TV's new vision: Access all areas of the Aviva Premiership
BT Sport's coverage is revolutionising how we watch rugby union
Richard Cockerill's match-day ban will keep the Leicester coach off-limits to his players and TV interviewers alike at today's meeting with Worcester, which is bad news for rugby's big-money new broadcasters. "Who's the Jose Mourinho of rugby?" asked Grant Best, the executive producer in charge of BT's four-year contract to cover the Aviva Premiership. "Richard Cockerill. He is somebody from the BT Sport side of things who makes us say, 'wow, what an engaging character – great answers, and intelligent and insightful'. We want more of that. So we're going to give him the platform to express that."
This statement may fill you with amusement or horror, depending on your view of Mourinho and Cockerill, but more crucially of BT's promise to demystify and deconstruct rugby union, while preserving its traditional values. The £100million-plus deal with the English clubs – the exact amount will depend on whether they broadcast European competitions from next year, if indeed there are any – includes new access to players and coaches before and during matches. It began this week and Best, who worked in American sports with ESPN before this, admits it will take time to settle. "You've got to keep asking the questions, or things will always be the same," he said. "My dream as a director of live football and rugby is to take Old Trafford, for instance, and you do your 'tunnel walk' with the players, in the style of Martin Brundle on the grid in Formula One. And you say, 'hi Rio, how's it going?'"
Matt Dawson, one of BT Sport's familiar ex-player pundits, hailed the Brundle example for its previously unavailable insight. "We're taking rugby to a level we'd have wanted to have seen when we were playing," said Dawson, at the huge BT studio in London's Olympic Park. "It was easy to get frustrated in those days – it was just the match and then a simple view." At Friday's Newcastle v Bath Premiership match in the teeming rain the players were a willingly chatty bunch 30 minutes before kick-off. If anything it pricked the bubble of the portentous "toughest league in the world" build-up. When Bath's substituted captain Stuart Hooper told us midway through the second half that it had been "like playing in a washing machine" his team were 9-0 up. We need to see what happens after a big incident such as Manu Tuilagi punching Chris Ashton a couple of years ago. Austin Healey, Dawson's BT sidekick who played alongside Cockerill for Leicester and England, identified a single notorious incident as the tipping point for rugby's realisation that if it wants to play with broadcasters' money, there is a quid pro quo in allowing the cameras ever closer.
"There was an old-school brigade that was broken by a man who's just come back to the Premiership," said Healey. "Dean Richards was caught for 'bloodgate' [in 2009]. Five years earlier that would have been dealt with in-house. Instead it became a completely open-market media situation and he was hung out to dry, effectively. He wasn't the only person doing it, messing around with the blood law, although he took it to the nth degree. But there was a period when other people who had been involved turned on him and completely left the old school behind. And at that point rugby became more inclusive because it enabled everybody to be allowed to see what was going on."
The late and much-lamented Cliff Morgan described rugby union as a combination of "opera, ballet and murder". The game has violent aspects which media coverage inevitably pick up and amplify. Cockerill was a central figure in last season's controversial Premiership final at Twickenham which featured a red card for Northampton's Dylan Hartley for calling the referee an effing cheat, and Cockerill ranting at the touchline officials and being banned from coaching his team for nine matches including today's.
Part of Cockerill's anger on the day was caused, ironically, by the referee, Wayne Barnes, choosing not to make use of a television replay after a heavy tackle on Toby Flood. How many remember that final for the clever scrummaging by Leicester, the winners, or the manful attacking in defeat by Ben Foden?
Barnes admitted this week his regret that his repetition of Hartley's swearing was heard on the live TV coverage (the reported audience on ESPN – who, along with Sky, have been superseded by BT – was 120,000) and said: "Your microphone becomes public property, and you're aware of that. By and large it's good for the game. It educates the public, and people can better understand what we're trying to do."
The swearing was excised from BT's re-run of the final shown last Wednesday evening, and there is a delay on the "live" dressing-room footage at matches in case something untoward needs to be cut. A head-knock to Newcastle's Jamie Helleur on Friday night was not replayed (the centre was later reported to be up and about). So it's not quite warts and all. "I've got four daughters and I don't want them seeing that," Healey said, referring to swearing. "The referees have got to buy in as well. Let the game police itself a bit more and you'll get more out of it. Rugby clubs are slowly coming around to opening their doors completely. The level to which BT have got involved has made them think they have to get on board. The more those sides open up, the more rugby will open up to the masses. And if I was a chief executive or director of rugby I'd be thinking, with rugby on the cusp of being a much more global sport, that if I open it up more, I will get more back."
Austin Healey and Matt Dawson are rugby experts for BT Sport. The next game airs on Friday 13 September at 7.45pm with Harlequins v Northampton Saints
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The Rugby Championship/Super Rugby/Currie Cup/ITM Cup Sky - majority of matches live.
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