Mark Durden-Smith is about to be unleashed onto his third season as the lead presenter for ESPN’s coverage of the Aviva Premiership campaign and he could not be more excited about it. Durden-Smith believes that, “this season has so many question marks hanging over every team, a lot more than the two previous seasons that I’ve covered.”
ESPN’s coverage is kickstarted by the London Double Header which is, according to Durden-Smith, “a mouth-watering rugby bonanza. There are days in the calendar where you lick your lips fallaciously and this is certainly one of them.”
The Double Header involves four of the most prestigious teams in the division battling it out over two matches at the home of rugby. First up is London Wasps versus the reigning Champions, Harlequins.
Quins are returning to the site where thirteen weeks earlier they had been crwoned Champions of the Aviva Premiership and Durden-Smith reluctantly believes that come the London Double Header on Saturday 1st September they will be victorious again.
“Wasps have the rudiments to be a good middle table Premiership side,” which would be a vast improvement on last season where they just stayed up on the last day of the season. But he continues to say that the, “good feeling created from winning the league and being at Twickenham again will give Quins the edge in this one.”
The second game of the “rugby festival” as Durden-Smith labelled it, is between a determined Saracens side against a renewed London Irish under new management, with Brian Smith retaking the reigns at the Exiles.
“Sarries have had a good preseason and with Irish, there are still too many question marks over their line-out (Kennedy and Casey have gone) and they have lost a lot of senior players (Armitage and Bowden have both left), so I see Saracens winning this by a predictable 8 points.”
ESPN’s rugby coverage is viewed by many and is seen by Durden-Smith himself as “Sky Sports’ little kid brother”, but this allows them to do more “in the thick of it broadcasting.” ESPN wants their presenters to be in touching distance of the fans so that, “if you’re not lucky enough to be at the ground, we are the next best thing.”
Durden-Smith tells of how, “a few seasons ago we had Mike Catt come to be interviewed in between matches in the Double Header, but he got mobbed by fans hugging him and one fan even bought him a pint.” This type of broadcasting is why he believes ESPN will continue to have large audiences, “as it brings the viewer into the atmosphere of the ground.”
ESPN is always “looking to do more things for the viewers,” according to Durden-Smith and he says to “look out for a scrum machine where Ben Kay and Austin Healey will be going at it and trying to explain the rule changes to the scrum.” These involve the removal of the word ‘pause’ for those who are interested.
On working with Austin Healey, one of the more controversial figures in the world of sports punditry, Durden-Smith labels him the “Leicester Lipstick,” who, “you have to be careful with because anyone who embraces sequins as quickly as he did needs to be watched. He is so unpredictable and can be at times a wind up machine, but he does keep you on your toes and I’ve had to grow a thicker skin!”
“But joking aside Austin knows his stuff, he has a vast rugby knowledge and when he does take his job very seriously, he is up there with the best.” Ben Kay does not escape lightly either, with Durden-Smith labelling him the “Herman Monster,” but that, “underneath his rugby forward exterior is a very clever man.”
Durden-Smith believes that after the summer of sport that we have enjoyed with the Olympics, the rugby will be the icing on the cake. “I cannot wait to get back to working with no autocue and after the 45-minute preparation time going live and simply just sucking it up and seeing what happens.”
ESPN will broadcast 43 live and exclusive Aviva Premiership Rugby matches this season, including the London Double Header at Twickenham on 1st September. Visit ESPNscrum.com/tv for more details