TV3 ready for Rugby World Cup scrumdown
For the commercial channel, the tournament is the biggest show on earth. Will its coverage measure up?
The excitement on the faces of TV3 executives at the launch of their autumn schedule in the Aviva Stadium on Wednesday was visible. They were cock-a-hoop as the canapés were passed around, rugby pundits mingled with game show hosts and Twink posed for the cameras with her dog.
David McRedmond, the station's chief executive, jokingly told the audience in the Aviva: "Welcome to the new home of rugby - TV3."
The station is proud of being in possession of one of sport's crown jewels, having snatched it from under the nose of RTÉ.
In a fortnight's time the Rugby World Cup kicks off, and for TV3 it might as well be the biggest show on earth - bigger even than the time SIPTU boss Jack O'Connor walked off Vincent Browne's show, or someone else threw a hissy fit on the same programme.
With the sole Irish rights to all 48 of the games, TV3 has taken on its most ambitious live project, and the atmosphere at the at the channel is one of excitement mingled with nervousness.
No wonder the autumn schedule was unveiled with a certain razzmatazz as Phil Coulter and his band belted out the controversial rugby anthem 'Ireland's Call'.
A documentary coinciding with the World Cup will tell the story of Coulter's anthem, and TV3 will also have its own rugby version of Après Match, known as Sin Bin. It stars comedian Andrew Maxwell and Newstalk's Off the Ball presenter, Joe Molloy.
As he showed me round the vast set of the station's HD World Cup studio in Ballymount on the edge of Dublin's M50, head of sport Kieran Holden told me on Tuesday: "This is like a relaunch of the channel."
On one side of the studio is the set where Ireland AM is filmed, with its catwalk, comfy sofas and space for rustling up recipes. On the other side is the vast space-age rugby set, soon to be populated by a team of pundits including former rugby internationals Keith Wood, Peter Stringer and Shane Byrne.
TV3 is promising all the bells and whistles, with state of the art touchscreen graphics similar to those on Sky, so that viewers can see exactly what happened at that tackle before the try, (even if they don't know the difference between a ruck and a maul).
No doubt some rugby fans will grumble that the tournament is not being brought to them by the time-honoured team of McGurk, Hook and Pope, on RTÉ, but two of that combination have already stood down from the Montrose channel.
In the absence of Hook, who will be the pantomime villain on TV3? Who will cause outrage, surprise and bewilderment between the ad breaks?
On RTÉ, every big sport show has to have one, with Eamon Dunphy filling the role in soccer, and Joe Brolly in GAA.
Shane Byrne, the mullet-haired former hooker, says: "I won't be the villain, but I will be prepared to tell it how it is if mistakes are made."
Kieran Holden says: "The coverage does not have to have a villain, but our panellists will not be afraid of upsetting people.
"There's nothing worse than if a panellist says something in the studio when they are off air, but then won't say it on air."
If they are tempted to switch over, most Irish viewers will not have a choice, as the tournament will not also be shown on Setanta, as it was when TV3 last had rights to just 10 matches during the World Cup in 2007. While the Northern version of UTV will carry ITV's coverage, with Brian O'Driscoll as a pundit, UTV Ireland will not be covering it at all.
So, will the tournament be a ratings winner for TV3? A lot depends on how Ireland fares in the tournament. If the national team fails to progress, it will be a rugby disaster, and ratings would quickly fizzle out.
However, if Ireland stays on until the late stages and even has a chance of winning, the Ballymount station can hope for audiences of over a million for the big matches as it rides a wave of oval ball-shaped public fervour.
The timing is good, as the rugby bandwagon has never been so heavily populated with fans, both male and female, young and old, and an increasingly diverse cross-section of society follows the international team.
Paul Moran, who analyses audience ratings for ad placement company Mediaworks, says rugby has leapfrogged international soccer in terms of popularity.
"Fifteen years ago rugby was third in line after GAA championship matches and international football for ratings. Rugby internationals were only getting about 40pc of the audiences of big GAA games.
"But now a big rugby international is right up there alongside a GAA final when it comes to TV audiences. This is a big challenge for TV3, but I am sure they will pull out all the stops."
Because TV3 generally does not cover rugby, it has had to borrow commentators and pundits who normally appear elsewhere.
The main commentator, Conor McNamara, is most commonly heard on BBC's Match of the Day or BBC Radio 5, while his co-commentator, Stuart Barnes, is a fixture on Sky. Keith Wood, an icon of Irish rugby in the 1990s, is another BBC stalwart who will feature in the tournament.
The airing of the World Cup on the station shows that many of the big sporting events may be drifting away from RTÉ. It was the first big sporting tournament where the state channel was outbid by its rival for all the games. TV3 has already expressed an interest in acquiring the Irish rights to the summer and winter Olympics from 2018 to 2024, which were bought by Eurosport and may be sold on.
Kieran Holden tells Review the station would also be interested in acquiring the rights to the Six Nations rugby internationals. RTÉ has a deal to show the games until 2017, but from next year BBC and ITV will each screen matches.
Asked if TV3 would bid for the Six Nations, Holden says: "We are interested in showing all sports that are of interest to the public. So, yes."
Any possible bids from TV3 for big sporting events in the future could be boosted by an investment of cash from new owners UPC, part of the vast Liberty Global group, which recently announced that it was buying the broadcaster from Doughty Hanson for €80m.
As he announced TV3's autumn line-up, the chief executive David McRedmond was not shy of reminding the audience of the cloud that hung over the station last year with predictions that it would be eclipsed by the new arrival UTV Ireland.
"There was nervousness around and people were not sure how TV3 would cope with competition," said McRedmond.
Now, the wheel has turned full circle. With new owners with deep pockets, TV3 now looks in a stronger position than UTV Ireland, which has notched up pitiful ratings for some of its programmes.
"Having the Rugby World Cup has been crucial for TV3, particularly after it lost GAA to Sky, and the soaps Coronation Street and Emmerdale," says Paul Moran of Mediaworks. "In terms of revenue and prestige, the World Cup is a good story for the channel.
"TV3 has tended to go for a younger audience with its programmes, but there is a middle-aged audience there for them with events such as the Rugby World Cup."
Paul Moran believes sporting coverage is one area in which RTÉ excels. It will pose a major challenge to TV3 to show that its coverage is just as good in a big tournament with limited resources.
"People don't just tune in for live coverage of the game. They want to hear controversial pundits with different opinions.
"On initial evidence, TV3 seems to have assembled a good line-up."
Over a tournament that last six weeks, viewers can be expected to be bombarded with rugby-related advertising and sponsorship tie-ins.
TV3's panel will even have Arnotts as an official "wardrobe partner" for the tournament, and the coverage is sponsored by Land Rover.
Rugby is attractive for advertisers because it has a diverse following, and unlike the football internationals, the players live here and have a constant presence in the media
In recent years rugby internationals have almost turned themselves into virtual walking advertising billboards, with countless commercial tie-ins for everything from male grooming products to cars. Some in the advertising industry believe the sport is becoming overcrowded with sponsors.
However, if Ireland succeeds in the World Cup, it will bring rugby to a whole new level - and TV3 will reap a huge reward.
Canada first up for Ireland
The Rugby World Cup starts on September 18 and will be held in England and Wales. The first match is England v Fiji at Twickenham. The tournament last six weeks.
In our first game on September 19, Ireland take on Canada at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Ireland also plays Romania, Italy and France in its pool games.
TV3 will be showing all 48 games live, and has exclusive rights here. UTV has the rights north of the border.
Over 90pc of the 2.4 million tickets for the tournament have already been sold
Touch, pause, engage: who are the World Cup pundits?
1 KEITH WOOD
The former hooker was a household name through a dark age in Irish rugby in the 1990s having played for Ireland, the Lions and Munster. He was nicknamed 'The Raging Potato' because of his bald appearance. He was also known as 'Uncle Fester' due to his resemblance to a character in The Addams Family.
Wood is a fixture on the BBC during the Six Nations, and RTÉ viewers tend to switch over during the ad breaks to hear what he has to say. His most memorable moment came in a match two years ago when Simon Zebo performed a spectacular back-heel flick. Wood said: "Oooh, look at that, that is just... that is just rugby as sex". Wood is said to be an avid beekeeper, and TV3 will be hoping his punditry will carry a certain sting.
2 SHANE BYRNE
If nothing else, the Wicklow man has long had one of the most memorable hairstyles in Irish sport and is sometimes nicknamed 'mullet' as a result. Byrne had a successful career with Leinster, Ireland and the Lions, but also has other strings to his bow. He has been a director of Arklow Waste Disposal and has worked in property. He is unlikely to be shy in front of the camera having appeared in Celebrity Come Dine With Me.
Last year, he made his acting debut in Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie as a Russian mobster. It remains to be seen if he is a hitman in the studio.
3 STUART BARNES
The former England fly-half has long been a regular on Sky Sports and will be a TV3 co-commentator during the World Cup.
He could possibly play the role of bogeyman from Blighty if England play Ireland in the semi-final, which is considered a strong possibility. He says: "If Ireland play England, it could be the biggest game in rugby history that is not a final, and I'm sure some viewers will see me as a pompous English so-and-so"
4 PETER STRINGER
He may seem like a blast from the past in Irish rugby, but the recently-married former Munster legend is still playing at a high level for Sale Sharks. At the ripe age of 37, he is considered the "Dorian Gray of Irish rugby", and has no inclination to retire. As a pundit, he is something of an unknown quantity, but he is unlikely to be the next George Hook.
5 HUGO MacNEILL
One of the golden boys of Irish rugby in the 1980s, he played 37 times for Ireland, scoring 10 times. He played in the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, and is no stranger behind the mic as a pundit for RTÉ and other channels.
This is just a sideline for the shrewd business brain, who is managing director of Goldman Sachs in Ireland.
6 CONOR McNAMARA
The main commentator for the World Cup is an established name at the BBC, and is a familiar voice on Match of the Day and BBC Radio 5 Live. He started out commentating for Today FM and TV3 before making the move to Britain. He regularly commentates on Six Nations rugby matches, and is clearly versatile. He does the voice of Squawk the Parrot on the CBeebies show Swashbuckle.