Cathal Noonan/INPHO Brent Pope, Tom McGuirk and George Hook.
# The Right Hook
RTÉ have Champions Cup rugby back but can it ever be the same as it was?
As Champions Cup rugby returns to the channel after a seven-year absence former pundit George Hook relives an era when it was one of the biggest shows in town.

THE OLD MAN is in pain. Backache is a constant companion, with him when he falls asleep at night, still there when he wakes in the morning.

A procedure is planned to try and soften the hurt but the man isn’t optimistic. He is 81-years-old and fully aware that as life goes on, it becomes harder. It doesn’t seem fair – it isn’t fair – to be robbed of the mobility that once defined him.

But he isn’t after our sympathy. “You just get on with it, don’t you?” he says even though he knows he can never measure days as good or bad anymore because they all feel the same. “Sore.”

He pauses for effect. “But that’s how it is. You take the hand you are dealt in life.”

The tone is solemn which is perfectly understandable when you are discussing a struggle to ever feel well again but once the subject matter changes to rugby, sentences flow from his mouth with a familiar rhythm, thoughts articulated with a hard-edged belief that everything he says is right.

You all remember that voice, that conviction. For nearly 20 years it was one of the most recognisable sounds on Irish television and radio.

There were several times when he was caustic in his criticism. Of Reggie Corrigan, an ageing Ireland prop, he once said: ‘He is so far past his sell-by date that if he was yoghurt, trees would be growing out of the pot’. A different prop was unrated because he didn’t have a ‘big enough arse’. Then there was John Hayes, the beloved Ireland centurion.

“I’m persona non grata in Shannon (Rugby Club) because I dared suggest Hayes couldn’t scrummage.”

You know by now who we are talking about. You all know George Hook.

Don’t you?


He was 54 when he was plucked from nowhere to speak to the nation. Fifty-four candles on his birthday cake, zero international caps on his resume. He freely admits someone with those credentials would never get a break on television now but way back then RTÉ had figured out a model that made their sports programmes watchable.

They had Dunphy and Giles in their soccer studio; Spillane and O’Rourke in GAA and while the latter three had playing CVs everyone respected, Dunphy didn’t. What he did have, though, was an opinion and RTÉ were prepared to pay to hear it.

Hook spoke like Dunphy. As a schoolboy he was a champion debater, as an adult he coached limited teams to do things they never knew they were capable of. So, by 1995, after taking the United States into the inaugural World Cup and Connacht to a few upset wins over Munster and Leinster, he was ready for the moment that would change his life.

george-hook Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Hook during his time in charge of Connacht. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

It arrived by chance. Asked by The Irish Press to cover the World Cup in South Africa, Hook forked out £5,400 for flights and accommodation on the premise that he’d be compensated on his return once his work had been filed.

Well that was the plan as his flight took off from Dublin but things had dramatically changed by the time he landed in Cape Town.

“Karl Johnston (the former rugby correspondent of The Irish Press) met me at arrivals with the words: ‘George, the paper is just after going bust’.”

That was his sliding doors moment. Had the Press’ demise happened a few months later, it’s quite possible we wouldn’t be having this conversation now, more than likely that the most famous pundit in Irish rugby would have lived out the remainder of his days in relative obscurity, known within rugby’s village certainly but not in a national context.

But that isn’t what happened. Instead Hook was in South Africa, lounging by the pool, accredited for the matches, bored silly, when RTÉ needed someone in an emergency to file a report from a Japan/New Zealand game, two rival teams in Ireland’s group. Someone suggested Hook. He did his piece to camera and back in Montrose the veteran broadcaster Bill O’Herlihy listened.

“Who’s yer man?” O’Herlihy asked.

He’d soon find out. By the following year’s Five Nations, Hook appeared next to O’Herlihy in RTE’s studio, paid the princely sum of £25 to spend the afternoon as a pundit. O’Herlihy, a fellow Cork man, liked the cut of his jib.

“Tell me George what did you think of Eric Miller?”

“Bill, his cardiovascular endurance levels are extraordinary.”

O’Herlihy stared right through him.

“What do you mean by that, George?”

The point was subtly made.

“In television,” O’Herlihy said to Hook afterwards as they walked through the RTÉ car park, “75 per cent of the viewers don’t really know what is going on. My advice is that you speak to those 75 per cent.”

Hook knew O’Herlihy was right.

And yet all of this would have remained immaterial if rugby hadn’t gone from amateur to professional, if the Heineken Cup hadn’t been form, if Munster hadn’t embarked on an odyssey to win a European Cup, if rugby didn’t become chic.

“From five games a year, RTÉ were suddenly doing 25,” says Hook.

You can see why. The ratings were good, RTÉ piggy-backing on the Munster story, the province’s tragic near misses giving the station an unscripted drama that ran from October to May. In time, Hook would become something of a pantomime villain, fearless about calling things as he saw them, irrespective of who he annoyed.

the-rte-panel-at-the-game James Crombie / INPHO The RTE panel discuss their plans. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Sometimes he was contradictory, once appearing on an ad promoting Sky Plus, not long after he wore a black armband bemoaning the departure of European Cup rugby from terrestrial TV. “Well, in my view sport should be free-to-air; fans shouldn’t be priced out of it,” says Hook. “I mean the fact is that Sky are never going to say a match is absolute shite, are they? They have to sell the product. In RTÉ, they allowed us total freedom to say what we liked.”

That was largely why he was so watchable and largely why players and coaches got so irked by him. Hook could be blunt, sometimes unkind. So it surprises you to learn how he often wrestled with his conscience before delivering a putdown. “There wasn’t a day when I didn’t go ‘hold on, this player has a mother or a wife or a child’. So I did stop and think. But ultimately (I came to the conclusion) that you couldn’t do the job – I certainly didn’t think you could do the job well – if you weren’t prepared to offend anyone.

“I don’t think I’d get a job with modern-day RTÉ, certainly not with Virgin Media, Sky or anybody else because I wasn’t prepared to say stuff like ‘Reggie Corrigan’s left foot is slightly out of alignment which is the reason why the scrum started to wheel’.

“In fact my remark about Reggie Corrigan being past his sell-by date ended up with me getting a letter from his mother. And I understood all that. I was being critical so people were entitled to criticise me. I got that. I got it when no one in the Irish set-up talked to me.

“There was a famous occasion when Popey (fellow pundit Brent Pope) and I were walking towards Lansdowne Road, and as we made our way past the Berkeley Court, the Irish team coach pulled up at the hotel and all 23 players and management got off the bus and walked right by without saying a hello or a how are you? And I understand that. I wasn’t there to be the players’ friend.”

Was he affected by the stick he received in return?

“No is the short answer. To this very day I love people coming up to me on the street and saying ‘how are you?’ ‘Can I have a selfie?’ Imagine if you were on television and no one recognised you. If that was the case, you wouldn’t be making much of an impact, would you?”


It’s Thursday when we speak. His back has been at him all day. “Old age,” Bob Hope once said, “isn’t for laughs.”

Yet Hook does laugh right through our conversation. He shows plenty of self-awareness, talking about his shortcomings as a player – ‘I was average’ – and his struggles running a catering business – ‘I was simple terrible at it’.

That’s when an opinion forms of him that goes against the stereotype. Yes, as a pundit, he said plenty of hurtful things but there were years when he was the one in pain, struggling for a quarter of a century with a job (running that catering business) that he hated. “I was in constant debt. It was so tough on my family, so tough on Ingrid (his wife). At my lowest point, I was suicidal.”

Two things saved him, his family and his passion. “I was never a good player,” he says modestly, before adding immodestly, “but was a very good coach. I enjoyed being out on the field, getting across my philosophy on the game.

“You see, I should have been a teacher. That should have been my vocation. I hadn’t a clue how to run a successful business but I always knew how to channel an opinion. My strength was my ability to communicate.”

When life was at its toughest, coaching rugby became Hook’s sanctuary, as he trotted around the club and schools circuit in Dublin before being snapped up by the USA, prior to working with Connacht and being the first coach of the Irish women’s national team.

He has many legacies but none is bigger than his work as RTÉ’s main pundit. He was tough but honest. When Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy repeatedly sipped from sports drinks (gifting them free advertising) during a post-match interview, Hook didn’t shy away from calling them out on it, asking his producer to get him a bottle of water, piece of paper and a marker.

“Hook’s hooch,” he wrote, before answering Tom McGuirk’s questions by parodying the two players.

“That kind of anarchy was great fun,” he says, crediting McGuirk’s skills in the presenting chair, Pope’s camaraderie and a production team that supported them at every turn. “They never told us what to say; we had complete freedom.”

No modern-day pundit is as outspoken, restrained either by their ongoing friendships with the players they are analysing or out of fear that a backlash will follow if they go too far.

It’s why he is a huge fan of Joe Brolly and Pat Spillane in GAA, Liam Brady and Roy Keane in soccer.

“There was an interesting duel there on RTÉ during the World Cup between Kenny Cunningham and Joseph Ndo, the Cameroonian League of Ireland player. It was so different to the hugely structured debates that go on. It makes me wonder why television does not put on more performers?”

new-york-giants-v-green-bay-packers-nfl-london-games-2022-tottenham-hotspur-stadium PA Hook is a fan of Roy Keane's punditry. PA

As soon as he says this he goes on to qualify that he isn’t looking for his old gig back. “I want to stress that,” he says. “I had my day. And loved it,” before repeating himself like a modern-day Kevin Keegan. “Loved it.”

What he loved was the mayhem, telling a story about how McGuirk used to organise them during a commercial break to tee them up for the half-time chat.

 “McGuirk would say something along the lines of, ‘George, you take the Irish try, Pope, you take the English try and then Conor, the drop goal’.

“So, I’d scribble a few notes, prepare something in my head and then the lights would come back on, the show would restart and Tom would turn to me and go: ‘Now George tell me about the drop goal’

“And I’d think ‘oh fuck’.

“That was a charm. It was all part of how we did it. We never knew what was coming next. Without the anarchy, we wouldn’t have been so effective. Without the producer and without McGuirk, we would not have that programme.

“We had an unbelievable loyalty to each other. Now we might have said terrible things about each other (laughs) but there was never an attempt to score points off the other.”

Yet it seems strange given their on-set rapport that they weren’t particularly close friends.

“I don’t ever remember an occasion where we went out for a pint after. We never socialised. Still, there was a tremendous spirit amongst us.”

He retired from punditry in 2015 but continued to work for Newstalk in current affairs up until 2018. In 2017 his comments about a rape trial in the UK were condemned by groups such as the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI). Newstalk suspended him for a period and he departed his daily High Noon programme before returning to present a weekend programme. He retired from broadcasting in 2018.


This weekend Champions Cup rugby returns to RTÉ.

It’s a different type of panel they have now – still strong and certainly a lot better than what they have in rugby or soccer – but stylistically so different to what they had in the old days.

You just can’t imagine anyone now going out on a limb the way Hook did, when he said that Johnny Sexton should retire from the game for the sake of his health (after Sexton suffered concussion injuries playing for Racing in France).

“That wasn’t said to be controversial,” says Hook, “but was said out of care. Traumatic brain injury concerns me. I have seen what has happened in the NFL with American football with so many players who played in the 1970s and 80s suffering post-career brain traumas.

“I love rugby union and fear it might not be here in 10 years. There might be Rugby Union football but it will be like the NFL in the United States where there are about one thousand footballers out of a population of 280 million. I mean no one is playing in the AIL equivalent of the NFL.

“Concussion concerns me and there is so much of it in rugby.”

As he says this, you sense his back giving off more pain. That chronic ache and the fear it brings has taken so many things away from Hook but it can’t take away his voice. For years it was the loudest in rugby, our companion on some of Ireland’s great days. “I got lucky,” he says. “Those years (working on TV) were so much fun.”

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