Live from Edinburgh: Sky Sports hosts European Rugby final coverage in Murrayfield
By: Michael Burns
Tuesday, May 16, 2017 - 6:53 pm
Sky Sports production manager Joff White (L) and Arena OB unit manager Chris Ryan in Murrayfield

Sky Sports production manager Joff White (L) and Arena OB unit manager Chris Ryan in Murrayfield

It’s four hours before kickoff at Murrayfield and the dressing room benches are lined with attentive faces. There might be some anxious expressions among the Stade Français Paris team, but it’s probably not regarding the question about post-match DVD operations. Apart from a quick discussion (and equally quick decision by Sky Sports) regarding team on-screen graphics at half-time, this pre-match broadcaster meeting for the European Rugby Challenge Cup Final seems to be running very smoothly.

The match on Friday 12 May represents the fourth meeting between Stade Français Paris and Gloucester Rugby, and the eighth Anglo French final in the Challenge Cup. Gloucester (the Cherry and Whites) have won 10 of their last 11 games against Top 14 opposition in the Challenge Cup, and they’re riding high, having taken the title twice before. This will be Stade’s fifth European final, but they’re still striving for that elusive first trophy.

It’s also the first time that Sky Sports has been Host Broadcaster for the EPCR finals (European

It’s the first time Sky Sports has been Host Broadcaster for the EPCR finals

It’s the first time Sky Sports has been Host Broadcaster for the EPCR finals

Challenge Cup and European Champions Cup), with BT Sport, beIN Sports and FR4 onsite as Additional Broadcasters (AB). Sky Sports production manager Joff White however seems to have everything under control and in place well in advance of this meeting.

He doesn’t seem at all fazed for example by the forthcoming prospect of pyros, flag wavers and a pipe band at Murayfield; as he says later, “the meeting is all about where we, as broadcasters, decide what the event is doing and how we work together.”

The confidence may be down to the fact that it’s a familiar gig for White. “I’ve been working on rugby, and specifically looking after the European tournaments, for two years,” he explains. “This is the second time I’ve done a final and the first time that Sky have had this as host broadcaster.”

Sky covered the Challenge Cup in Lyon last year as an AB to France Télévisions. “Now we are supplying the unilateral feed, as well as the multilateral feed with 25 cameras,” says White. “We can cover the event in an interesting way for all the additional broadcasters, and for all our own presentation as well.”

On the field of play

As seems often to be the case in Scotland, early May has been warm, bright and dry. Today, however, has decided to be rather overcast, as we follow White around Murrayfield on his last minute checks of the production areas, including the broadcast compound. This is positioned at the south entrance to the stadium, with a host of OB trucks and support vehicles lined up in preparation for the event. There’s a crop of familiar broadcast names and logos on vans around the massive Arena truck that’s the centrepiece of the Sky Sports production. This is OBY, Arena’s latest mobile powerhouse scanner.

“It’s a full IP truck, and has only been on the road for nine months,” says White. “It was brand new for our use for the season. It’s been great having a dedicated truck for the rugby on Sky Sports. Unlike a football production, we produce both our multilateral and unilateral feeds out of the one truck.”

Murrayfield wide angleChris Ryan, OB unit manager from Arena, and very much a key component in this production, is on hand to discuss how it all works. “We built the first IP-based truck,” he begins. “All the video signals in the truck are network signals, rather than a baseband video signal. It was the first in the world to do so. This is the second version of that truck, with a third in development as well. It allows us to move into 4K much more easily.”

While OBY is a 4K capable truck, the format on the day is all HD, but that’s not to say this is a scaled down operation. The final calls for more lenses than Sky would normally use on a round of this European tournament.

“We’ve added extra cameras,” says White. “We’ve got one Grass Valley LDX86 ExtremeSpeed camera, which is obviously very high speed and then we’ve got lots of ‘bimotion’ cameras as well, [namely the Sony HDC2500]. So there are lots and lots of replay opportunities for high quality slow motion.”

The bimotion camera, which as the name suggests records twice as many frames per second, so replays can be slowed down with a better quality result. “When we then use an extreme camera, we are able to slow the replay right down, without any smudges, blur or flickering,” says White. “They record at six times the frame rate, so in a clip you get a very low amount of movement in it. And because it’s ultra slow motion we can get to see these amazing movements of a rugby player; you can actually see how their different muscles are moving. That’s why we invest in that technology.”

“We’ve added more minicams – some are in the coaches’ boxes – and we’ve got mini-cams in the dressing rooms,” he continues. “We’ve also got a spider cam, which will get lots of use around the entertainment elements of the teams coming out, and at half-time to give a bit of colour.

“It’s also being used in-game as well, used for live and replays for things like conversions, where you’re able to get an angle that you can’t get with a conventional camera,” White explains. “We also have a jib that’s doing our presentation, but will also do match coverage. The jib is at the goal on one side, so that gives a lot of interesting crowd and interesting replay shots, as well as live shots.”

Spidercam in view at Murrayfield

Spidercam in view at Murrayfield

Also on the field are three radio cameras, one of which is a steadicam. “Of course, the more cameras you add, the more other equipment you need to support them, such as replay machines,” says White. “We have got eight EVS machines in the truck and all the remote cameras operate from there as well.”

All this equipment also needs setting up. OBY and the other trucks arrived on the Tuesday before the weekend fixture, with the 21km of cable required for power, video and comms being laid the day after.

The fibre from OBY runs into the stadium under a trough in the road, while all the cabling from the visiting broadcasters is carried by a specially constructed bridge over the road. “There’s quite a lot for [the riggers] to do,” explains White. “We power all the trucks here but we also power the spider cam. The spider cam is on four motors, so we have to run our power around the far side of the pitch. We can’t run it over the tunnel area.”

Visual aids

“One of the things about rugby is that a try can be quite contentious, if the referee can’t actually see what happened,” White explains. “So the rugby employs a TMO system, the third match official, and that person sits in the truck with us. He has a radio link between himself and the referee.”

If the referee – John Lacey in this game – says he can’t see to make a decision, he radios through to the TMO in the OB truck (here it’s fellow Irishman Simon McDowell), who asks Sky for a replay.

“We then show whatever angle in a replay we can, to assist in the decision-making process,” says White. “We really are part of the game.”

“I think this interaction between the television and the game is great,” he continues. “It completely enhances the coverage and enables us to put more cameras in place. The microphone that the referee uses to communicate with the TMO then becomes a microphone that we can use in-game. The communication is provided by VME who have a longstanding relationship with Sky. So when you are watching the game, you are hearing the referee’s decision-making processes all the time on the radio mike. It enhances the game for the pleasure of the viewers at home, so they understand what’s going on.”

Heading back into stadium proper we find the medical room, which curiously sports its own EVS operator.

“This is something that is very much important in rugby — the head injury assessment area,” explains White. “We’re doing this specifically for the EPCR. Obviously concussion and head injuries are a really important thing for us and for the game.”

Sky Sports provides the EVS operator, who sits next to a doctor who watches the game. “He watches our coverage, and he watches other specific cameras. If he sees an incident where he thinks someone might possibly be in a concussive position, he has the ability to talk to another doctor pitch-side who has a monitor linked to this station. They’ve got the ability to then fire up the EVS network to pull up any other camera to look for a specific replay, to assist the doctor in his decision. If they see someone that they’re concerned about, they pull them off and bring them into the medical room. It’s a really important part of how the technology is helping out and working with the rugby governing bodies.”

Mission control

Back at the OB area, we find the Technical Operations Centre, basically a tent more or less filled with a massive 32×32 router. “Every signal that we offer up to the visiting broadcasters is available from here,” says White. “Rather than every truck company coming to our tailboard, they come to here and therefore get serviced by one specific engineer. It also puts a buffer in, so our guys can get on and work on the trucks. It’s essentially a giant rack of distribution amplifiers, with a router, and a lot of monitoring. There’s also a UPS, so that this area doesn’t fall over for any particular reason.”

“It’s handling lots of world feeds in here, as well as cameras and actually, we don’t want to be the weakest link in this chain,” adds White. “We protect it with back-up power systems, back-up amplifiers. Absolutely everything is powered from a dual power supply. We offer the highest quality and the most redundant options.”

Before we go, we get a look at the audio setup. The coverage of the final is all 5.1, the standard format for all Sky broadcasts.

“We supply 5.1 for the world feed as well, as required,” explains White. “Within our normal coverage,

View of the sound production area in Arena's OBY truck

View of the sound production area in Arena’s OBY truck

we’re using radio mics and radio in-ear receivers for our presenters and our reporters. Basically all our on-screen presentation will be done by radio link, and it’s quite interesting, that to get the required frequencies in Scotland is more difficult than it is in other parts of the UK.”

Apparently this is to do with the amount of frequencies required for relaying in hillier areas.

“So the bandwidth is different for different parts of the UK,” White explains. “All the frequencies outside our radio mics are all managed by OFCOM. We buy a license from them, and they allocate the frequencies. We have everything we need, as have all the other broadcasters.”

The great game

Having worked in football, boxing and rugby, White observes that a lot of coverage is formulaic. “To all intents and purposes, for a rugby game or football, it’s just people running around on a field,” he says. “The basic coverage of that revolves around a handful of cameras. The rest is all value added.

“If you hark back to the Sixties when football and rugby were first covered by BBC or ITV, it was just three cameras. We still use three cameras in the same positions now. We’re just building on that legacy, but we have the beautiful benefit of all this new technology. For us to be able to add a hi-motion camera in, and be able to show that replay without any flicker in it, as if it were a normal shot, in these light levels, is amazing. It’s a real privilege.”

Joff White and his team at Murrayfield will do all this again, the day after, for Sky Sports’ live coverage of the European Champions Cup final between Clermont Auvergne and Saracens, but for now it’s getting close to kick off, and the fans for this game are arriving off the tram system in droves. The night will end with rain, but also with a triumphant 25-17 win for Stade Français Paris. There was no need for that anxiety after all.

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