Behind the lens
Tom Hamilton at Twickenham
May 26, 2012
The ESPN production truck © ESPN
Twickenham was bathed in sunshine for Saturday's thrilling Aviva Premiership final - where Harlequins defeated Leicester - but the whole set-up behind the ESPN cameras is so well drilled that if a spontaneous snowstorm broke out during the second-half, the crew would not have batted an eyelid.
The final is 80 minutes of rugby, but the preparations to beam the game to 91 countries started in earnest on Wednesday. We've known for two weeks now that it would be Harlequins taking on Leicester to earn the title of England's best domestic team and while Quins jetted off to Abu Dhabi and the Tigers stayed incognito near their Welford Road base, ESPN were hard at work looking to back up the high standard of rugby on the field with a well-drilled operation off it.
At 9am on the morning of the final, with kick-off a full six hours away, there is already a hive of activity in the outside broadcast hub. Stationed between the North and West stands at Twickenham, the broadcast team, consisting of a little over one hundred personnel, have been in position three days before the final.
For Premiership Rugby there was a new name on the trophy, and similarly for those working in television it was unknown territory with this being the first final to be broadcast in 3D. The logistics behind this are too complicated to do justice here, but the basic facts are there were 19 2D cameras at the final and eight broadcasting 3D. There are two production teams, two crews with two different sets of pundits. For ESPN executive producer Andrew 'Buzz' Hornett at the start of the season, his brief was to keep the content fresh, original and above all, entertaining. The evergreen and brilliantly unique Mark Durden-Smith is the face of the 2D coverage with his able lieutenants Ben Kay and Austin Healey alongside him.
While Durden-Smith takes everything in his stride - quite literally when he does his now famous pre-match walk from the ESPN 'kebab van' in the West car park to his spot in the stadium - Healey's preparations and his stomach have been disrupted by a dodgy sandwich from a service station. Kay delighted in his colleague's misfortune while taking in the ESPN Masterclass on the hallowed Twickenham turf at about 10.45am, with the stands still empty. The West car park is all dolled up but no one has arrived for the party.
Back in the catering truck, which I'm reliably informed is Durden-Smith's favourite area of the compound, the team are putting the finishing touches to their notes for commentary. Durden-Smith is stationed towards the back of the two-tier catering van and is quick to point out that he is, contrary to rumours, not eating. His script is laid out on the table in front of him and although his style of presenting appears off the cuff, and at times by his own admission it is, it is a highly detailed document.
Mark Durden-Smith hard at work © ESPN
Part of ESPN's battle at the start of the season was preventing the 'difficult second-season syndrome', which like Exeter, they've brushed past. Hornett puts this down to, in part, the work of Healey, Kay, Durden-Smith, Sarra Elgan and Nick Mullins and their refreshing take on the game with the army of people behind the scenes all playing their part.
Fast-forward to 12.15pm and the rehearsals are just about to begin. Durden-Smith is heading to the West car park asking those in the office exactly what was wrong with Danny Care's shoulder last week and messrs Healey and Kay are working on their own analysis of the forwards and backs. In the production office, executive producer David Tippett is running the rule over roughly 60 screens each showing a different part of the matchday experience whether it's the outdoor studio in the car park, the pitch or the gantry.
Lead commentator Mullins' work begins the week before with trips to the club's press conferences and maybe showing his face at a training session. The high-level of preparation is no different whether it's a Rugby World Cup final or a cold Friday evening at Edgeley Park. He arrives on the gantry at 1.30pm to survey his 'office' as he labels it - a sun-drenched Twickenham is not a bad place to work.
Nick Mullins' crib sheet - a work of art © ESPN
The final touches are being put in place at 1.55pm with the whole team focusing on one thing - the show going live on the dot at 2pm. Durden-Smith dives into the throng of fans in the car park and is greeted with typical gusto while a food-poisoned Healey sits perched on the stools alongside Kay and guest pundit Mark Cueto. The whole operation goes seamlessly well and from the gantry you can see various familiar faces running around the outside of the pitch with Pete Richards, Pat Sanderson and Jill Douglas heading off to cover the game in 3D and Mullins, Kay and Healey all primed on the gantry to provide the standard 2D coverage - broadcast thanks to six miles of cable.
Twickenham is packed to the rafters and the pre-match entertainment is running to the outskirts of the field as the players take to the pitch. The clock ticks towards 3pm and the decibel level goes through the very open roof. For those watching the game at home, Mullins' dulcet tones ring out as he mutters his opening lines "The 2012 Aviva Premiership final - the two best teams of the season meet on the final day of the season - how it should be." Like clockwork - similar to the whole behind-the-scenes operation - Nick Evans hoists the ball into the air to start the game.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
As Ray McLoughlin prepares to celebrate his 75th birthday, Huw Richards pays tribute to the man and the selectors who had the wisdom to bring him into the Ireland fold
John Taylor argues the world's best XVs players must be given a chance to play in the Olympics to increase the appeal of the game
The All Blacks' form is not a peaking issue, but Hansen must threaten to wield his axe, to demand improvement, Craig Dowd writes
"It has been the World Cup that smashed down the gender barriers of the sport." Tom Hamilton looks back at a remarkable tournament