Looking like a lawyer ready to prosecute his case, Sir Clive Woodward arrived at the ITV studio in Ealing for England’s rout of Chile clasping a large black folder bulging with handwritten notes.
It is now two decades since Woodward led England to World Cup glory and, while talking rugby will always come third to playing (his favourite “by a distance”) and then coaching, there are still nerves and adrenalin ahead of being beamed live into several million homes.
A team of more than 100 might take care of everything across 10 hours of coverage from high-tech graphics and lighting to rapid video-editing and encyclopaedic statistical research but, once the cameras roll, presenter Mark Pougatch and his panel of experts are physically alone.
“Here we go guys... have a good one,” is the last message from inside the gallery, the nearby multi-screened hub, as a clock ticks down the final ten seconds.
‘There is a lot of explaining to do’
With lecterns in front of them, Woodward, Jonny Wilkinson and Lawrence Dallaglio have been likened to candidates in an election debate. Unlike politicians, however, the mantra is to not brush over any tricky detail but to elaborate.
And, if in doubt, to remember that World Cups only come around every four years and that there will be plenty of people tuning into a rugby match for the very first time. It is one reason why the former referee JP Doyle is constantly on hand to demystify the complexities of rugby’s rule-book.
“There will be rugby diehards who sometimes say, ‘Don’t explain that, we know that already’ but we want it to be inclusive, we don’t want to alienate any viewers who might switch on for five minutes and have never watched a game in their life,” says Phil Heslop, ITV’s lead programme editor.
“Ultimately we want to grow the game, encourage people to watch and play it. We always say, ‘Don’t worry about explaining because you might alienate a couple of viewers who know that already. There will be millions more who don’t’. For an England game, you might get four or five million people [peak figures have been almost six million]. How many are diehard rugby players? Probably about half a million.”
Dallaglio, the former England captain who is regularly also a pundit for a more specialist Premiership Rugby audience, believes that a “balance” must be struck. “You’d like to think that you can take the viewer into the hearts and minds of the players,” he says.
“It’s obviously very technical, so unfortunately there is sometimes a lot of explaining to do. You’ve got to balance the explanation so that you don’t upset the seasoned rugby fan. But, for a tournament like this, where lots and lots of people are tuning into maybe one or two rugby matches a year, you are trying to explain. I think sometimes less is more. The soundtrack of any rugby match is the noise in the stadium and what you don’t want to do as a pundit or commentator is talk over that. We don’t always get it right…[but] we try to. Your job is to enhance the viewer experience.”
‘Talking about what you used to do is a bit sad’
With England finally finding their fluency, Saturday’s coverage could focus squarely on rugby and the decisions that now loom for England coach Steve Borthwick. And yet even a routine win over Chile amounts to a roller-coaster off-camera experience – with editing teams working feverishly to prepare clips and Heslop constantly discussing talking points and unseen ideas with Pougatch, Woodward, Wilkinson and Dallaglio.
The biggest challenge is when a significant news story breaks – as it did last Thursday when France’s Antoine Dupont fractured his cheek – and best-laid plans went out in favour of urgently discussing what that might mean for the tournament.
When the unexpected happens, as also with the Euro 2021 final that was so marred by disorder, ITV are blessed with a presenter in Pougatch with the journalistic instinct to change course and ask the right questions.
England’s three World Cup-winning pundits also agree that it is important to not hark back excessively to what they collectively achieved 20 years ago. “Talking about what you used to do is a bit sad really… although occasionally you have to mention it since you ask,” says Dallaglio, grinning.
Wilkinson tries only to speak about what he really knows – which is thankfully rather a lot – and is particularly interested in how emotions shape a match. “I approach it with enormous diligence,” he says. “I’ve been working my entire life to talk about what I’m talking about. It needs to be authentic. I’m interested in performance, what it takes to perform – the team spirit, the coming together and all the mental side. The statistical side I find interesting but I have always sided on the power of the human element.”
‘I watch now and I’m grateful that I’m not playing’
The pundits will all travel to France from the quarter-finals when what has been a virtual 24-hour ITV operation these past three weeks is physically moved across the Channel. That will mean driving trucks to Marseille and Paris from which Heslop and his gallery team will communicate with presenters and pundits who are either pitchside or in a studio inside the stadium. “For the really big games, you want to be on site,” says Heslop.
With Jill Douglas and Gabriel Clarke leading a pitch-side team in France, the group phase will continue to be presented from inside this giant green studio in West London which, by the wonders of technology – and aligning dots on the roof – provides the viewers with the appearance of a Parisian evening.
It is realistic enough for Woodward to have been stopped several times by fans wondering what he is doing back home in Berkshire when he has just been covering a match in Marseille.
On Saturday, after half-an-hour deconstructing England’s 71-0 win, there would be a break of 15 minutes for the ITV evening news before the live cameras were again rolling for Ireland’s win against South Africa. And, as they left the studio, there was a lovely moment when Woodward, Wilkinson and Dallaglio traded places with Brian O’Driscoll, Sam Warburton and Rory Best. More than 500 international caps exchanged handshakes and paused to briefly ponder what might follow.
“Rugby is quite a humble sport – you are only enemies for 80 minutes and the rest of the time you are friends,” said Dallaglio, before noting how “pumped” O’Driscoll and Best seemed to be. So does it all make him miss being out there? “When you are playing, it’s the best thing in the world… but I absolutely couldn’t play another game,” says Dallaglio. “I watch now and I’m grateful that I’m not playing.”
Woodward still loves to pick the brains of the former players. “We’re all sort of backing our own teams but you also want their sides to go well,” he says, of bumping into Warburton, O’Driscoll and Best before acknowledging that the former Wales captain had got him thinking about what he calls the “brains trust” of Ireland’s coaching team.
There is also now very tangible optimism about England. Woodward reckons that Borthwick should start with his best team against Samoa in the final group game and, to his mind, that very definitely means keeping Owen Farrell at fly-half in place of George Ford.
“Make a statement – say, ‘This is my strongest team’,” he says. “I love Owen Farrell – I think he is the current-day Jonny Wilkinson. I’m surprised how much negativity there is around him. He’s an absolutely brilliant player. I would personally stick with him and look at bringing Ford on. I think England have arrived at the World Cup.”
ITV’s live coverage of the Rugby World Cup continues on Wednesday with Uruguay v Namibia at 4pm plus games including New Zealand v Italy (Friday), Scotland v Romania (Saturday) and South Africa v Tonga (Sunday) on ITV1