The calm before the storm for rugby’s television rollercoaster

There was just over an hour to go to kick-off at The Stoop last Sunday, but Daniel Hudson was leaning on a piece of pricey-looking equipment like it was a trusty ledge in his favourite pub and exuding the calm of a man without a care in the world.

The calm before the storm for rugby’s television rollercoaster

The reality is that he was stood in an Outside Broadcast (OB) truck parked metres from the ground and which costs a cool £4.5m (€5.6m). Harlequins and Leinster were about to do battle and it was his job as BT Sport’s match director to catch every last bit of it.

For Hudson, who among other things has overseen a couple of Champions League finals and won industry awards for bringing the game of poker to life on screen, it was just another gig in his claustrophobic and hi-tech world.

Everywhere you looked inside the truck there were wires, speakers, TV screens, computers and a myriad of other unknowable bits and bobs of technology. Sitting alongside it all were boxes of ‘Celebrations’, bunches of satsumas and bottles of water.

Hudson and his crew spend up to 12 hours in their monstrous caves on any given match day and they had already covered Bath’s tie away to Montpellier two days before, so such goodies are as essential as any expensive gizmos on their travels.

All in all, it was just business as usual for the 60-plus crew on the job last weekend for Leinster’s visit to Harlequins in the Rugby Champions Cup, but the scale of the task took some digesting for the uninitiated.

Eighteen cameras were rigged up around the ground, including one to capture lineouts. Another was attached to referee Jerome Garces. And that’s nothing special in itself: Premier League soccer matches require up to 35 cameras. Each.

Hudson’s control bunker is dissected into three parts: his area of operations, a VT unit and a sound segment. Over the next few hours, they ran through 114 individual programme segments before the red button was turned off and everyone could breath easier.

Nothing is overlooked.

To Hudson’s left was a woman whose only job it was to count backwards: to let him know that a segment had three minutes to go, then two, then one etc. In this industry, seconds are precious, schedules key.

Little expense has been spared in BT’s plunge into the live sports market, but they have tried to stand out by doing things differently: like on-pitch pre-match chats with players.

Brian O’Driscoll, who last Sunday was stationed in BT’s HQ at Olympic Park with anchor Craig Doyle, has said that he was persuaded to join them as an analyst “because I’ve been impressed by their new and fresh approach to rugby coverage”.

Hudson, who also directs the station’s innovative “Rugby Tonight” programme every Monday evening, said much the same. “I have loads of mates who love rugby and we’re just trying to make it as hands-on as possible for people,” he explained.

That approach has drawn a favourable reaction from viewers taken in by Sam Warburton’s demonstration of rucking techniques on the weekly magazine show and O’Driscoll’s explainer session in the art of defending the midfield channels.

Ultimately, it is the people that sell television rather than gadgets and BT have sought to inject a less reverential tone into their rugby coverage with analysts like Matt Dawson and Austin Healy.

The head of BT’s Consumer Division, John Petter, has spoken of the need to demystify the game for the masses and the potential for growing the audience. Like any live broadcast, they had their critics last Sunday.

Dawson and David Flatman’s analysis of Harlequins’ win was criticised for being too skewed in the English side’s favour while Doyle’s use of the phrase ‘big man’ when addressing Harlequins manager Conor O’Shea drew groans aplenty.

The result wasn’t great either, but then it’s hard to blame them for that.

* BT Sport 1 and BT Sport 2 are available as part of the Setanta Sports Pack, which can be subscribed to for €1 this December.

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