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'We were like the Rolling Stones walking down the street in Cardiff!'

Tom McGurk, Brent Pope, and George Hook are synonymous with a time when Irish rugby took a leap forward.

Tom McGurk, George Hook, and Brent Pope.
Tom McGurk, George Hook, and Brent Pope.
Image: INPHO/Eoin Lúc Ó Ceallaigh

IT’S HARD TO look past Cardiff in 2006 as the high point.

A packed Millennium Stadium. Munster ending their years of struggle and toil. The travelling hordes of fans clad in red, some of whom weren’t from Munster at all.

The live link back to O’Connell Street in Limerick, Peter Stringer’s try, the emotion of the whole occasion. And right there in the thick of it were Tom McGurk, George Hook, and Brent Pope, broadcasting live from Cardiff onto TV screens around Ireland.

By that stage, the trio were a prominent part of the Irish rugby landscape, their coverage on RTÉ engaging and sometimes enraging both longstanding supporters and the new fans who had been caught up in Munster’s journey and Ireland’s improvement with a ‘golden generation’ of players under Eddie O’Sullivan.

That RTÉ panel, which also included Conor O’Shea, remains a big part of many rugby supporters’ memories of those happy days. Six Nations games could be as notable for an argument between Hook and Pope at half time as for the stuff on the pitch.

But that remarkable day in Cardiff still stands out and Pope will never forget the walk back to the hotel they had post-match, their route from the stadium taking them through ecstatic Munster fans who all wanted a word with the lads from RTÉ.

“We were like the Rolling Stones walking down the street in Cardiff!” says Pope with a laugh. “We got back to the hotel and we were just covered in champagne. I remember Tom’s hair sticking up like Billy Idol because there was so much champagne in it.

“We were almost like rockstars, people were leaning out of buses and roaring at us, chanting our names. It was an amazing occasion.”

The weekend in Cardiff was a first in more ways than Munster winning the Heineken Cup. Former RTÉ head of sport, Ryle Nugent, recalls it as the first time the broadcaster had set up an entire studio on-site abroad.

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Nugent was on commentary duties that day, uttering the words “Glory, glory, Munster” when the final whistle rang out and feels the occasion summed up a time when McGurk, Pope, Hook, and O’Shea rode the wave of rugby’s growth in Ireland.

“People forget that the lads were there at the time rugby became reasonably popular with the audience and they were part of the narrative,” says Nugent.

“They weren’t the story – the teams were the story – but there’s no question that the coverage Tom, Conor, Brent, and George brought was part of the popularisation of it.”

Source: pocketTV1/YouTube

Pope had been first to join, asked to come on board by Niall Cogley in 1995 for the Ireland v New Zealand game at the World Cup – the time Gary Halpin delivered his infamous try-scoring salute. Pope had been due to fly home to New Zealand the following day, but the late, great Bill O’Herlihy – who fronted the rugby coverage at the time – asked Pope to stay on with RTÉ. The St Mary’s man ended up staying for 25 years.

Those were different times as Pope joined Mick Doyle and Tony Ward on the ‘original’ panel. Back then, the viewing figures in excess of 1 million people that would come in the 2000s were unimaginable. Irish rugby teams weren’t very good.

“We covered the games from that little shack above the railway line at the far end of Lansdowne Road and every time the train came under, you would have to almost go off-air because the shack would be shaking that much,” recalls Pope.

“Bill would have a flask of tea with him, you’d have your sandwiches with you, it was old-school stuff but I loved those times.”

By the 2000s, McGurk, Hook, and O’Shea had been signed up and with Irish teams increasingly competitive on the pitch, it started to kick on. The RTÉ crew grew with it all.

Hook – the former Connacht and USA head coach – was the divisive, acerbic, controversial star attraction, capable of stinging criticism with dollops of humour. 

“George was always going to be the agent provocateur,” is how Nugent puts it, while Pope adds that “you could always rely on George having a couple of pearlers every game.

“George is a great orator and he knows his rugby more than what people give him credit for.”

Oftentimes, Pope would disagree with Hook’s statements, leading to riveting live exchanges.

“There were times we wouldn’t have regarded ourselves as friends,” admits Pope. “I remember one time where I felt like I was going to get up and bloody smack George at a meeting.

“People used to say that some of the stuff was fabricated but nothing ever was, nothing.”

All the while, McGurk was overseeing things, judging the mood, letting the argument play out or cutting things short as required. His journalistic instincts were key.

“Tom knew where and how to prod,” says Nugent.  

Wesley Liddy, who joined RTÉ in 2006 and works there as a producer to this day, also points to McGurk’s strength in hitting the right tone on the biggest days for Irish rugby.

“Tom could really set the scene for a big occasion well,” says Liddy. “He was quite literary and he was great to deliver scripts and pre-match pieces – just have a look on YouTube.”

rte McGurk, Pope, and Hook at Lansdowne road for a 2003 World Cup warm-up match. Source: INPHO

Whenever former Ireland fullback O’Shea was part of the panel, he “was always going to be the rock of sense in the corner,” according to Nugent.

Pope points out that RTÉ’s coverage wasn’t as technical and tactical back then as is the case with rugby broadcasting now, but there is a real sense of pride in the product they delivered and how accessible it was for people who weren’t in-depth rugby fans.

“There was some technical knowledge that Conor might bring, but it was also about good-natured entertainment,” says Pope.

“People want some technical analysis but they also want somebody who is not scared to call it as it is, to call that one opinion you might have in the pub even. You want someone on the panel who is not playing the party line all the time.”

Nugent points out that the rugby panel on RTÉ in those years stemmed from what O’Herlihy, Eamonn Dunphy, John Giles, and Liam Brady had been doing in football.

“It was a formula that RTÉ Sport developed over the years, starting with the soccer panel, then into rugby and GAA – a very clear understanding of the roles required to make a good panel. Then you hoped the chemistry would come because of that, and it did.

“It’s impossible to define that chemistry but the relationship blossomed on-air and that made it pretty compelling stuff. It was engaging, educating, and entertaining – the three Es you need and I think that stands today.”

Liddy was involved when ‘The Heineken Cup Roadshow with Hook and Pope’ launched in 2006, taking the pair on a tour of rugby clubs around the country, where they furthered the affinity that many fans already felt with them.

“We went to Waterford, Ratoath, Portadown, all over the place and people were just delighted to have the lads there,” says Liddy. “If you went out to the pub with the lads after a game, it was just absolute insanity with supporters wanting to talk to them.”

While Pope and Hook had their tiffs, they had great craic together too.

“The morning after the 2006 final in Cardiff, I remember George and I walking past a carload of Munster supporters who obviously hadn’t bothered with accommodation and were sleeping it out in the car,” says Pope.

“George just knocked on the window. One of them woke up and he was shocked initially but then he woke the rest of them and suddenly the car was rocking and the cheering had all started again.”

There was the ‘Hook’s Hooch’ gag in 2004, one that forced such laughter in the studio that McGurk had to go for an early ad break.

Source: KillianM2 TV Archive/YouTube

“That was with Brian O’Driscoll, who had the blonde hair at that time. After the game, he seemed to have struck up a deal with a water or sports drink company and he had two bottles in his hand for his post-match interview,” says Pope.

“At half-time, we got a bottle of water and put a label on it with ‘Hook’s Hooch’ and George was sipping out of it. I just cracked up laughing and I couldn’t stop, Tom was the same.”

While there was some fondness there, the RTÉ panel could infuriate supporters too. Hook was generally the antagonist element in that sense. Pope laughs as he recalls a few Munster fans attempting to clamber up into the presentation box at a wind-swept Thomond Park, “trying to get at George.”

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The good times were rolling for Ireland rugby. Munster won European titles in 2006 and 2008, while Ireland earned Triple Crowns in 2004, 2006, and 2007, the last of which involved hammering England at Croke Park.

“I didn’t realise how emotional that was going to be, even for me,” says Pope. “It went down in such a respectful way and it transcended rugby. It was more just about the occasion. I maybe shouldn’t have felt so patriotic but I read up a lot about events.

“I think I was in tears, it just meant so much to rugby fans for Ireland to go out and win so convincingly.”

In 2009, there was the Grand Slam under Declan Kidney – the country’s first in 61 years. Liddy was working behind the scenes in RTÉ that day.

“We had live feeds coming in from Young Munsters, Ballymena, all these places,” he recalls. “My head was nearly exploding trying to swap between all the different feeds but I remember a moment where I was just thinking, ‘This is a really big deal’.”

Nugent, meanwhile, voiced many of the greatest days for Irish rugby.

“I was the luckiest guy in town,” he says, admitting that it was often a daunting experience. “It was prime real estate. The opportunity to do that Munster final in Cardiff, Croke Park, the Grand Slam after 400 years. Those will be highlights of my career.

“It was just a terrific period to be involved in because we went from rugby operating in the wings of the public consciousness to it becoming more front-and-centre because of the achievements of the teams.”

Nothing lasts forever, of course. McGurk and Hook retired from the RTÉ panel in 2015, while Pope’s stint ran up until last year. He misses it now.

A generation of retired Grand Slam winners had started moving into broadcasting, with Shane Horgan and Ronan O’Gara part of RTÉ’s coverage alongside Pope and co. in their later years with the station. 

“I remember talking to ROG about it after his first year and he loved having George there beside him,” says Liddy.

Source: RTÉ Sport/YouTube

“The hardcore rugby audience is small but big Six Nations matches would have over a million people watching them so it does become about more than the intricacies of that particular game and there is a watch-ability involved, being accessible, and being entertaining. That’s a big part of it.”

Nugent echoes that, pointing to the likes of Jamie Carragher, Gary Neville, and Roy Keane as modern-day standard-bearers in sports broadcasting.

“Opinions in sport are always going to be valid,” says Nugent. “No sport is a game of fact. If it was, no one would watch. It has become more technical and analytical but there continues to be huge room for opinion based on what you see and what you feel and the generality of what’s going on around you.”

Pope reflects fondly on the good times with real gratitude.

“People tell me they liked my honesty and the fact that I was genuine, tried to keep a positive light, and was fair.

“As a blow-in, I will forever appreciate it that people took to me.

“I think we created a following at a time when rugby needed it.”

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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Murray Kinsella

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