BT Sport will broadcast Aviva Premiership rugby until at least 2021 after a new deal announced today. Rugby World reports on what goes into their top-class match coverage as we go behind the scenes at Bath, Gloucester and Wasps…
Two weekends ago I attended the Aviva Premiership games at Bath, Gloucester and Wasps without setting foot in a stadium. Instead, I was in a van in the car park observing some of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into BT Sport’s outstanding rugby coverage.
What appears on screen as spontaneous, even effortless, presentation actually requires an avalanche of planning and detail. Yes, the likes of Craig Doyle and Martin Bayfield have an enviable talent for ad-libbing, jazzing up the bones of a script in their own inimitable style. But like a colony of ants scurrying around to serve their queen, so there’s a multitude of clever people behind the polished product that is beamed into our living rooms. (Bet that’s the first time the 6ft 10in Bayfield has been called a queen ant.)
Good eggs and crumble
Every match day starts with the producer, on this occasion Matt Curtis, talking through the running order, to iron out any creases and make contingencies. At Bath this meeting took place at 3.15pm – four and a half hours before kick-off.
Plan A was to open with Doyle getting off the Sale bus and walking with Steve Diamond. And with Diamond being a good egg, this is what happened. But it can’t be presumed, even though ‘Brando’, a Kiwi charged with liaising with players and coaches on requests from telly executives, is a floor manager par excellence.
The nerve centre of operations is an inconspicuous truck that, Tardis-like, contains a battery of screens and panels and lights and important people, such as the producer and director, the latter for all this particular weekend’s matches being the genial Rhys Edwards, who sounds just like his legendary dad Gareth.
The Television Match Official also sits in here. Austin Healey likes to taunt the TMO, pointing out that all they do is munch biscuits, and for the Bath-Sale match Sean Davey would have had time to devour a double packet of custard creams because there wasn’t a sniff of a try.
There’s time for some grub from the outside caterers (rump steak!) before rehearsal, and, when asked to say something for the sound check, special guest Alex Goode says: “I’m still bitter that there was no crumble on the apple crumble!” Goode is sitting next to Healey, who by chance has criticised the England full-back in that day’s Daily Telegraph…
I was with the graphics team, responsible for putting up every scrap of information that appears on your TV before, during and after the match. It’s a big gig, and to see Ade, Robin, Roges and Tom at work is to witness a unit with the telepathic understanding of an All Black threequarter line.
Communication is all. Using a panel of switches, Ade confers regularly with the director, producer and commentary team, as well as the time-keeping production assistant, whose role includes announcing substitutions and ensuring that the logo of sponsors Citizen appears above the match clock six times in each half. If a decision is referred to the TMO, Ade can listen to both the referee and TMO to prepare an appropriate graphic.
It’s a poor game tonight but the pace in the graphics van never slackens, because every break in play is a potential opportunity to provide a biog line on a player (called a ‘vis’) or a stats table (a ‘trio’). In addition, there are match stats churning out – on something resembling a fruit machine – that graphics can use to highlight the themes of the match and reinforce what the commentary team is saying.
For example, when it’s clear early in the game that Sale are tackling their socks off, the lads prepare a tackle count graphic and alert the commentary team so that when it flashes up on screen, Lawrence Dallaglio is able to say, without breaking stride, “Look at that tackle count, it shows how hard Sale are working.” Or words to that effect.
Replicate that harmony across all the various working relationships and you have a super-slick production.
Live from The Shed
Friday night, with its 45-minute build-up and post-match analysis, is a tough ask. When the crew moves to Gloucester the next day, the build-up is reduced substantially because the show follows on from live football, though there’s an additional demand on the graphics team – updating viewers with rugby and football scores. Got the London Welsh score ready? Oops, it’s changed again.
BT Sport like to mix things up a bit so today they’ve got Bayfield doing a link alongside Mike Tindall in The Shed. Healey once did an interview with a Gloucester fan here and concluded it by raising his arm for a slap of palms and saying “high six!”.
Northampton Saints are today’s visitors and the game is a 33-33 cracker, the on-pitch thrills producing genuine excitement amid the back-room team, most of whom work for award-winning sports programmers Sunset+Vine. They want a great game just as much the paying spectators.
The match passes smoothly and, with more live football scheduled, the show is wrapped up within minutes of the final whistle. Cue lots of pulling out cables and moving of the 18 cameras routinely employed for league matches.
Splish, splash, splodge
And so to rainy Coventry for the third leg of this mini tour, where the burden for the Wasps v Saracens coverage is eased considerably, because much of the labour is done by a team in the London studio. There are also a few tricks of the trade as regards timings, always made with the viewers’ enjoyment in mind.
Analyst Ben Kay makes us laugh with a line about drying his hair and then we’re off again, Christian Wade soon illuminating the match with an outrageously skilful try that provokes a flurry of instructions from the director, who flies in replays offered up by the VT coordinator from a variety of camera angles.
Robin spots that the first scrum doesn’t occur until the 25th minute. Roges flags up the unusually low number of phases. Ade asks for a territory map to highlight Saracens’ second-half dominance. There are splodges and pop-ups, crawls and LTLs, and before the end Ade digs out a stat on the visitors – which illustrates their supreme ability to play with 14 men – that so impresses Nick Mullins that he name-checks him in the commentary.
It’s a well-deserved pat on the back – and one that should apply to the whole outside-broadcast team. These people, many of them unheralded, have an expertise and dedication to duty that can only be admired.