Back, away back, when rugby was young in Ireland – circa 2000, say – and the great cloth-brained Irish public needed educating about this new sport, the RTÉ panel took to its duty with a full heart. Sorry now, that's a very plain and ordinary way of putting it. Let's try it again, channelling George Hook this time.
At the turn of the 16th century, King Manuel I of Portugal cajoled a fleet of adventurers and voyagers to mount expeditions across the Atlantic Ocean in search of new worlds. Among them was a cartographer from Florence named Amerigo Vespucci who would, in time, go on to give his name to the land of the free and home of the brave.
But Vespucci’s feats of exploration and guidance are as nothing compared to that of popularising rugby in Ireland, with the RTÉ panel at the vanguard.
Time ticks on for everyone, Vespucci or no. Hook is hanging up his kipper after the Six Nations. The World Cup will be on TV3. The thin gruel of the Ulster Bank League is all the national broadcaster will muster in terms of live rugby for the foreseeable future. With the stagehand all but ready to unrope the final curtain, it's worth looking at how different the landscape is now from what it was in the panel's heyday.
Hook, McGurk, Pope.
A more unlikely troika you could scarcely imagine. Thrown together by circumstance – in Hook's case the closing of the Sunday Press when he was at the 1995 World Cup, in Pope's a one-off appearance for the Ireland v New Zealand game in that tournament that went so well he cancelled the flight home he had booked for the next morning – they fronted the rugby coverage without ever having been capped or played professionally. It's hard to imagine another country where that could have come to pass.
In the middle of it all, the Hookster. A bellows in human form, wheezing scorn-filled manifestos on the latest calamity to befall Irish rugby. Sometimes right, sometimes wrong, always certain. An early offering across the desk to Michael Lyster on Sports Stadium as Ireland played Italy in January 1997 was a classic of the genre.
Before. "Ireland have just come back from the Algarve from warm weather training whereas the Italians have just had their buns frozen off in Wales for the last two weeks and have been unable to train. If we were to lose to them today, in the words of Lord Denning, it would open up an appalling vista. It's inconceivable and we can't consider it as a possibility."
After. “This is a catastrophe. This is worse than Dunkirk because they got their soldiers off the beaches in Dunkirk. Very few of this team are going to get off the beaches. At this moment in time we are a bankrupt rugby nation.”
And so it went. Rugby grew. The Heineken Cup came along. Ireland got better too eventually and RTÉ surfed the wave.
Hook fulminated away through it all, high of dudgeon, dim of view. And though his repeated – and repeatedly wrong – pooh-poohing of Munster’s chances in those early Heineken Cup days came with a touch of pantomime, it could be enjoyable viewing.
But nothing stays the same. Rugby changed, rugby on TV changed. Hook didn’t. More and more, those pre-cooked analogies fell flat and felt predictable.
"Ireland are the least inventive, most predictable team in world rugby," he said a few years back during a Wales game that wasn't going well. "They're a bit like Pamela Anderson – when they're good they're great, when they're bad they're awful."
Nobody knew what he meant.
Like it or not, the audience is better informed now. It expects more. There is an argument to be made that all of sports broadcasting is becoming too uniform, that no matter whether you’re watching rugby or soccer or downhill skiing, the emphasis on frame-by-frame analysis has drained all the colour away.
It is completely inconceivable, for instance, that RTÉ – or any broadcaster – would start from scratch with a former USA coach and a Kiwi AIL player as their star attractions.
People want more. The first generation of professionals has just retired and they talk about the game in minute detail because they lived it in minute detail.
Hook spent 20 years shaking his fist at the sky at the lack of a true Irish number seven, to the point where people just rolled their eyes. Then Brian O’Driscoll did a breakdown masterclass on his first night on BT Sport that felt like it explained the nuts and bolts of it in a mere seven minutes. It was show rather than tell and it was excellent viewing.
By contrast, Hook has schtick. And these days, schtick isn’t enough.