As England conclude their autumn series against Australia this weekend, Rugby World gives an insight into the broadcaster's ever-evolving TV coverage
There is a touch of the Tardis about the new Sky Sports truck that sits inconspicuously in the outside broadcast compound at Twickenham on England match days. Inside is a forest of TV screens relaying images from in and around the stadium, and a horde of clever people bustling away several hours before kick-off.
Gus Williamson, the head of rugby and the producer steering the ship, is glancing through the running order – a kind of script detailing what will, in theory, unfold in the 150 minutes of transmission. “It’s a movable feast,” he says. “It’s a framework to guide you but the best shows happen when you react as you go along.”
This is a UHD (Ultra High Definition)-capable truck, which means it’s four times the resolution of HD. Today’s game, England v Fiji, is not being shown in UHD because there¹s not enough bandwidth to cover more than one game in UHD on a given day and Man Utd v Arsenal is taking precedence.
No one is quibbling. Premier League football is the main driver of Sky subscriptions but rugby is no poor relation, as the camera plan for this match illustrates. There are 28 cameras in use today and they include an ultra high-motion camera that films at 400 frames a second (a normal figure is 25), producing those marvellous slow-motion action shots in a perfect smooth manner.
On one touchline is a handheld Steadicam, which shoots steady video on the move and which first attracted notice in films such as Rocky and The Shining.
Bi-motion cameras (50 frames a second), gantry cameras, coach cams, radio cams and a ref cam (a Sky innovation from 2012) all feature, although not today a spider cam, the one that hangs over the pitch for aerial views and which caused a chuckle in the summer when an Owen Farrell up and under struck the wires and deflected to Ben Youngs in the build-up to an England try.
Making do without the spider cam will trim a £30,000 hire charge off the bill from their facilities partner, which gives you an idea of the cost of a live sport broadcast.
From sound engineers to security guards, riggers to risk assessors, there are hundreds of people involved in delivering match coverage and to them we should be grateful, because sports fans have never had it so good.
Both Sky Sports and BT Sport have driven standards to new heights and two of the very best practitioners are to be found up in the TV gantry. Stuart Barnes was leading Bath to a scrappy win over Gloucester on the day Sky Sports came into being 25 years ago, but now the former building society manager is part of one of sport’s best commentary double acts.
Miles Harrison guides and glides us through the match, Barnes provides the no-nonsense expert analysis. Gentle teasing is never far away and when Barnes, watching a replay of Elliot Daly being knocked into touch near the corner, says “Ooh, it’s close”, Harrison is quick to point out that the England wing put his foot in touch four times!
Match commentators look at the screen, not the live match, partly because of the time lag and partly because that is what the TV viewer sees. Barnes can access a camera angle from one end of pitch to study alignment and also the Opta match stats (dubbed the fruit machine), which update every minute. Does he use these stats to help decide Man of the Match? “I might if I’m undecided between two or more players,” he says.
You suspect he didn’t need to check them today when giving the gong to Semesa Rokodugini, but the Bath man’s stats were impressive nonetheless: 11 carries, 163 metres, six defenders and two tries.
Match over, Barnes turns his attention to writing two pieces for The Sunday Times, and it’s back to the guys in the studio.
This year the broadcaster has ditched the customary sitting-behind-glass format for a more casual standing-on-the-balcony approach, which puts extra onus on security to stop the buffoons who like to pull faces behind the pundits.
Olympic champion Ben Ryan joins anchor Alex Payne and regular guest Sir Clive Woodward and is, as predicted, a total success, with his insights into Fiji players (he tips Leone Nakarawa, the ‘Human Lamppost’, to win 100 caps and be Fiji’s greatest 15s player ever) and forthright messages to World Rugby keeping the audience rapt.
Jonny Wilkinson, a guest for the South Africa game at the start of the Old Mutual Wealth series, is back on duty this weekend.
James Haskell has been on ‘The Gain-line’ today for the first time, having shadowed Will Greenwood the previous week, and the injured England flanker makes a fine fist of it. Beside him a colleague operates the EVS, a hard-drive recording system that is primarily a tool for replays.
Haskell’s pre-match observation about Nemani Nadolo’s use of his inside arm to thwart tacklers has already been borne out by his try, and during the game he makes a good tactical point about Eddie Jones wanting forwards working in pairs off the No 9.
In truth, he looks a natural and at full-time he hotfoots from the truck to join Greenwood by the Sky Cart, which is a super-cool mobile analysis tool fed with live statistical data. As it¹s a touch screen, you can annotate with arrows, circles and squiggles and it allows Sky to interview players pitch-side with all the relevant data at their fingertips.
Sky has the rights to England’s non-Six Nations home matches until 2020. They are not alone in challenging convention and pushing the technological boundaries. Healthy competition is bringing out the best in everyone – and TV viewers are the biggest winners.
- Sky Sports will show England v Australia on Saturday 3 December (from 1.30pm) and next year’s Lions tour of New Zealand, exclusively live.