Hook and Pope On Tour
RTE lost the live rights to broadcast Heineken Cup matches at the end of last season, catching the conclusion of Munster's epic quest for the trophy just in time. With Sky now providing the context to televisual consumption of the tournament, and Dewi Morris, Stuart Barnes and Paul Wallace now the large-men-squeezed-into-swivel-chairs, RTE's old analytical war-horses, George Hook and Brent Pope, are left outside to press their bulbous noses up against the studio glass (metaphorically speaking, of course).
RTE Sport, wishing to retain a slice of the zeitgeist-y appeal the tournament now holds, and to bask in some of Munster's continuing reflected glory, has sent the two oval-ball opinionators out rattling the doors of the nation's rugby clubs in The Heineken Cup Roadshow with Hook and Pope. I caught this last night for the first time, finding the chaps in the Clanwilliam Rugby Club in Co.Tipperary, home of Munster and Ireland back-rower Alan Quinlan.
It's only right that these guys should be actively deployed when the Heineken Cup is on; they have become synonymous with rugby television in this country during its most successful era and have almost reached the same level of mental association with their sport as Dunphy and Giles have done with soccer.
Still, the idea of bringing them around drafty old clubhouses and - crucially - leaving them to host the show, live, without the strong hand of Tom McGurk on the tiller, seemed risky. Would this be a rugby Nighthawks?
That the show works quite well says much for the George Hook's unheralded presenting skills. Presumably honed on his radio show (Newstalk's The Right Hook), George's presenting style has an effortlessness about it which suggests that he is either a natural, or vastly more self-aware than we hitherto suspected.
Unlike RTE's other Superpundits, Eamon Dunphy and Pat Spillane, for whom the presenter's chair was as Kryptonite to their analytical powers, Hook retains the use of his x-ray opinions and a faster-than-a-speeding-bullet instinct for a one-liner. Thankfully the nuts and bolts of presenting have not robbed him of the opportunity to lean back in his seat and pour forth, giant sausage-like hands adding gracenotes to his condemnation of the Munster front row and such.
That well-decorated three occupied much of last night's discussion time in Clanwilliam, in light of Hook's criticism of their scrummaging in last week's show. This being Munster, and them being chippy, defensive types where the honour of any of their "liginds" is concerned, dear old George was subject to the whole repertoire of Munster self-righteousness.
Brent Pope was, of course, no help to his pal. Popey, as he must be known, is a fascinating character. A resplendently healthy looking man of indeterminate age (in Irish years, about 25, in Antipodean, possibly 50), he is by all accounts the archetypal rugby hale-fellow-well-met, the sort of sociable man-boy that the sport looks after and cherishes through decades of after-dinner speaking after his direct involvement with the game ends.
He is honorary Irish now, having spent the last 15 years here in one capacity or another since he arrived to coach Clontarf in 1991, and as the straight-man to Hook's flights of metaphor and allegory, he seems more Irish at times than the lyrical George.
Anyway, when Hook was getting a good pummeling from the Munster folk - including John Kenny of D'Unbelieveables ("D'you know, I don't know as much about de technical side as ye lads, but how ye can say dat Munster front row can't scrum I don't know") and John Hayes' wife and Ireland ladies team player Fiona Steed - Popey remained neutral, eye instinctively on not offending his meal-ticket.
Still, Hook doesn't take positions for the sake of controversy and battled back doggedly, pointing out that while the Munster front row brought many good things to the game, scrummaging was not one of them, whether their other advantages compensated or not.
For a big man, he's light on his feet though. Another lady prefaced her scolding with the line "You're paid big money to have those views..."; Hook prefaced his response by admonishing the woman for pointing out his large salary "when there's a revenue commissioner in the audience."
Nice touch - deflect stick onto that collective hate-figure, the taxman, and everyone reconsiders what a nice chap you are again.
As I said, either effortless, or enormously self-aware.