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Behind the scenes: BT Sport focus on 'having a bit more fun'

TheScore.ie went behind the scenes to check out BT’s coverage of yesterday’s Harlequins v Leinster clash.

THERE’S BEEN A new player in the European club rugby broadcasting world this season, as BT Sport have muscled in on the action with their unique approach.

BT_Sport_Rugby_071214_244 BT were at the Twickenham Stoop for yesterday's clash between Harlequins and Leinster. Source: C1 PHOTOGRAPHY

The UK firm says their Champions Cup coverage is about “having a bit more fun,” with recently retired players bringing fresh perspectives on the top levels of a sport that often needs a lot of explaining.

BT’s “relaxed, informal” presentation style is in contrast to what they perceive as the more serious slant of rival broadcasters, but the behind-the-scenes effort that goes into producing their rugby content is no joking matter.

TheScore.ie checked out some of the goings-on that result in the polished final product we see on our TV screens during yesterday’s Pool 2 clash between Leinster and Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop.

The motherboard

With Craig Doyle, Brian O’Driscoll and Lawrence Dallaglio in BT’s London studios [formerly the Olympic Broadcast Centre] for the afternoon, the main hub of the production on the ground at the Stoop is a gigantic truck parked outside one end of the stadium.

BT’s lead production partner, Sunset + Vine, provide these technology-heavy trucks for game days, each one of them worth around £4.5million. Folded out to full capacity, the truck is packed with screens, buttons, faders, microphones and more.

BT_Sport_Rugby_071214_063 BT's production gallery during Leinster's clash with 'Quins. Source: C1 PHOTOGRAPHY

The production gallery, pictured above, is the centrepiece of the truck itself, housing the matchday director and producer, as well as their various assistants. As well as those employees, the Television Match Offical sets up at the back of the gallery, working with BT’s team to find the best angles from which to make vital decision.

Between 60 and 70 people in total are involved in BT’s coverage of a single Champions Cup clash.

Their roles are multi-faceted, but as Senior Producer James Hopkins explains, “It’s our job to tell the story of the game.” Hopkins and his team average days of between 10 and 12 hours at the stadium, spending “a lot of time in carparks all over the world!”

During the game, Hopkins is in constant communication with the rest of the team, ensuring the ideal angle for each moment of action on the pitch, as well as all the best on-screen stats and replays.

BT_Sport_Rugby_071214_017 The VT department is cramped, lively and important. Source: C1 PHOTOGRAPHY

Next door, the VT Department [above] are in charge of the latter element, a nine-man team working here on the day of the Leinster fixture.

Led by the affable Sam, the VT [Video Tape - a relic of former times] crew work under intense time pressure to produce clean replay packages, also chopping up analysis clips for the matchday commentary team to use, as well as O’Driscoll and Dallaglio back in studio.

Furthermore, the VT team produce the highlights compliations that are distributed to various other broadcasters around the world.

Under surveillance

Although some stadiums provide fewer camera points, Harlequins’ tidy home ground allowed BT use of 18 cameras to capture the action on Sunday.

BT_Sport_Rugby_071214_202 One of the BT camermen gets up close and personal with Chris Robshaw. Source: C1 PHOTOGRAPHY

Each cameraman has a defined role, while BT also use pole cams [for a vantage point on line-outs], ref cam and a pair of roaming cameras, which relay footage from around the ground throughout the afternoons’ coverage.

Hopkins is in constant communication with his cameramen throughout the match, prompting them to get the shots and angles he feels will give the viewer the optimum experience of the game from the comfort of their home.

BT_Sport_Rugby_071214_254 One of the BT camera crew located behind a corner flag at the Stoop. Source: C1 PHOTOGRAPHY

Picking the right camera to relay the right image at the right time is an exact art, and listening to Hopkins’ stream of words in-game is mind-boggling: “Camera four, get a close up on the ball… three to Robshaw… camera two wide angle, into three again…”

Hopkins outlines that some of the cameras BT use shoot at a rate of 2000 frames a second, allowing him to show several stunningly detailed slow-motion replays during the game.

The talent

BT refer to their big-name analysts and pundits as “the talent.” The likes of O’Driscoll, Dallaglio, Ben Kay and Austin Healey are tasked with providing insight both in-studio and as part of the commentary teams.

Harlequins’ clash with Leinster saw former Lions scrum-half Matt Dawson and ex-England prop David Flatman in the commentary booth with Nick Mullins, whose extensive notes demonstrated the level of research he puts into his work.

As one-time professional rugby players, moving into the world of media after retirement meant many adjustments for Flatman and Dawson, although both are confident presences and Dawson points out that “the more you do, the easier it gets.”

BT_Sport_Rugby_071214_117 Dawson and Flatman get set up in the commentary booth either side of Mullins. Source: C1 PHOTOGRAPHY

Flatman’s knowledge of scrummaging is impressive, allowing him to shed light on an area of the game around which understanding is generally quite poor. While Mullins likes to do much of his research himself, Flatman and Dawson are sent out highly-detailed documents of stats and information in the days leading up to the game.

One of the central issues for the likes of Flatman and Dawson is being able to criticise players, particularly as they have existing relationships with so many of them. Flatman says he’s “not the kind of guy who wants to stick the knife in,” but underlines that accurate critical comments are an important part of his job.

Dawson takes up the issue: “I promised myself when I finished rugby that I would be able to stand up to any player and defend any of my points.”

BT_Sport_Rugby_071214_115 The booth provides an excellent angle from which to watch the game. Source: C1 PHOTOGRAPHY

The 2003 World Cup winner recalls being engaged by Saracens wing Chris Ashton over comments he made about the players’ kick-chasing efforts during commentary, while Flatman says he got some “stick” from another player in a nightclub over a negative comment.

Generally though, the players understand that Dawson and Flatman are simply doing their jobs, with the former admitting, “You know how it feels because it’s happened to you during your own playing days.”

“You have to be able to justify what you’re saying,” adds Mullins.

BT_Sport_Rugby_071214_167 Sarra Elgan asks the hard questions on the sidelines. Source: C1 PHOTOGRAPHY

A further cog in BT’s matchday team is report Sarra Elgan [above], wife of Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby.

The Welsh journalist’s tasks include the pre, post and in-match interviews with players and coaches, as well as providing any updates she can around injury issues or replacements.

BT_Sport_Rugby_071214_130 Elgan prepares for post-match interviews in the tunnel at the Stoop. Source: C1 PHOTOGRAPHY

On the pitch

One of the fresh elements that BT Sport have brought to their rugby coverage is the on-pitch pre-match interview with players from the teams involved in the fixture. While some rugby fans have stated their belief that this is overstepping the boundaries, others enjoy the increased access and insight.

Dawson and Flatman were charged with the task on Sunday, the former saying that it’s important to “build the trust up with the players” if these short slots are to continue being worthwhile.

BT_Sport_Rugby_071214_110 Dawson gets some pre-match insight from Leinster's Rob Kearney. Source: C1 PHOTOGRAPHY

The Englishman stresses that it’s beneficial to provide the player with some warning as to what he will ask, particularly as they are often switched into “game mode” and don’t want to be “caught out” by any of the queries.

Dawson says BT “want the players on board” with their rugby coverage, being part of those efforts to provide insight and bring the game to life for viewers.

BT_Sport_Rugby_071214_113 Flatman gets busy during the Harlequins warm-up. Source: C1 PHOTOGRAPHY

“You don’t want to be too cosy, but you don’t want to crucify them either,” explains Flatman.

Bringing it together

Hopkins says that the worst-case scenario for the BT team is heavy rain or missing out on key angles during the important moments of a game. What he and the 70-strong crew target every matchday is a “flow,” everyone working together ideally.

That so many differing elements go into the production prompts thoughts of a hectic, high-adrenaline working day, but while that can be the case at times, Hopkins and his team operate with a somewhat surprising calm on Sunday.

Constant communication, teamwork, strong decision-making and performing the key skills under pressure; it’s not only on the rugby pitch that those crucial components produce results.

BT Sport 1 and BT Sport 2 are available as part of the Setanta Sports Pack, which can be subscribed to for €1 this December.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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