Joe Molloy was having a drink with a friend recently when they got to talking about the enormity – in all senses of the word – of his impending gig as host of TV3's Six Nations coverage. "Look, you just have to accept that five to 10 per cent of people are going to hate you," said his mate. "And when you put it like that," Molloy laughs, "it's no big deal. But then you think, 'Hang on, the audience is going to be between a million and a million and half – that's possibly 100,000 people!'"
Molloy has been a presenter on Newstalk's nightly Off The Ball show since 2013, thrust into it in the wake of the abrupt departure of what became the Second Captain's gang. His patient, endlessly curious interviewing style has seen him walk off with the Sports Broadcaster of the Year award three years running between 2014 and 2016 so he's clearly well qualified. But a 40-minute life-story interview for radio is a world away from the rat-a-tat construction of live TV. So yeah, he's a bit nervous.
“You’d be clinically insane not to be,” he says. “I suppose it’s the increased scrutiny. You don’t want to focus on the fact that between one and one and a half million people are going to be watching but once you let that fact find its way into your brain, it’s very hard to forget it. It tends to crop up.
“This week, I expected to be the worst. I expected the nerves to ramp up. And in some respects, actually just looking at the running order and breaking this gargantuan seven-week thing into five-minute segments suddenly made it so much more approachable. So all I really need to worry about is the first few minutes on Saturday and from there, it’s fairly straight-forward.
“But I suspect Saturday morning will be awful. Like, I do suffer with nerves. Badly. On a standard night on radio, no. But before a big interview, yes. Generally, it makes you a bit sharper, I think.”
Molloy bluffed his way into Newstalk in 2007 when he rang up then sports editor Jerry O’Sullivan about a sports newsreader’s job and lied through his teeth when asked had he any experience. He was 22 and fresh out of a postgrad course in radio and television production in Maynooth, having come very close to going into teaching after completing his history degree.
He worked in the news department for a while, doing stints as a researcher on the lunchtime news and later George Hook's show. He was so green on his first day that when asked by the lunchtime show's producer to put a request in to get Eamon Gilmore on the show, he said no problem and promptly went back to his desk and googled him.
"I was in big trouble, I wasn't sure who he was. Oh right, leader of the Labour Party, cool. I mean, the name rang a bell but I was a sports-mad 22-year-old and Eamon Gilmore wasn't high on my agenda. I knew nothing about current affairs. I would be at home every night with the highlighter reading every paper going to get up to speed."
In time, he found his feet and by the time the Off The Ball gig came along, he knew what he was doing. Or he knew how to get there, at any rate. Work hard, read everything. Above all, don't pretend to know more than you do. There's nothing wrong with saying, "I don't know everything on this subject – tell me more about it".
"A lot of it is Billo," he says. "That was magic, they way he did it. Even this week, I've been watching a lot of Bill O'Herlihy on YouTube. Watching everyone – Gabby Logan, everyone. Just comparing notes. Bill's humility was just so endearing. My attitude is, 'How could I know more than the person I'm talking to?
“I think it’s honesty, really. I think most people can appreciate being in a position where they don’t know everything. People are very generous in that regard. Nobody is listening to my questions thinking, ‘How does he not know everything?’
“I find in most walks of life, I’m quite often the last to give an opinion. I would be acutely conscious of how little I know about anything and always have been. And I don’t tend to have strong opinions on anything. Even with the smallest thing, I would think, ‘Well, I’d have to walk in that guy’s shoes for half an hour before I could make up my mind.’”
In a world of Twitter and loudmouths and hot takes, he has risen to this point by going a different way. Though he’s about to step into a different world, he’ll not be changing it up all that much. Of the audience that tunes in, he reckons his mother is the only one doing so for him alone. It’s hard to lose the run of yourself bearing that in mind.
Flexing rugby muscles
“There will be a huge quotient of people on the weekend who have no idea who I am. And so I can’t go on there flexing my rugby muscles. I just have to accept that I am going to have to say to Ronan O’Gara at some point: ‘I don’t know what happened there at the breakdown. When you keep saying the breakdown, what does that mean?’ Because for me to just sit there quietly and think that but not say it is a total betrayal of my modus operandi.
“Now, it would be a tempting thing to do because people will be forming a first opinion of me and a lot of them may go, ‘This guy hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about.’ The whole thing is going to be an exercise in, ‘Do you have the stomach to be totally yourself in front of all these extra people that you have no credit in the bank with?’ Most people won’t notice me, some will think, ‘We’ll give this guy a chance’ and some will go, ‘What does this guy know anyway?’
“Once we settle in, get the first few minutes over with, ignore Twitter, ignore Mary Hannigan’s column for seven weeks, ignore all the extra scrutiny, it’ll be fine. I just want to get to the point where we’re in the middle of a chat at some stage and there’s six minutes left of airtime and the conversation between us is flowing. I want that moment where I can feel in my head that this is fine, this is nice, everyone’s energised and there’s loads to talk about. Then we’ll be fine.”