"It's been fun"
May 25, 2013
The ESPN crew hand over a cheque to Great Ormond Street Hospital on the day of the final © ESPNscrum
"We're in the thick of it". It has been one of the constant themes of ESPN's coverage of the Aviva Premiership over the last three years. And you cannot disagree with their mantra.
Viewers of ESPN's coverage are likely to remember Mark Durden-Smith battling his way through crowds of passionate rugby folk, Nick Mullins passing quiet, authoritative judgement, Austin Healey and Ben Kay giving unique insight while attempting to maintain their composure amid their inevitable disintegration into schoolboy banter and Sarra Elgan asking the all-important pertinent questions pre and post-match.
It has been wonderful to be a part of but all good things must come to an end. Saturday's Aviva Premiership final was the last live rugby match on ESPN but while it was a bittersweet occasion, there are plenty of memories from the last three season's worth of coverage.
Central to the onscreen coverage has been Durden-Smith, the springboard off which the rest of the pundits and show pivots. ESPN's brief was to bring fans closer to the action, demystify the sport and above all, make it fun. "It's been, can I say this and I'm not on X-factor, a journey. It's been amazing," Durden-Smith said. "Rugby is all about the fans, the people and the lack of barriers. We wanted to get that spirit across to people, I firmly believe we have been in the thick of it. Whether it came off, isn't us to judge."
It all started at the 2010-11 Twickenham Double-Header. The now notorious 'kebab van' - a part of the presentation which Mullins said saw them "drop the prawn sandwiches and turn to kebabs" - in the west car park established itself as an integral part of the coverage and for the debut show, Mike Catt was the guest. He sat there, pint of a well-known black stout in hand, and out of nowhere came a female supporter with a particular liking for the former England international and gave him a hug live on air. For Durden-Smith, that perfectly showed "us being in the thick of it".
All of the onscreen talent in the run up to the final show spoke about how excited they were to 'come to work' with no one safe from the banter. Kay drinking a funnel of beer was a highlight as was his pre-match hit on Durden-Smith while attempting to illustrate the best way to take contact.
Both Healey and Kay took up the jobs with ESPN from the outset of their coverage with the latter coming straight from playing. Healey saw it as a chance to learn from the best. But looking back on the last three years, in his own unique way, Healey provides a tongue-in-cheek take on the experience.
"It's been an amazing three years. It's fair to say, without being too disrespectful to those who have done it before, we have raised the bar. The whole three seasons have gone so quickly.
"I came into this job hoping I'd learn a lot from Nick Mullins as a commentator, that hasn't happened. I thought I'd learn a lot from Mark Durden-Smith on how to present but he has not got a clue what's going on his head so there is no way anyone else in the world can fathom what's going on.
"But seriously, they have been brilliant people to work with and I include Ben in that. He came into this as a complete and utter novice, I basically got him the job, but he has not let anyone down. Well, apart from if you're talking clothes sense. But apart from his clothes, in my opinion, he's the best co-commentator in rugby."
And for Kay, one of the highlights has been the unintentional 'innuendo bingo'. "There have been a few times when we have literally been crying on the end of the microphone, particularly at Nick Mullins' expense," Kay said. "Austin and I are basically schoolboys while Nick is trying to continue and we were on the floor. Nick's 'innuendo bingo' has led to it featuring on the radio. There was one moment when Nick said 'Burrell has got his big drill out' and that pretty much finished us off."
The ESPN crew © Getty Images
But through all the fun, the foggy nights at Sale and the inclement conditions at Kingsholm, each season has come down to one day - the final at Twickenham. When speaking to all five of the ESPN crew, they all spoke fondly of their end-of-season journey to HQ. "I've loved working with such a great team, it does not feel like work every weekend," Elgan said. "For me, my favourite interviews have been on the final day with the winning captain and the winning Man of the Match. They are so eager to speak and there is a buzz about the whole occasion."
But viewers of Aviva Premiership rugby will have to look elsewhere for coverage next season. You will see some familiar faces appear on BT Sport, but Saturday's final was still an emotional occasion for all involved. Mullins said: "If you can't pat your mates on the back on a day like today, then you never will.
"Having two co-commentators has really changed the way rugby is televised - Ben and Austin have re-defined the way rugby should be broadcast. Mark presents the game like no one else does on television, he's a genius. And then there's Sarra who has just been superb.
"It's just been fun, it's been a lot of fun."
So at half past five on Saturday, after all the furore surrounding Dylan Hartley's red card and the Tigers' tenth title, Durden-Smith brought down the curtain on ESPN'S rugby's coverage. "That's all the rugby we've got time for on ESPN."
It's au revoir, but it is not goodbye.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.