Brent Pope and George Hook in 2003. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

“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.

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.”

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

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.”

RTÉ analyst George Hook talks to Shane Horgan during Leinster v Ulster in 2013. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
RTÉ analyst George Hook talks to Shane Horgan during Leinster v Ulster in 2013. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

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.”

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.”

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.

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 well.”

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.”

Brent Pope, Eddie O’Sullivan and Shane Horgan on the RTÉ panel. Photo: Inpho
Brent Pope, Eddie O’Sullivan and Shane Horgan on the RTÉ panel. Photo: Inpho

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.”

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.”

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