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'We can, and should, challenge women commentators who are poor in knowledge and delivery'

By Rachael Burford

Trending on RugbyPass

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I started commentating on men’s and women’s rugby three years ago, after being given the advice to get a broadcast coach. It is a lot harder than I expected! You have to do so much more than just talk about rugby: you have to think about your body language, how you hold the microphone, and then you have to be so knowledgeable and insightful about the game. You should be able to articulate the game in front of you and be able to show knowledgeable understanding. You must know the players and the backgrounds of the teams, such as their results, their standing in the league etc. There’s a lot of preparation needed, and if you haven’t done that preparation, it shows.

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It’s not easy, so I do have a lot of respect for those who also do it. I’m certainly not saying I have mastered these skills, and three years on I am still learning a lot. If you speak to some of the current ex-women’s players who have moved over to broadcasting, they will testify just how hard it is to get to the level that women’s commentary is currently at.

In my columns so far, I’ve spoken about the ways we can grow women’s rugby, from the grassroots to the elite level. Recently, as more people are watching the Premier 15s online and the RFU is ramping up efforts to secure a broadcaster, I think one way we could really improve the game is by offering more training to the women’s players who are asked to co-commentate. This isn’t a direct attack on any individual, but more a general observation about the current co-commentary in the women’s game.

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Often in the Premier 15s when experienced commentators aren’t available, injured or retired women’s players join the lead commentator as a co-commentator or pundit and offer their expertise from a player’s perspective. While it’s fantastic that women’s players get these opportunities, we need to maximise the profile of the women’s game, and to do so, you need skilled co-commentators. At the very least, the co-commentators need the support to be able to deliver great commentary.

We can, and should, challenge women commentators who are poor in knowledge and delivery, without that being sexist. In fact, we need to do so in order to grow our game. The truth is, we need to understand that commentary like in any sport is part of the product and directly impacts the growth of the game. Last weekend almost 50,000 people streamed the Premier 15s games online, and the Exeter v Saracens match reached a record-breaking 125,000 streams. That’s testament to how strong the on-pitch product is. We are so close to securing a broadcast deal, but for me we need to improve the level of detail given by co-commentators before that happens, to highlight the skill level in the women’s game.

Sometimes, the co-commentators avoid being too critical of players. A good example of this, as Emmerson Wood pointed out, is when scrum-half Claudia MacDonald dropped the ball in front of the try line while playing for England. Immediately, the co-commentator said: “she’s still smiling, that’s OK.” This jokey behaviour makes women’s rugby look bad, because MacDonald should and does have higher standards of herself, as that was five points lost for her team. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to be openly critical about teammates or friends from other teams, but I worry that by not being critical, we are doing the women’s game a disservice. The women’s game has grown in skill so much in recent years, both tactically and technically, and we should share this with our viewers. Let’s explain why something was good, or why a mistake happened. That would educate the viewer, as is often done in the men’s game. I also think that the commentary needs to speak in more technical detail about the women’s game to educate and inspire the audience.

In the men’s game, a similar mistake would be analysed closely and scrutinised for the effect it had on the game. We cannot fear doing the same in the women’s game. If we want women’s rugby to grow, we need serious and thoughtful analysis and criticism of mistakes. By brushing those mistakes under the carpet, it’s is giving the viewer the message that mistakes are unavoidable in women’s rugby, and therefore that the game isn’t as good quality as men’s rugby. There is a great opportunity here for more analytical commentary, that the viewer would find far more interesting. Any commentator in any sport needs to thoroughly do their homework before commentating and be comfortable talking about the technical detail. Lead commentators do this for a living, but now I think we need to look at taking this to the next level, by helping the co-commenters improve on their skills.

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The jokiness can also extend to an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ narrative in a game, which I learnt early on must be avoided. It’s really hard to remember that when you are commentating, so I don’t mean to say it’s an easy task. When I commentated on Harlequins men’s vs Wasps, I kept saying ‘us’, in relation to my club Harlequins. When you are invited as a guest from your club, you can be one-sided, but as a co-commentator you have to remain impartial at all times. Rugby journalist Stephen Jones messaged me after the game to remind me that I need to be impartial, which I was so grateful for!

There are two teams, and you are there to be as neutral as possible. If the co-commentator is too one-sided, it can come across as alienating for a new fan who might not understand the ‘in jokes’ or nicknames. Co-commentators must be prepared to criticise poor play or mistakes as much as recognise and explain good, creative play. Being able to do so shows how far women’s rugby has come, and I believe it is the responsibility of every female player who wants to commentate to be authentic and honest about the rugby they are watching.

Maybe it’s about finding another place where current women’s players can be introduced to broadcasting, rather than them being thrown in the deep end of live commentary without the training they need. In a previous column, I expressed how important it is for players to show their character off the pitch, and I stand by that. I do not mean to say that players shouldn’t joke or show their less serious side, but I think the players who want to go into broadcasting could be introduced to the audience by first doing pre-recorded interviews or features. That would allow their personalities to shine through without the pressure of live commentary. I also think players would be more receptive in interviews if they were talking to a fellow player, and that might add more value to the show.

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Switching from a player to a co-commentator is a difficult task that shouldn’t be underestimated. When I commentated last weekend for TalkSport alongside seasoned broadcaster Nick Heath, I asked for feedback at half time, and Nick was kind enough to give me a few things to work on for the second half. Then after the game, I asked for more feedback so I can learn for next time. It’s so important to keep learning and developing, which is something I have taken into my own hands since I started commentating, by looking for any training opportunities possible.

If we don’t give this feedback now it could harm women’s rugby in the long term, as we look for a Premier 15s broadcaster. For me, equality is about giving feedback to women as we would do with men, which is why I am always open to a more calm and constructive conversation about women commentating in rugby. There is no place for the racist and sexist abuse that female pundits have received recently, and I want to make it clear that this isn’t the criticism I am referring to. Unfortunately, there will always be those who don’t like women talking about rugby just because we are women, which is an attitude that needs to change. This isn’t just a rugby issue, as Ian Wright pointed out on the Game Changers podcast last week. Some men just feel like they own sport, and they are still unwelcoming towards women.

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This week I spoke to Nicol McClelland, former England Women’s marketing lead, who sent me an article she wrote recently about a similar issue. She said: “social media has become an increasingly accessible way of telling the person in question exactly how you feel – whether they care or not, whether they read it, block you or welcome the feedback… but being a woman does not equate to being unworthy of respect, regardless of a difference of opinion.”

Nicol and I also spoke about why it is important to challenge and offer constructive feedback, regardless of gender. It is often difficult to feel you can do that with women, without being accused of being unsupportive. It’s just about being mindful about how we do it, and to make sure that these conversations are all geared towards supporting the game. At the end of the day, broadcasting is a job, and in any other work environment you are judged on your performance. Players are perhaps more used to constructive feedback than most, as we receive it every day at training and when we play. That’s the spirit this piece is intended: we should always look at ways to grow the game and players should be given the opportunity to receive that feedback and support to get better, if commentary is something they want to do.

If the players who are co-commentating began to do interviews and feature pieces, it would open the door for a more experienced broadcaster to come into the game. In an ideal world, it would be great to have more experienced co-commentators in the Premier 15s alongside a player who is developing their broadcast skills. Although this might not be possible at the moment, if a broadcaster comes in this could happen.

Women's Rugby World Cup

A disappointed Anna Caplice of Ireland at the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup (Photo By Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

I think someone like David Flatman, who worked as a broadcaster at Rugby World Cup 2017, could be a great addition to the Premier 15s, to engage new fans with the women’s game. Having a big name alongside it shows the sport in a serious light and would add credibility to the league. We don’t need men to come in and qualify what women say, but to have another respected and professional co-commentator come into the women’s game could do wonders to grow the profile of the Premier 15s.

Once we have more brilliant co-commentators and pundits working in the women’s game, who are trained and properly supported, the Premier 15s will be able to attract and retain a large crowd of engaged fans, which will lead to better sponsorship and opportunities for all women’s rugby players. If the conversation is respectful, constructive, and supportive, then we will see the commentary in the women’s game improve. Ultimately, we are always trying to raise the bar in women’s rugby. On the pitch, we are always looking to improve, and it should be no different for broadcasters either.

I launched Girls Rugby Club with the aim to offer practical ways to growing the women’s and girls’ game, which is why I hope to help fellow co-commentators. Sam Roberts, who is a broadcaster, writer and rugby commentator, plans to run a webinar for the Girls Rugby Club members about broadcasting and on-pitch communications, will also run a webinar about commentary and broadcasting to help myself and other players improve. Sam’s webinar will be offered to all Premier 15s clubs so their players can attend and learn about broadcasting for free.

Nathan Middleton, who leads the Premier 15s broadcasting, encourages anyone who is interested to get involved and attend this webinar course to develop their broadcast skills. He also noted that the best way to improve is practice, and encouraging players to listen to co-commentary regularly, listen back to your broadcasting to see ways to improve, and to always ask for feedback.

I also spoke to BBC Sport reporter Sara Orchard, who this week ran the first informal meeting for women who work in rugby communications and journalism. Sara said how the problems with commentary are not just in the women’s game, but across the board. Nevertheless, if we are at the point where we are looking for a broadcaster in the women’s game, it’s important that we get this right. With the right support and greater opportunities for women’s players in commentary, it’s absolutely possible that we can improve.

This mutually beneficial network will help all women who work in rugby access the type of support that Sam is offering and will also allow women to approach each other for help and advice.

All of us want the same thing: for women’s rugby to grow and be the best it can be.

For Sam Roberts’ webinar for Girls Rugby Club about broadcasting and communication, sign up to receive the latest updates.

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'We can, and should, challenge women commentators who are poor in knowledge and delivery'

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