Brian O’Driscoll has been like a kid at Christmas this weekend. So many appetising opening round Champions Cup fixtures, so many hours devoted to watching live rugby on BT Sport. Nirvana.
When he retired in 2014 after a stellar playing career, he never imagined he would still be this attached to the sport in a working capacity five years later. BT Sport were a novice broadcaster at the time, a young upstart challenging the hegemony of the polished Sky Sports who had made the European landscape its pride and joy.
But BT have since gone from strength to strength. Just like O’Driscoll’s punditry following a mortifying debut. “My first ever comms in the RDS, the camera panned to us in the commentary box and my microphone didn’t work,” he ruefully recalled for RugbyPass.
“I was nervous enough and the next thing none of the instruments were working for me, so I was just mouthing into my microphone with a camera on me and no one could hear a word that I was saying. I was crying inside, but like all things the more you do it the better you get.
“Yeah, you forget a word or a player every so often and that is where producers and directors come into their own being able to save you in circumstances where you have drawn a blank. You are never complete, particularly the irregularity which I do punditry, two weeks on and five weeks off and two weeks on. You never properly get into a weekly groove of it, but you are always trying to refine things.
(Continue reading below…)
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he continued, his mind again drifting back to that strange period when his daily routine as a player was no more and he had to find his feet again doing something else. “I wanted to still remain involved in the game in some capacity but I didn’t want to be a coach, I didn’t want to be tied to a team where I would have an involvement every week and every weekend.
“This gave me an opportunity to be able to keep my foot in the door with rugby and talk about it, and BT had a new offering. They were coming in for European rugby, which I have always got a love for. They had a bit of a different set-up than other broadcasters at that time. Our studios gave us an opportunity to interact with the viewer at home and have people come in and pose questions, really spell it out. It was a different type of product they were offering and I thought that would be a cool thing to be part of.
“As a player, you look at other players and aspects of their game that they are particularly good at and you try and steal them or plagiarise those aspects and shape them all together to try to be a more complete player. It’s the same with captaincy and the same with punditry where you look at things that other people are doing well and have an impact on you. As a result, you go and shape that a little into the way that you want to come across on the screen but you have to be true to yourself as well.
The journey to Marseille begins tonight!
The greatest prize in club rugby, the pinnacle, remembered by those who have lifted the trophy aloft.
Bring it on! ? pic.twitter.com/tw6uTtuR1H
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) November 15, 2019
“You can’t try and copy someone else’s style because ultimately you will end up doing a lesser job than they have done. You still have to do what comes naturally to you, but I don’t think there is no harm in always being aware of what else is out there.”
This Sunday’s studio assignment in Stratford includes covering the club who have been the talk of rugby this past fortnight – Saracens. They are in Paris, up against their old 2016 cup final rivals Racing in a tournament where the pitch is a hell of a lot more level compared to the £5.3million fine and 35-point deduction inflicted on them by Premiership Rugby.
The latest vibe is the Londoners won’t be appealing those sanctions, which is just as well as O’Driscoll believes they had been sailing pretty close to the wind for some time. “Listen, there is obviously a case to answer. It has been the worst kept secret for a number of years now,” he said about last season’s double Premiership and European champions.
A pre-game TV interview on Saturday is the first time Mark McCall has been heard from since last Tuesday's salary cap revelations about Saracens https://t.co/jFrsWg6Lov
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 9, 2019
“Rob Baxter put it really well, should they be looking for loopholes and trying to break the system and break the regulations of which they signed up to a number of years ago and does that question the integrity of the tournament and question the integrity of the game?
“You have got a very valid point in saying that. We are trying to have a level playing field to make the game survive and by doing this, it targets the best players but it also creates a huge amount of angst where all the teams haven’t been able to compete with them on the basis of having the quality of players and the depth of players and paying them bigger sums.
“As a result, Saracens are able to rest them that little bit more often, have more squad rotation, so there is a number of different factors in that and I can understand why some people have been very outspoken. It is not as relevant to Europe because there is no salary cap, but I can understand it in the Gallagher Premiership how they would be very annoyed and very irritated.”
"The best we've seen from @ExeterChiefs this season!"
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) November 16, 2019
Irritated is how he sounds himself when asked just who might be lifting the European trophy in Marseille in six months’ time. “It is hard to predict that,” he shrugged, but recent history suggests teams from a country knocked out early at the World Cup are in pole position.
Munster and Leinster were champions in 2008 and 2012 following early Ireland exits, while Saracens benefited in 2016 from England’s premature demise at their own World Cup some months earlier. “Europe is such a difficult competition to win that when you do get there it’s a really magnificent feeling. I was lucky enough to do it three times and some of the Leinster boys have done it four times and they are trying to chase that fifth one, be the first team to ever achieve five European victories.
“There is always something (to chase). The game has moved on so much that it is always very much the next-game focus. There is no time really for celebrating and lingering on what has gone on before. It is all about the next thing you can achieve and that is a professional mentality that is really beholden in the last five or ten years.”
‘Most teams in Europe have fines if you arrive late, but we think making players understand that to be on time is a value is more important’
– @MarcoBortolami tells @heagneyl about the transformation at @BenettonRugby to get back into @ChampionsCup https://t.co/utb25EvECk
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 16, 2019
With the latest World Cup just over, O’Driscoll has one wish for the sport – that referees become far stricter in their officiating of the scrum as he felt too much time was lost with the set-piece being reset. “One thing the final did show us was for the purist the importance of having a scrum. As much as I am a back and I want the ball, I still don’t want the scrum to become simply just a restart of the game.
“You have to have a competition there and I don’t know exactly what you have to do. I think referees probably have to make a decision. Sometimes on the first scrum and on the second. I don’t think we can afford to have three and four reset scrums and losing two and a half, three minutes, three and a half minutes to one scrum.
“That is unacceptable so referees just need to get stricter and not accept people trying to pull the wool over their eyes. Make clear, concise decisions and then let’s move on with it. That is one aspect. Rather than waiting because you are unsure, just penalise, back your instinct and run with it.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 2, 2019
That was precisely what World Rugby did in 2009 when taking the bold gamble of awarding the finals to Japan. No one could have known for certain the tournament in the Far East would be such a soaraway success, but O’Driscoll is glad how it panned out.
“I thought it was a brilliant choice of venue. They put on a fantastic show. There was nothing you could do about the worst typhoon in 60 years, but even the way that was thankfully managed it had minimal effect on the outcome of the World Cup which was really important for the integrity of it.
“To go into new territories and grow the game is mightily important and to leave a lasting legacy, the inspiration that that Japanese team would have done for millions of people cheering them on… I think nearly half the country watched the Scotland game.
“That is what rugby is all about, trying to grow and build momentum and you have got to try and push into a new market where we haven’t seen before. So 2027, if they choose America or if they decide to come to Ireland, either of them I’m pretty cool with.”
Is O’Driscoll really genuine or just mischievous mentioning his own country as a possible host given he was bid ambassador for the IRFU when they unsuccessfully tried to win the right to host all 48 matches in 2023, a process that tipped the way of France?
“We have to probably look at a different model and sharing games with the UK, with Wales, England and Scotland and not expect to do the whole thing ourselves,” he suggested. “That is maybe the area where we potentially fell down in guaranteeing votes as well.
“There is a lot of politics in sport and maybe we were a little bit naive with the thought we were going to get a World Cup after it going to another new territory in Japan. The obvious choice was to come back to one of the strongholds in South Africa or France, but when it comes around again and we put our hat in the ring I’d be more hopeful that we might get a positive result next time.”
WATCH: RugbyPass went behind the scenes with the Tonga national team as they prepared for the 2019 World Cup in Japan
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.