What’s great about rugby is that there’s always more for you to learn about the game and you can never know everything there is to know. I learnt a helluva lot on Saturday, working the commentary booth with renowned Australian broadcaster Greg Clark for the Sunwolves versus Reds match in Tokyo.
It was the first time I’d done commentary for a Super Rugby game and I’ve got to say it was quite intimidating. I’ve been involved in a few big games as a coach, but I experienced a different kind of nervousness for this match.
I never fully realised how much work goes into preparing the broadcast of a live rugby match from a media point of view. Three minutes before kickoff, one of the production guys confirmed that there were no changes to the squad. I did most of my homework on the two teams after they were announced on Thursday – making notes of team stats and then a look at the lineups with explanations based on players missing through injury.
The pronunciations can be difficult, especially with the Sunwolves – in Japan, there’s a big difference between “Kazuki Himeno” and “Kazuka Himeno”, so you’ve got to practice saying the names. And all of that would have gone out the window if there were late changes to the team.
As a coach, I never realised how much of an impact making changes would have on everyone else’s plans for the match. I didn’t realise it was that big of a deal, but I learnt that changes alter what you can and can’t talk about as the game unfolds.
Ideally, coaches would like to have until five minutes before kickoff to name their team, but now I can really appreciate why media people want the team on a Thursday.
We got to the stadium two hours before kickoff and I saw how different the run sheet is for broadcasters compared to a coach’s checklist. Instead of checking that the team bus had arrived with the tackle bag and shields needed for the warmup, that the players were mentally up, assessing the conditions and talking through the options for the coin toss, Clarkie and I did a trial run of the commentary.
It’s not as simple as just winging it, because you can’t. You’ve got to factor in all kinds of breaks, like cutting to the guy who is pitch side.
Clarkie watched the match through binoculars which, looking back, probably makes it easier to call the game because you’re zoomed in on a ball-carrier or a lineout instead of trying to see everything at once, like a coach watches the game.
The whole way through, you’re being cued by a guy in the production van who is controlling your volume and the broadcast schedule. Sometimes you want to talk, but you’re not sure it’s the right time.
My comments came from a coaching perspective, looking at the way the referee was blowing the contest and the way the match was taking shape.
But the worrying part was wondering whether the stats I’d researched would come up, or if it would be stuff I hadn’t prepped for! That’s what is so intimidating about being in the box – as the game is changing you’ve got to be able to adjust.
Fortunately, I started off by saying that I thought the Sunwolves were going to win. Clarkie said that probably wouldn’t earn me a lot of mates in Queensland; I said I’d probably never have mates there because I coached the Brumbies!
I was really impressed by the amount of work that Greg had put into that match, with multiple spreadsheets on each player’s background.
Another thing I learnt was that commentary is actually a performance. You have to describe the action like you’re talking to a group of mates watching the game in their lounge. You can’t be monotone; through your voice you have to try and create the stadium atmosphere for the audience in their home. As a coach, you doubt whether you’re capable of selling that kind of performance.
And then I learnt about going to the toilet. I thought I’d just hang on until halftime and then make my way to the bathroom. But halftime is when the highlights run and it dawned on me that the show doesn’t stop!
I made the same assumption as many fans probably make about what their team does at halftime. Supporters may not realise that while they’re grabbing a beer, the coach is squeezing in a day’s work into that 15-minute break.
Just before the second half, the broadcast cut to a quick ad break and I sprinted off to the bathroom. Luckily, I had Clarkie in the box and he was able to cover for me and I made it back in time for the restart. Now I know – you can’t just sit there and drink lots of water, the reality is that you even have to factor in toilet breaks.
I also saw the power of media, because basically whatever you say is almost taken as gospel. If the producer focuses the camera on a player, you’ve got to come up with something to say about him, and what you say can potentially have a massive impact on the perception of that player.
There’s a common frustration with the media among coaches who feel that the pundits don’t fully understand parts of the game and therefore don’t have the base needed to draw some of their conclusions. On the other side, Saturday taught me that there’s a lot more that goes into media work than just expressing an opinion.
I really enjoyed the experience. In all my years of being involved in rugby, I never realised the work that goes into media. It helped me to understand what makes the media tick, and how comfortable we all are in our own part of the rugby world.