Tom McGurk: oval office evangelist still spreading the good word

RTÉ presenter tells RTÉ Radio how RTÉ TV show brought the good word of rugby to the masses

"In the beginning the IRFU had a heart attack. How dare we talk about rugby like this," said Tom McGurk of the sharp shooting RTÉ rugby panel of George Hook, McGurk and Brent Pope.

This morning’s 16 minute segment in ‘Today with Sean O’Rourke’ was to mourn and celebrate the final season of the three Mescaleros.

“We wanted to put edge on it, put teeth on it, to make it like current affairs,” explained the anchorman.

And so it was. Brian O’Driscoll was once introduced as ‘Golden Balls’. The analysis of a big Eddie O’Sullivan production which didn’t go to plan and unravelled at the end concluded with “the front row is crap.” Current affairs.


McGurk, talking to O’Rourke, painted 18 years of towel flicking and wedgy-pulling banter as groundbreaking television with attendant immediacy and forensic analysis.

The problem before the second coming, he explained, was that traditional sports journalism amounted to little more than “fans with typewriters”. He continued imperiously: “We decided to take it out into society to widen it up. You never hear anybody on SKY saying the things we say.”

Understandably an RTÉ radio show with an RTÉ guest talking about an RTÉ television programme which he anchors was going to be more fragrant than sour.

It rolled along, McGurk sometimes wistful but never lacking commitment to a cause that he evangelised, explained and preached the word of the oval ball in a land of sliotars and corner forwards.

Importantly, while the criticism was often forceful and direct, the panel did treat the Irish rugby players to solemn respect. No high tackles.

"George," said McGurk "would describe Reggie Corrigan as . . . he couldn't knock the skin of a custard . . . har har."

You just wonder how Reggie earned all of those 47 Irish caps in the frontrow. Respect Reggie.

O’Rourke, interjecting occasionally to slow down the homily to 18-years of rugby panel nirvana, brought up the last game against New Zealand. An historical first win against the All Blacks lost at the death.

“George said that the team had been picked with a view to losing,” observed O’Rourke. “And the smile across Brent Pope’s face. He didn’t need to say anything.”

Couldn't, maybe couldn't say anything. Sure doesn't everyone know Joe Schmidt picks a team with a view to losing. Real negative guy that Six Nations Championship, Heineken Cup winning Kiwi.

“So many people knew nothing about rugby but wanted to be part of it. We wanted to build the show like a soap,” said McGurk.

That, at least seemed to be a rip roaring success, although any thoughts of current affairs seemed to have drifted into an offside position.

There is a folksy, world wise curmudgeon in Hook that appeals to people and in McGurk a brusque, no nonsense bluntness bordering on rude that irritates. Pope people naturally like, and his analysis can be razor sharp, but you could see him doing the cabaret act on a cruise liner.

“Hope,” Hook once said incredulously. It began one of his more agreeable monologues during the O’Sullivan years after Popey had the temerity to say that Ireland had been playing with hope.

“Hope,” he rumbled. “Hope . . . what did hope do for the Kalahari Bushman . . . what did hope do for the Apache Indian?”

It took O’Rourke to arrest a flow of McGurk preening and point out that the audience of one million that watched Brian O’Driscoll’s retirement match against France last year had - just possibly - as much to do with the passing of the greatest player of his generation as the halftime bun fight.

“That’s the mark of the achievement of the show,” said McGurk. Of course, he conceded it was O’Driscoll. But he cautioned “the figures are the figures of the show.”

The figures are the figures.

The unprecedented growth in the game, the huge success of the provinces, the constant hustling in Leinster to sell players as from Carlow, Wicklow, Louth and Wexford, as much as Dublin, and the golden period that threw up genuine stars in O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara, Paul O'Connell and Johnny Sexton, seemed almost coincidental.

There could be an alternative view that the players and the teams made the programme, rather than vice versa. A view that the programme popularised the game, but did so as it sometimes veered towards tabloid and slapstick, that it often did not respect players or coaches.

There could be a view that guests like Shane Horgan and Conor O'Shea offered a credibility that was inexorably leaking away.

“Maybe we stepped over the mark there,” McGurk said of the vitriol once poured on Eddie O’Sullivan. But . . .

“We managed to spread that audience out beyond the small coterie of rugby that went into Gaelic football . . . it became a national event.”