Updated: Dec 18, 2020
It's a common theme across the majority of Rugby forums and Facebook groups that the current commentary partnerships that bless our little eardrums each weekend during our favourite clubs fixtures are, in fact, rubbish. Long gone are the days where the avid Rugby viewer would chuckle and guffaw at Bill Mclaren's anecdotes and simile's; a lot of folks still regard him as the last functional commentator, let alone good one. However, with the emergence and popularity of players-turned-pundits like David Flatman, will commentary finally be taken seriously once again by the community?
The Commentators We Have:
Unfortunately Rugby, like any other competitive ball sport, is very divisive. Fans and pundits alike will cause a stir to wind up their opposition and take great offence when criticism is levied at their favourite players... That is unavoidable. If you look at the commentators currently working consistently today, two names usually spring to mind when you think of divisive criticism and constant wind ups... Austin Healey and Ugo Monye. Now it might seem blasphemous, but I DON'T mind Austin Healey's jibes and critiques. He's a stereotypical back of old who wants free flowing Rugby, whether it suits the squad or not, and takes the sport game by game, often forgetting the context of each clubs season. That would be fine if he was complimented by another commentator who could steady and add balance to his opinions. Although I DON'T mind Ben Kay, he's pretty vanilla and doesn't offer too much creative analysis in-game. One is clearly the Roy Keane type, just far less bitter, and the other is much more of a Martin Tyler; you wouldn't see Roy and Martin in the same commentary booth though right?
The other commentator who ruffles our feathers is Ugo Monye. However, we tend to agree with the complaints of one-eyed, blinkered rhetoric on Quins, disaster statements (like saying that Welsh Rugby is in turmoil after the clubs and country lost a couple weekends back) and often disregarding good performances by players who have outmatched opposition that he personally rates higher; look at the Wasps vs Quins game last year where Marcus Smith scored that awesome try, but lost the game by being tactically out-manoeuvred by a young Umaga who played the game in the right areas of the pitch and set up a fantastic try as a response... You would have thought that it was Dan Carter vs Ryan Lamb if you compared his commentary on both of their abilities.
However, when you look towards international Rugby and European club Rugby, there are no commentators lamented more by the public than Stuart Barnes and Miles Harrison. Barnes is a slightly different story, with controversial, alleged stories of his past being revived through the media recently and his constant butting of heads with sporting icons on Twitter and in the Press, really hamstringing his overall presence in the Rugby community. With what we currently know and are exposed to, he just doesn't seem like a particularly likeable guy, and that's okay on the surface (it's kind of similar to our view on Healey). But his tactical analysis, in game critique against home nations and nonsensical view on a plethora of scenarios/skirmishes, has most fans muting their televisions before they rise to his statements. In all honesty, Barnes should have gone over a decade ago and it's really hampered Sky's attempts to regain Rugby coverage with every fan knowing that he's what they will be stuck with. Miles Harrison on the other hand, well he's fine, but a bit like 'Big Ben' he's very vanilla and acts like a play-by-play guy. Nothing you can really do when paired with Barnes...
Then you move to BBC's and ITV's coverage aka the Six Nations & World Cup. Usually you have the age-old pairing of Eddie Butler and Brian Moore, two commentators who get WAY too much stick by the Rugby community. Eddie is seen as a Wales obsessed super fan who refuses to comment on the opposition and Moore is seen as a dinosaur who more often than not, has put his foot in his mouth with controversial comments. However, we LIKE Eddie and guess what? We are England supporters! His tone of voice is soothing and nostalgic, his enthusiasm and passionate play-by-play commentary is the most engaging in Rugby and he's not afraid to actually give his opinion on events; something the play-by-play guys don't often do! I'm going to double up here, but I also *quite* like Brian Moore's commentary. It's often fairly witty, hyper critical of stupidity and certainly memorable. He has good games and bad games, but he largely compliments his counterparts dulcet tones by sounding like a chap in the pub who wants to add his two pence to every breakdown.
But then you get to Amazon which might have subtly changed the game when it comes to Rugby commentary. That's largely down to one man, one person really respected by the Rugby community and a fan favourite across the continent... Mr David Flatman. His analysis is calculated, unique, full of interesting perspective and personality, and is largely unbiased from game to game. His breakdown on forward play is the best in the business, chiming in with intelligent comments on mistakes, blunders and 'why' a player has done what they've done. He's accessible for new viewers and loveable for returning viewers. Any commentary team that he's a part of is instantly improved by his input.
So we might have missed some commentators there like Andy Goode and Lawrence Dallaglio (who's also particularly biased towards Wasps), but we wanted to stick to the big guns with a large sample size. The problem seems to be re-occurring across all of our different forms of coverage; biasedness, out-dated analysis and audaciousness. It seems that the majority of the fanbase would rather listen to vanilla commentators than sit through another one of Healey's rants. But by being divisive, which naturally occurs when you're being biased, it creates entertainment so it's this constant cycle that's more akin to reality TV than it is to sport. Most sports have this issue, this isn't a Rugby issue, any sport with ex-players on the mic will share opinions with the context of their own experiences. It's pretty rare to encounter an ex-player who doesn't overdo-it in their compliments towards their ex-side.
You also have this other issue, out-dated analysis, something that needs urgently improving. It's mind-boggling to me that you hear commentators and pundits alike, bashing the likes of England for negative Rugby because they don't chuck the ball around like a bunch of 70s Barbarians; they also still remark that Scotland are a slug-it-out, forwards orientated side when they left that style behind over 5 years ago. The game has changed and it continues to change season on season. It frustrates me to hear another commentator moan about the state of the scrums when they could be analysing why a team is getting the upper hand *cough* Austin Healey *cough*. When Lee Blackett transformed a struggling Wasps side by bringing in new coaches and a new philosophy of explosive, disruptive defence paired with intelligent fringe play and positional fluidity, the commentators would often remark that 'he's just made them happy with their Rugby again'. It's lazy and lacking research...
Specialists in Commentary:
Maybe it's time to start introducing columnists and pundits from wider Rugby playing communities to add some fresh blood into these dysfunctional commentary teams. I'd love to hear someone like Squidge Rugby (link will be below) dissecting set pieces as they happen in real time. There are also an abundance of Rugby writers out there who put in hours of research every single day about players backgrounds and personal achievements who surely would be able to raise points that can't be divisive as they are built on facts. I hate to say it, but even ex-coaches could be better suited to a role in the commentary booth. I'd love to hear someone who's used to drilling and instilling key performance areas discuss why a lineout is misfiring, not simply a recycled excuse such as 'miscommunication'.
I'm not saying ex-players aren't up to the task, Flatman is a perfect example of someone who can analyse and give thought-out, research backed opinions on a match as it's happening. I just think there has to be a better QA process when we reflect on what a commentator has done and said right, and what they'd done and said wrong.
So you're probably thinking, what would be my commentary team? Well I'd go for the three pronged approach, two ex-players and a coach, or two ex-players and one sports journalist. Here would be my two commentary teams:
David Flatman - Maggie Alphonsi - Michael Cheika (Pre-Argentina)
David Flatman - Dylan Hartley - Robbie Owen