The unquantifiable value of trust
February 6, 2013
The late, great Bill McLaren © PA Photos
I was fortunate during my formative years as a "cub" commentator at the BBC to work alongside Bill McLaren and Cliff Morgan. The sports office on the third floor of London's Broadcasting House doubled as the finest of classrooms. What I learnt watching and listening to these two great men of rugby, radio and television continues to shape the way I approach my rather strange job today.
The two are in my thoughts particularly at Six Nations time. This was always Bill's favourite slice of the season and each year since his death I'm tickled with idle thoughts of him composing those famous multi-coloured commentary sheets for an appreciative heavenly audience. Cliff meantime took me to my first ever Five Nations match, Wales against England at the old stadium this week in 1993. Two decades on, now enjoying retirement, he will have settled down on the sofa last weekend with his eye and mind as sharp as ever.
I mention the pair of them because I've been wondering just what they'd make of the news that BT Sport, the broadcasters who will televise next season's Aviva Premiership, are keen for coaches to open their top-secret tactics book to commentators ahead of matches.
Bill would spend all week thinking about the game to come and he taught me the absolute importance of preparation; to be ready to add something extra to the pictures you were seeing at home. He spent half a century building friendships and confidences that gave him the insight he enjoyed. But I doubt he'd have ever expected friends like Ian McGeechan or Clive Woodward to share their strategies ahead of a Calcutta Cup match.
It would have seemed preposterous back then. Now at least it appears clubs and coaches are happy to give the idea some thought. While they do however, it's probably worth mentioning that a sharing of match-day plans has existed to a limited extent for a while - and Bill and Cliff were central to developing a link between coaches and commentators that persists today.
One of my favourite memories of Bill is of him on a muddy touchline at Sofia Gardens the Friday before a game in Cardiff. While the wind and the icy rain were at their worst, this solitary figure wrapped in a tartan scarf remained steadfast, muttering the names of players to himself as Wales went through their final drills. A word with the coaches (I think it might have been Alan Davies back then) and a shake of each players' hand as they headed for the bus completed his prep for the commentary to come.
Bill was the best for a million reasons and those of us who've followed, however falteringly, do at least try to hold on to his principles. My week for example will be eaten up with preparation for ESPN's two games this weekend, with trips where time allows to watch Sale, Exeter, Harlequins and Wasps train and chats with those involved.
While, for the moment, there's no formal agreement in place that compels Steve Diamond, Rob Baxter, Conor O'Shea and David Young to let me into their tactical thoughts, I hope the trust I've built with them over the years means they're happy enough to talk a little about their game-day plans. Each know I value our relationship too much to contemplate leaking little snippets to the opposition.
Some degree of formalised disclosure might not be far away if it's written into new contracts between clubs and TV companies and that would be fascinating. But it will be equally intriguing to see just how much of a difference it makes. In the end, folks only tell you what they want you to know and it might take some form of torture for coaches to spill the entire contents of their zealously-guarded bean can.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Nick Mullins is lead commentator for live Aviva Premiership Rugby on ESPN