PASSION AND PROFESSIONALISM
One of the most sage pieces of advice offered to RTÉ head of sport Ryle Nugent was that if he survived the first 10 years without people liking or disliking his rugby commentary, he might just make it. On the eve of his 15th season behind the mic, he evidently succeeded.
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NO matter how things work out, he won’t approach that climax today.
Ryle Nugent returns to Cardiff, the scene of his and Irish rugby’s finest moment, but even if it goes down to the last kick as a good share of these Ireland-Wales games do, there’ll be a modicum of restraint. He’ll be exuberant, for sure, but you won’t find him having the kind of on-air orgasm his radio colleague Michael Corcoran routinely does. What works for Michael doesn’t work for everyone. It certainly doesn’t work for Nugent. It just isn’t him, it just isn’t how he was trained.
He brings you back to a conversation back in 1999 in the very same head of sport office that he occupies these days. Back then Tim O’Connor was the sports don in Donnybrook, Nugent, a fledgling reporter and presenter who had yet to even attempt being a commentator. Ulster had won the European Cup and Nugent as a sideline reporter had been swept up and away by the feel-great vibes that resounded around Lansdowne that day. The following day he was called aside by his boss and told straight up that he had been poor.
“Ryle, what’s the biggest thing that can happen in Irish rugby?”
A reeling Nugent volunteered that it would probably be Ireland winning the World Cup. O’Connor nodded. “And what would be the second biggest?”
Ireland winning a World Cup semi-final or a Grand Slam. Next, Ireland winning a first Triple Crown since 1985.
“Okay,” mused O’Connor, “so where does Ulster winning the Heineken Cup without the English teams competing in it sit among the achievements of Irish rugby? What are you going to do when something really momentous happens? You left yourself with nowhere to go after yesterday. You were treating it like Ireland had won the World Cup.”
That piece of advice has remained with Nugent. “It was no reflection on Ulster, he stresses. “It was a reflection on me.” Even when Munster won the 2006 Heineken Cup by which time the English clubs were long back playing in it and Munster’s quest for their holy grail had become a national fascination, Nugent reckons he only went to 98% on the Ryleometer.
“Ireland-England in Croke Park I was at 99. I’ve been at 100% once and that was the 78th minute of the Grand Slam game, Stringer to O’Gara. That was the absolute limit of my performance.”
Nugent is one of those personalities in Irish life that we all know without actually knowing him. A couple of hours in his company and office though and you are struck by his diligence, professionalism and passion to the craft and duty that is public service broadcasting.
He has always been something of a media junkie. His mother Barbara was a chief executive with the Sunday Tribune and later the Sunday Business Post but there was nothing privileged about his apprenticeship. At 15 he would spend his weekends and summers answering the radio request line for the pirate station Radio Sunshine. Heaven was that portable building behind the Sands Hotel in Portmarnock, mixing with eclectic characters like the forever-wired Martin King and Dusty Rhodes showing him how to work a radio desk.
After his Leaving he did a one-year media course in Ballyfermot before getting a break with 98FM when their head of sport Aidan Cooney offered him a job. Nugent was in his element; while he had been a mediocre rugby player at Blackrock, playing for the seconds, he had loved the game while he was a highly competent swimmer, competing for Ireland at schools level.
In 1994 a gig presenting an RTÉ sports children’s programme ‘The Grip’ popped up. Nugent, 22 at the time, took it but soon feared he’d made a disastrous move.
“I felt I was embarrassing myself. It was the classic children’s television presentation — over the top, being overly-exuberant — when I wanted to be known as a journalist. Just look at the number of people who have gone into kids’ TV and had long broadcasting careers: very few.”
His fears would be appeased. The Grip aged up through the years while once he had his foot in the door, other doors opened for him. Tim O’Connor was impressed by his eagerness and assigned him to reading the results on Sunday Sport, then editing highlight programmes, then sideline reporting. By 1999 he felt Nugent was ready to commentate. Nugent didn’t. He had never been one of those kids impersonating a commentator while darting between imaginary opponents. He had never wanted to be a commentator. But O’Connor was looking for one and as Nugent puts it, “Tim wasn’t the kind of man you’d say no to.”
Nugent was dispatched down to the training centre, handed a set of headphones with crowd effects ringing in his ear, and told to commentate on an obscure old game that they had dug up from the archives. Then O’Connor took up a chair directly behind Nugent.
“It was quite an intimidating scene and I just kind of floundered my way through it. Tim said nothing to me and I thought I had been dreadful but a few days later he pulled me in and said ‘That was a really good start. You actually did it. You had the balls to do it. Most people don’t even get that far. Now I want you to go back in knowing that you can actually do it.”
Nugent didn’t know it at the time but O’Connor had already calculated that he needed a fourth commentator for the rugby World Cup quarter-final play-offs since it would have been logistically impossible for either Fred Cogley, George Hamilton or Jim Sherwin to cover a second match that weekend. So throughout that summer of ‘99 Nugent commentated on tens of games for O’Connor’s ears only.
O’Connor was a hard but brilliant mentor. ‘You’re over-talking. You’re stating the blindingly obvious. You’re not identifying the players at key moments. You’re talking over the replay about something the viewers at home can’t see and confusing them. Use more adjectives; if you use the word ‘amazing’ five times in 20 minutes, it becomes hugely aggravating at a subconscious level for the viewer. And above all, remember it’s not about you.’
“That was one piece of advice he gave me at the very beginning: be like the best referees where people nearly forget that you’re there. He actually said that if you want to make a career in this you need to get through the first 10 years without people liking you or disliking you. If people make up their mind about you in the first couple of years, good or bad, you’re done after a few years because they’ll get bored of you. I thought that was an odd thing to say but there was a lot of truth in it. I was behind Fred and George and Jim at the time and it was about me bedding in at the time and learning my trade instead of putting my head so far above the parapet and saying ‘Look at me!’ If I did people would have gone, ‘He’s aggravating me’ or ‘He’s trying too hard.’ It was just about doing the job professionally.”
He got ill 20 minutes before that first live commentary. It was Twickenham, England against Fiji, World Cup quarter-final playoff and Nugent had arrived there five hours before kickoff. The Fijian team had some lovely names like Tikomaimakogai for Nugent to get his tongue around and when Tom McGurk handed over to him and Ralph Keyes, Nugent stumbled. “It was frightening but then something in the back of my mind went, ‘Stop trying, just get on with it.’
He doesn’t hide from mistakes. Sometime tomorrow he’ll sit down and review today’s Six Nations opener in Cardiff and his performance. “It’s the only way you’ll develop,” he says. But he’s long since realised that you can’t be consumed by the fear of messing up either because that will only increase the likelihood of making mistakes. You can’t worry about your critics either.
“Every now and then I’ll hear the comment, ‘You don’t understand the rules.’ But you know what, the referee might have said that penalty was awarded for another infraction but I saw a knock-on there as well so I know I know the rules. Do I make mistakes? Absolutely. The only thing is if I make a mistake in a particularly big match and a moment is going to be played over and over again, that moment is there forever; I can’t take it back. But I can live with that. If you can’t accept the criticism then you shouldn’t do this because it will eat you up. I don’t think there is any commentator in any sport that has 100 percent support.”
Even when he was progressing through the commentary ranks, he still kept working away behind the scenes, assuming positions like chief executive editor of the 2002 soccer World Cup. That all-round knowledge meant that he would graduate to being deputy head of sport in 2006 and four years later to head of sport itself after Glen Killane was promoted to managing director of television.
By international standards, it’s a rather unique scenario, doubling up as a head of sport as well as a leading commentator, but as he points out it’s hardly unprecedented in RTÉ. There have been six heads of sport in the station’s history. Micheál Ó Hehir was a commentator, Fred Cogley too. After that came O’Connor, Niall Cogley and Killane before Nugent came along to restore the dual role tradition. It involves a lot of seven-day weeks but as he stresses, it’s a vocation. In fact for him, it’s a cause.
“I’ve always wanted to be in a place where we all come in and are deeply committed to providing the best possible service of national and international sport for an Irish audience. If that sounds like a mantra that’s because it is and I say it all the time. We’re measured against some of the best-funded and best-produced broadcasters in the word. I mean, 80 percent of the population are able to get BBC and ITV. Considering their financial and technological elements, we should lose that battle on every scorecard. And the challenge is to come in here and not let that happen. There is no such thing as an exclusive sports right anymore. You can watch the Champions League, Premiership highlights, the Six Nations elsewhere but the figures will show that we will have six times more of an audience than the BBC for the Ireland-Wales game.”
Of course the Six Nations isn’t the only major competition kicking off this weekend. So is the National Football League. Again, RTÉ’s television coverage only extends to highlights. In his convention report Dublin county secretary John Costello again wondered how is it the national broadcaster can go from October to late April without broadcasting a single GAA match live. Nugent argues that it isn’t as clear cut as that.
“It isn’t just a decision from RTÉ not to do the league and that we’re not interested in the league. We are. But we have to make value judgements based on how much money we have and what we can do with it. RTÉ don’t have the divine right to win the rights to broadcast any sports event. It’s not like we’re ever going to pump everything into GAA and leave nothing for soccer or rugby or the other sports. We’ve got to prioritise and offer the audience as good a blend of sports to broadcast as we possibly can.
“Do I want us to do the national leagues? Yes. Is it something that we have made a decision not to do live? Absolutely not. But ultimately the GAA make the decision. It may well be that when the rights come up again next year that we (RTÉ) end up with more league and less championship or no league; you can’t pre judge it.”
Other big ones have escaped the net as well. Heineken Cup, both live and even highlights. But you can’t have them all.
“There have been really difficult decisions we’ve had to make. It is a very competitive market. And we are now under extreme financial pressure. The director general has made a public decree that we will reduce sports rights by 25percent by 2015 and he has made a commitment to the government that RTÉ will break even in 2013. Sport has to play its part in that.”
Nugent, though, rejects the notion that tall-poppy syndrome is rampant and argues the national broadcaster still honourably fulfils its public service remit in covering minority sports or unfashionable events.
“We did 23 days of horseracing last year, two days of greyhounds. When the Irish hockey teams were on the brink of Olympic qualification we showed those games live. We did the national boxing championships, Olympic qualifiers, the European cross-country championships that Fionnuala Britton won her last gold medal. We covered 24 Airtricity soccer games. That all involved significant investment. It isn’t just Ireland-England in the Six Nations or covering the All Ireland final.”
There are all kinds of other challenges and developments. He is particularly mindful that the station’s star panellists and anchors can’t go on forever. The day will come when Bill or McGurk call it a day. You won’t always have both George and Brent there, or Dunphy, Giles and Brady intact. But there will be evolution.
“It will never be a case of everyone out on Friday and start again on Monday. It has got to be from an audience point of view, a gradual change, as seamless as possible, so the audience still engages with what we do. It goes back to Tim’s time when the competition and comparisons with other stations started in earnest. He decided that editorially we had to be different, that our pundits had to offer an opinion in a way that would never happen on Sky or BBC or whatever, but which would engage with the Irish public. Because that’s what we do as a nation, we all have a bloody opinion. And that’s something I’m still very protective of.”
It’s nearly time to go. He has a conference call to take, then some research ahead of Cardiff, then off to coach his son and the Wayside Celtic U11 soccer team. It takes a lot for him to miss that reminder of the basic essence and joy of sport but he’ll miss their game this weekend. While they’re playing that morning, he’ll arrive at the stadium in good time, if not quite as early as he used to in the early years, catch the two teams arriving in the stadium, get a few words with bagman Paddy ‘Rala’ O’Reilly about how the team’s pre-match night went. Normally they’re not fit for national television, but the yarns give him a sense of what the mood of the group is.
And before long then, it’s on, and he’s into it, lost in the game, getting out of his own way, and hoping he stays out of our way too. Just like a good referee should.
Picture: Maura Hickey
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