End of an era

'If I didn't get to cover rugby on television again, it would be devastating for me'

As TV3 prepare to takeover the rights of the Six Nations at the end of this year’s tournament, Brent Pope speaks to The42 about his time on the RTÉ rugby panel.

RTE's Daire O'Brien George Hook Brent Pope and Shane Horgan discuss the match 17/5//2014 Pope has been part of RTÉ's rugby coverage for the past 22 years. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

IT WAS INITIALLY only meant to be for one match, but after being on our screens for over two decades, Brent Pope has become one of the most familiar faces in rugby broadcasting in this country.

“Even though I am not Irish, I am the longest-serving rugby pundit on the television here,” Pope proudly explains to The42.

The New Zealander, who suffered a cruel blow when an injury denied him an opportunity to represent the All Blacks during the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, was invited to travel to Ireland and play for St Mary’s in 1991.

It was a homecoming of sorts for Pope, who is of Irish heritage. In fact, his family history very nearly led to him being handed an Ireland jersey for the team’s tour of New Zealand in 1992, but his Irish connections were too distant to qualify for a cap.

However, Pope went on to enjoy tremendous success in the AIL – especially as a coach – winning the Division Two and Three titles with Clontarf, as well as the club’s first Leinster Senior Cup in over half a century.

Then on his return to Mary’s as head coach, he led the Templeogue-based side to Division One glory in their centennial year. But working in the media became Pope’s new passion.

“I did a couple of episodes for a programme called Rugby After Dark, then I got a call from RTÉ in 1995 as Ireland were playing against New Zealand in the World Cup.

“And because I had played with several members of the All Blacks squad at that time, and because I knew the Irish players well from my couple of seasons here, I was asked to do the match.

“I had a ticket booked to go home to New Zealand for the off-season, but I said I would postpone my flight for a day or two.”

Pope AIL Pope enjoyed success with both St Mary's and Clontarf.

Joining Pope on the panel on his first day were Mick Doyle and Ciaran Fitzgerald, who both famously played and coached the national side, with the legendary RTÉ broadcaster Bill O’Herlihy posing the questions.

Even though Ireland lost the game 43-19 in Johannesburg, the viewers liked what they saw in the studio, if not what they witnessed on the pitch.

“We did the match and we went out for dinner that night. Bill came over to me and said ‘the response has been absolutely brilliant.’

“RTÉ then came back to me the next day and asked if I would consider covering the whole tournament, which was huge for me at that stage. Since then I have worked on every Five and Six Nations.”

Pope, who also had a spell coaching Leinster’s ‘A’ side just as fledgling pair Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy were coming through the ranks, is happy with the path he chose to go down.

“I could have stayed in coaching, but I decided to concentrate on the media. That was a big decision in my life.”

The panel on RTÉ evolved over time, with Tom McGurk moving into the anchor’s chair with Pope regularly joined by the outspoken George Hook and mild-mannered Conor O’Shea. The contrast helped create a spark that resonated with the Irish public.

Soon, Ireland’s success on the pitch resulted in a growing interest in rugby in the country, with audience figures surpassing one million viewers for some of the biggest contests.

Controversy and highly-entertaining debates on the panel added to the drama, with the match sometimes acting as the appetizer to the main course of the post-match discussion.

“I think it worked so well because it had a bit of everything.

“Whether people liked it or not, we were a type of brand. It was a different type of rugby coverage than it is now to a certain degree – it was entertaining.

“I remember people used to go up to my parents after being on holiday in Ireland, saying how they never watched that type of punditry before and that it was fun to watch – that was nice to hear.

Tom McGurk, George Hook and Brent Pope Pope covering Ireland's Six Nations clash against Italy in 2002 with George Hook and Tom McGurk. ©INPHO ©INPHO

“Tom was the puppet-master. George was there to call it in the way he saw it, not controversially, because he didn’t deliberately do that. Whether I agreed with him or not is a different matter.

“I have a lot of respect for George because he turned his life around. It is well-documented he had problems and I have a lot of respect for that.

“We didn’t go out for pints. I’m not sure if we ever really socialised together. I do find him stimulating company, but we wouldn’t be friends as such.

“It may sound funny, but I probably regard George more of a friend than he may see me as a friend. We’ve spent that many years together that we became like an old married couple.

“I’ve never denied I’ve missed him since he left, because I do. It was a really fun time to cover rugby and I loved every minute of it.

“There was a bit of the good cop, bad cop with us.

“I will say when I think a player has had a bad game or made a mistake. I’m not afraid to call it once it is done for the right reasons and not a personal attack, because I’m not into criticising for the sake of it.

“But out of all the panellists I worked with, Conor was the most articulate. There is something so likeable about him – to me he is the quintessential rugby gent.

“He has a great knowledge of the game, and he always came across respectful when talking about the players.”

Italy head coach Conor O’Shea O'Shea will lead Italy into this year's Six Nations. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

It would be rare to find a broadcaster from any discipline, who has been in the industry as long as Pope, not to have that one moment that has taken a life of its own.

And in 2003, Pope had media outlets across the globe trying to get a hold of him, when he thought the English team were using a concealed radio to communicate during the 2003 Rugby World Cup final against Australia.

“For some reason, I thought that Martin Johnson had hidden a microphone in the water bottle and I said it on air,” Pope recalls.

“I thought it was such a coincidence. On the split-screen, it looked like Johnson was talking into the bottle and Clive Woodward was listening in an ear piece.

“That story went around the world.

“I took some flak. They wanted to speak to me in the UK – headlines were being made – but it was a throwaway comment that just took off.

“In those days, I had an answer machine and I think had 150 messages on it when I came home, or whatever the capacity of it was, with people from the Johannesburg and Auckland wanting to speak to me.

“I also got a few calls from some English reporters too, who didn’t take too kindly to my comment.

“I remember ringing up George because I didn’t know how to deal with that. I didn’t expect that reaction, nothing like that ever happened before.”

Martin Johnson 22/11/2003 England went on to beat the Wallabies in the 2003 final. ©INPHO ©INPHO

There have been poignant moments on the panel too for Pope, especially when the action on the field has been able to transcend the sport, with one match in particular causing him to become visibly emotional.

“It meant a lot to me when New Zealand won the World Cup in 2011 just months after so many people lost their lives in an earthquake in my hometown of Christchurch.

“It was wonderful that they won it, and I was quite teary-eyed speaking about it at the time, I suppose I was in a similar state on the day Ireland beat England in Croke Park. I think people appreciate that you can be emotional around rugby.”

Despite Pope’s cheerful, easy-going nature and apparent aurora of self-confidence, crippling negative thoughts of self-doubt were never far away. It’s a constant battle, but one he continues to bravely fight and overcome.

“It is well-known now that I have suffered from extreme anxiety problems for most of my life,” the 54-year-old says.

“People say speaking on the television comes so naturally to me, it never has been. It has been incredibly hard. I’ve worked professionally on my art. It’s not something that is done easy; it can make you very anxious.

“It was extremely hard for me to step out of my comfort zone. In many ways, I use it as motivation.

“I’ve got to work harder than other people, I can’t afford to get anxious in that situation and it has helped me immensely that now I can go out and publicly speak.”

Over the years, new interests have developed for Pope such as the writing of children’s books, the launch of a clothing line, as well as volunteering for several mental health charities. He is not one to stand still.

“In other aspects of my life, when I don’t want anxiety to get the better of me, I always do something that changes it and pushes me out of my comfort zone. I do something that makes me uncomfortable.

“Being on television is not uncomfortable for me now. I used to be very nervous in the first couple of years. You are always racing with your thoughts. It is an unusual feeling. It has cost some people their career, or in other cases, more than that, when they haven’t thought properly before they spoke.”

RTE TV television Brent Pope Pope is still keen to cover rugby on television. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Pope is still coming to terms with the news that this year’s edition of the Six Nations will be the last to be shown on RTÉ for the foreseeable future, with the tournament moving to rival station TV3 for the next four seasons, leaving the national broadcaster’s rugby output rather thin.

“Losing the rights to the Six Nations was hard to take,” Pope reveals.

“To hear our coverage was coming to an end – it was a shock – it is a big part of my life and a big hole to fill. Maybe I was naive, but I always thought it would be on RTÉ.”

Indeed, over the past decade, the Donnybrook-based broadcaster has also lost the rights to televise the provinces in the Pro12 as well as in European competitions, leaving this year’s November internationals as the only top-class rugby available on RTÉ when the final whistle blows between Ireland and England on 18 March.

“People have grown up with me on the television and I have grown up with them. It’s the end of an era.

“It would leave a huge hole in my life if I didn’t get to cover rugby on television again, it would be devastating for me.

“I hope there is still a future for me in rugby broadcasting. I love it and I would like to think I am good at it. Like any job, you gain experience – you get better.

“I would be foolish not to consider to continue doing something that I love somewhere else.”

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