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Rugby 20, virtual fans, and social distancing - eir Sport's plans for rugby's return

The broadcaster has been busily planning for Leinster’s clash with Munster on 22 August.

WITH CONFIRMATION THIS week that the limit on attendances at sporting events will remain at 200 people, any last hope of having fans in the Aviva Stadium for the return of Irish rugby this month faded away.

In truth, it was always a very long shot that supporters would be there. As such, eir Sport – who will be broadcasting the Leinster v Munster clash on 22 August, Ulster v Connacht on 23 August, and all the other Guinness Pro14 games thereafter – have been busily preparing for the reality of having no fans in the stadium.

tommy-bowe Eir Sport anchor Tommy Bowe will be back on our screens in two weekends' time. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Anyone who has watched the resumption of professional sports abroad in recent months will already be familiar with the artificial crowd noises used for live TV broadcasts of games, and eir Sport have been tracking the developments intently.

They have watched and listened as Germany’s Bundesliga, Australia’s NRL, and the Premier League have used the crowd noises in their broadcasts – the sound isn’t audible to the players in the stadium – and their production team swiftly agreed that having it in was better than the eerie, jarring silence of the near-empty stadium.

Eir’s Head of Production explains that they painstakingly combed back through their previous broadcasts from the Aviva Stadium to get the perfect ‘house sound’ for the venue, which is obviously bigger than most rugby stadiums.

Those crowd noises from the Aviva have now been filtered together with sounds from the Rugby 20 computer game, with the Pro14 having reached out to the game’s producers to borrow their “incredibly detailed” audio beds for use in broadcasts.

During the upcoming matches, one member of eir’s behind-the-scenes team will sit in front of a touchscreen computer to operate the crowd noises. There are three basic settings – a ‘low murmur’ for general play, a ‘medium murmur’ for when a team is approaching the opposition’s 22, for example, and a ‘high murmur’ for when they’re hammering away at the tryline.

The touchscreen operator will have specific buttons for obvious highlight incidents – things like try celebrations or boos.

Eir have also captured crowd chants for the Irish provinces to run during key periods of the games, so we can expect to hear ‘Leinster, Leinster, Leinster’ or ‘Stand Up and Fight’ through our TVs on 22 August.

While they have all of these options for crowd noise, eir are keen to learn through feedback from rugby fans watching on TV.

majella-smyth There will be no supporters in the Aviva Stadium for rugby's return. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“They will let us know what they prefer and it’s quite a Marmite thing in soccer but we have found watching it that you sometimes need the sounds to alert you that something’s about to happen,” says their Head of Production.

“We’re all double-screening, so it can be quite jarring to see a score suddenly happening if you don’t have the crowd noise to grab your attention when you look away.

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“This is going to be our first live match using it and we’ll probably learn a lot but it should be quite straightforward.”

Logistically, the size and space of the Aviva Stadium means eir’s game-day production won’t be hugely reduced in terms of numbers of staff onsite. The camera crews will be largely able to operate as normal, with some minor exceptions.

With the Covid-19 restrictions, areas like the tunnel and dressing rooms are off limits, so we won’t be seeing teams disembarking from their buses pre-game and there won’t be dressing-room cams or referee cams.

There will still be interviews with head coaches, the man of the match, and other players, but those will all be done pitchside rather than in the tunnel, as would previously have often been the case.

As ever, Tommy Bowe will be anchoring eir’s coverage and the presentation team around him will be adhering to social distancing, so that aspect of the broadcast will obviously look a little different. Eir have tended to use a second presentation position during their Pro14 broadcasts to move around the stadium but that won’t be possible with the current restrictions.

Connor Morris and Liam Toland will be on commentary duties and will face an interesting challenge in transmitting energy without a live crowd to feed off. However, they have already rehearsed commentating on games without any crowd noise and it’s pointed out that small crowds are part and parcel of any commentator’s gig.

“Connor is someone who last year went straight from doing a game in Richmond Park with a few hundred people at it to doing the World Cup final in Japan.”

dave-kilcoyne-with-jonathan-sexton Leinster and Munster are first up on 22 August. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Intent on ensuring their broadcast includes supporters, eir have plans to roll in footage of fans celebrating tries at home as part of their replay packages. They have linked up with Leinster to organise live fan footage, while also contacting various Munster supporters clubs around the world – getting a shot of Munster fans who will gather in a bar in Queens, New York is one possibility.

“We’re keen to bring the fans to the game as much as we can,” is eir’s thinking.

As with the Leinster and Munster players, the broadcasters will be feeling a degree of pressure to deliver on rugby’s return but eir are just excited to finally get back to business.

“It’s huge for us as an organisation. We can’t wait and we’ve been counting down for months.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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