*Editorial apology - Unfortunately as things stand, we are still unable to add photographs to the site due to technical issues, due to the time sensitive nature of the relevance of this blog, we have decided to post it without the photographs, but we will be adding them as soon as the issue is resolved*
@Peakthinking behind the BT Sport Rugby curtain
by James from RugbyUnited.
BT Sport generously provided RugbyUnited with a rare insight behind the scenes of the biggest day in Premiership Rugby’s year, the end of season Final at Twickenham. What does it take to get a game of this magnitude to the screen?
I’ve been to see the Premiership Final at Twickenham a few times, always enjoying the very special atmosphere of a packed stadium in end of season party mode. I’ve also watched countless games on BT Sport and wondered at the process by which the excitement of the match is successfully transferred to the viewers at home.
RugbyUnited had allowed me to take over their prestigious Rugby England Twitter account (@RugbyEng) for the day to provide coverage of the game and BT Sport’s production processes. Alongside representatives from three other rugby fans’ internet sites, I was welcomed at the hallowed main gate at HQ by BT Sport’s representative Robin Heywood. Once issued with passes and tickets we strode through the gates to start our behind the scenes tour.
Paul Morgan, Premiership Rugby’s Communications Director kindly took time out of his busy Final Day schedule to greet us and take us through to the changing rooms. This was the first of the amazing experiences that day: seeing inside the hallowed spaces minutes before the players arrived at the stadium.
The kits were all neatly laid out by the players’ pegs (“Mr Launchbury” for Wasps; “Gareth Steenson” for Chiefs), all their boots were neatly aligned (why does Tom Young need three pairs?); match day programmes ready for last minute familiarisation with their opposition; all their drinks and other energy supplements were on tables in OCD straight lines; and motivational posters up on the walls for inspiration. I spoke to Pudsey, Wasps’ amiable kitman, who said he had got their changing room ready the previous night and he
was just putting final touches sorted today. He said everything was sorted, right down to drinks chilling in the fridge for afterwards.
We were then allowed to walk out of the players’ tunnel on to the pitchside. The stands were almost entirely empty but you can easily imagine the potentially overwhelming atmosphere when running out to face the full wall of noise from an expectant crowd.
Paul handed us over to Titus Hill, the very relaxed Executive Producer of BT Sport’s production of the Premiership Final. He said that all the preparation was in place, the running order was printed and scripted to the second, the talented 130- strong team were all set and he was calm about the day so showing us around was no problem. Even so, it was very kind of him to spare his time.
BT Sport Rugby’s leading “talent” (the way the presenters are referred to by the talented production team) were all busy with pre-broadcast preparations. Sarra Elgan dashed past, heading towards a presenting position to show the crowds massing outside waiting for the teams. Craig Doyle looked relaxed while he practiced some opening lines. Ben Kay and Austin Healey were rehearsing a demo of Exeter’s tactics which they would do live later in the afternoon’s broadcast.
We were taken up to media gantry in the West Stand and saw where the magic that Nick Mullins and the other commentators weave is done from. The view of the game from there is fabulous, rivalling the President’s box area, but the pressure will be much higher here. When done as well as BT Sport’s Mullins and Alastair Eykyn do it, the commentator matches the pictures perfectly, providing a glorious description that enhances the viewers’ experience.
We saw the commentators’ mixing box that pipes in the audio feeds to them from the director and others in the production lorry, the ref mic and the various BT Sport reporters around the ground. Nick would be sat next to co-commentator Ben Kay with Austin Healey given rein over an illustrator screen. Their mics were there ready for the game. Their screens display a dizzying range of statistics to sprinkle helpfully into their commentary. Mullins will also be consulting his own information sheet that he prepares for every game
based on his research, stats from BT Sport, Opta and others, visiting the clubs to talk to players and coaches, watching endless games and his knowledge of the game. Concentrating on so many different simultaneous information feeds must be a constant barrage on the senses. The composure the BT Sport commentators display despite this and the sweeping emotion of the crowd around them in truly impressive. We all then descended to the ground floor and went out of the stadium to the TV production area near-by.
After seeing the vital crew food station we heard about some interesting virtual reality trials that the BT team were doing during the Final. These wouldn’t be part of the broadcast today but might this hint to technology coming soon to a screen near you soon?
The lorries are parked in rows, grey in colour and give very little away from the outside of the feverish activity within. Stepping into the air conditioned oasis though was like getting a peak at NASA’s Mission Control centre. A huge array of screens, lights, image controllers, and so many production staff are crammed in Tardis-style to a space that accommodates more than the outside suggests it could. The Director was in charge of the operations, calling the shots he wants to tell the story of the final. And when Lawrence Dallaglio wandered in, delayed by traffic on route and having arrived without his pass, the team calmly sorted it out to get him (and his very white shoes) into the stadium. For me the most remarkable thing was how calm and controlled everyone was. Titus said it had to be like that: everyone knew their job and everyone knew any meltdowns would impact negatively on their coverage.
For our last stop on the behind the scenes tour we went to the fantastic BT Sport Big Stage. Tim Cocker and Andy Goode were hosting on stage: despite their rival podcasts, as experienced media professionals they appeared to be working the crowd well together. We were shown the Stage production tented area, a miniversion of the production lorries, where the team were again ever so calmly mixing hosts’ stage mics and the all the video, graphics and sound for the large screens surrounding the stage. It’s clearly a complex task but the team seemed serene despite the cramped space and all the external distractions from hundreds of partying fans waiting for the game.
Titus left us with handshakes all round at this point and wandered off with one of the production team to resolve an issue elsewhere. Robin took us back inside the stadium for a delicious lunch and then escorted us to pitch side again to see the teams come out. The heat from the flame guns was incredible. The noise of the crowd was deafening. It was pinch-me-its-not-real incredible to be beside the replacements’ bench as the players ran out on to the pitch. Given the emergence into this sort of emotional cauldron it’s no wonder first time finalists might feel slightly overawed and distracted from their game. Exeter players have said last year they were just pleased to be there and experience it: Saracens surged to an early lead. This year Wasps
suffered a similar uncertain, mistake-littered and slow start and Chiefs were the ones to race ahead on the scoreboard. Perhaps it does affect even the experienced internationals throughout the Wasps side although their class showed as they swept back into contention before half-time. We returned with Robin to pitchside again at the break to photograph and film the scenes from the there. We saw Doyle, Toulon-bound Chris Ashton and Dallaglio provide analysis of the action perched on stools beside the temporary desk. I had a quick chat with Chris after his duties about his feelings being there without playing this year and his plans to depart the UK for Toulon in June. I went again to the pitchside after the final whistle to document the celebrations after the game, soak up the enthusiasm of rejoicing Exeter Chiefs fans. Their unadulterated excitement was a pleasure to witness up close. Craig stopped for a quick chat about his delight about how gripping the game had been, what felt like the unprecedented atmosphere inside the stadium, wariness at mics being open and his summer plans to cover TT and Moto GP racing. Hopefully he’ll get some time for a break. Like all the BT Sport Rugby team it’s been a long season since way back in September 2016 and all deserve some rest to recharge ahead of the new one.
During the game I reflected that despite the excitement of what was taking place on the pitch, with boneshuddering tackles, athletic artistry, sweeping ebb and flow attack and defensive and a thrilling extra-time conclusion, all would be calm in the production team at BT Sport. Calm, professional and very good at their jobs they brought the exhilarating Final of the 2016-17 season to the millions watching at home. BT Sport’s current deal with Premiership Rugby covers until the end of the 2020-21 season: with coverage this good it will hopefully keep raising the bar and being on our screens. This was my first insight into the astounding intricacy of putting out such a huge live broadcast operation. It was an eye-opening and fantastic experience. Thank you BT Sport and Premiership Rugby for the access and hospitality shown throughout the day.
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