Commentators: The Loves and Loathes

Last week’s poll on our favourite commentators provoked a healthy amount of banter and debate – it clearly matters who is on the mic. As our man Nick Heath prepares to make his BBC commentary debut on Friday, we thought we’d look into who cuts the mustard, who doesn’t and why.

Sports commentators often fall into two broad churches. The Motty and The McLaren. The Motty is the geek. An ear for facts, perfunctory details and endlessly researched statistics, if you want to be feel informed and armed with the info you need to quote at your friends, The Motty’s your man. In rugby circles this would include Nick Mullins, Nigel Starmer-Smith of old, perhaps Will Chignell too.

Loved for their ability to pluck out a player’s inside leg measurement from thin air, The Motty can be on hand to turn a dull game into a statto’s dream. The only problem being that whilst they are looking down at their tea-stained crib sheet, they have missed the best move of the game.

The McLaren is more about style. The voice and observation combining to generate an atmosphere that is designed to bring the viewer closer to the action. In football, Clive Tyldesley gets my vote. Sounding like an odd fusion of David Coleman, ITV’s old boy Brian Moore and the BBC’s Barry Davies, he’s from the old school – where your voice only exists at the back of your throat.

Not even he could have predicted how prophetic his words were in Liverpool’s European Cup Triumph of 2005 in which, three goals down to AC Milan at half time, Steven Gerrard scores what ends up being the first of three comeback goals that led the Reds to penalties glory. Tyldesley’s desperation to bring the hope of the English fans in the stands to those of us watching at home? “Hello, hello! Here we go!” Still brings out the goosebumps.

Back to rugby, Miles Harrison and Ian Robertson are those most blessed with this skill. I probably don’t need to remind anyone of Ian Robertson’s clip in the year he won speech broadcaster of the year with the sublime words, “This is the one…it’s coming back for Jonny Wilkinson…he drops for World Cup glory…it’s up, it’s over!” as Rob Andrew squeals like a strangled cockerel in the background. Similarly, Harrison’s ability to track the play and get the words out in time, to tell us what’s just happened and what’s about to happen are a truly natural talent. When he gets excited, we all get excited.  Speaking in The Rugby Blog Podcast this week, Miles shares his thoughts on the job he never stops viewing as a real privilege.


The role from radio to television does differ of course. The radio commentator must constantly describe field position as well as the weather, the size of the crowd, the strips, etc. TV is more about adding a layer of expertise, of interest and of clarity. It was this that McLaren excelled at. Eddie Butler doesn’t. It seems to me that his role is simply to poke Brian Moore with a stick every ten minutes to garner a reaction.

Of the supporting cast members, Ben Kay is performing adequately at ESPN – but then it’s easy not to look an acerbic idiot alongside Austin Healey. Incidentally, if anyone finds the director of their Monday night highlights show who has told Healey and Peter Richards to look awkwardly down the barrel of the lens every two minutes as if nervously checking their hair on a first date, I will provide the bullets.

Stuart Barnes seems to be softening the nation’s hearts. Yes, we all still amused to think that the ‘living in Rob Andrew’s shadow’ monkey is still not quite off his back from his playing days, but nine times out of ten his judgement on a situation is spot on and he’s also a great supporter of the referee when a decision is right, not just raising questions when they are wrong. Greenwood too is a popular figure. An expert centre in his playing days, it seems we trust Will’s view on things – even if we would sometimes prefer him to say it in fifteen words rather than fifty.

You cannot please 100% of the people 100% of the time. Rugby is a complex sport, so for it to be accessible, a certain amount of guidance within most commentaries is advisable. However, the lovers of the sport also need to be served well and finding the balance between capturing the atmosphere and imparting the latest technical information can be tricky. To have heard the best in the business in our lifetimes is the ultimate treat – luckily most of us did.

Miles Harrison speaks in full to Nick Heath in this week’s Rugby Blog Podcast, out tomorrow at 8am here and on iTunes as a free download.

7 thoughts on “Commentators: The Loves and Loathes

  1. Great story, looking forward to the Miles Harrison interview. His excitement during the better passages of play is infectious. Agree about the monkey not QUITE being off his back, but I think Stuart Barnes is great; clearly knows his stuff better than the majority of journos.

  2. Someone please tell the Heineken Cup Commentators that Derrick Hougaard;s name is HOUGAARD and not HOOHAA.

    You Pronounce it “HOE”+Guard….geddid?

    1. Similarly, someone might like to tell the awful Miles (“not only can I not pronounce their names, but I can’t even identify the players correctly”) Harrison (Clue: they have numbers on their backs) that “Kruger” is not pronounced “Creer”.

  3. I’m resident in South Africa and a great fan of both the Heineken Cup and AVIVA premiership, however, we don’t get to see “the frontline” or replays, so it’s extremely frustrating to hear the commentators discussing a play while we watch a shot of the crowd.

    Is this a wide spread problem or only limited to SA? Incidently, this doesn’t happen to the games carried on ESPN.

    For the record, I’m a fan of Miles Harrison, Will Greenwood and the ESPN team.

  4. Wow, awesome blog layout! How lengthy have you been running a blog for? you made running a blog glance easy. The full glance of your website is excellent, let alone the content material!

  5. Will someone please get Nick Mullins to listen to good rugby commentators. i.e. Miles Harrison, Eddie Butler, Grant Nesbit, Hugh Bladon to name the best. Mr. Mullins must
    stop his endless waffle during the game and inane comments. Please BT do something

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