Inside the game: ESPN covers Aviva Premiership climax

Twickenham: 43 matches after it started its rugby coverage at the start of the season, ESPN broadcast exclusive live coverage of the Aviva Premiership rugby final between Leicester and Saracens from Twickenham on Saturday. Andy Stout reports on the broadcaster’s biggest game of the year.

“We’ve got 20 cameras on the game [mainly the ubiquitous Sony 1500s] which is probably about nine more than we’d use on the regular Aviva,” says Exec Producer, Simon Dukes. “Plus we’ve got a few toys that we’d not normally have with us, such as a railcam, a Steadicam, a jib and an Arri Hi-Motion.”

Facilities for the game were provided by Arena, with a few other bells and whistles (such as the railcam and a fish-eye beauty shot) supplied by ACS.

ESPN has gone from a standing start to expertise in rugby very quickly, which is no mean feat given the game’s complexities. More than almost any other team sport it requires an intimate knowledge of the game’s mechanics and split second decisions on what to show the viewer and when. All that requires the right people behind the cameras and in the trucks.

“In many respects rugby is more complicated than football,” says Dukes. “Its easy to miss things, it’s easy to frustrate viewers by not showing restarts and missing key elements of the game by putting too many replays in, but overall we get the balance right. Camera 1 is probably 75% of what you see in football. Camera 2 is more key in rugby, and also making sure you get close-ups of the ball coming out of the back of rucks and mauls and plays like that. So it’s more of a challenge and it’s also quite technical, especially for the cameramen. The VT department is also key in spotting those things and relaying them to the director.

“Consistency of crew is what we’re looking for and guys that do rugby on a regular basis,” he continues. ‘You do get specialist cameramen nowadays – those that look after football and rugby, while golf cameramen are very much a breed unto themselves, of course. The director and producer want the people that can find the shots so that they’re not directing them constantly.”

Looking forward to next season

Saracens eventually won a bruising encounter, managing to hold off wave after wave of ferocious Leicester attacks in the dying moments of the game. The side has come a long way this season, but then so has ESPN, the broadcaster managing to move rugby coverage in the UK forward quite impressively, bringing the presentation closer to the game – pitchside where it can – and into the stands as well (indeed, Sky’s rugby coverage has become a lot less studio-based this season as well as a reaction – something that Dukes takes as a complement).

The rugby team has no intention of resting on its laurels though. It might not go too big at the start of the next season in September, as the first five weeks coincide with the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, and Dukes wants to wait till the viewers are firmly concentrating on the domestic game again, but there are some interesting plans afoot.

“An area that’s often neglected is sound,” says Technical Director, Paul Ryan. “We’re going to be Dolby 5.1 from the final, but audio is still very much the Cinderella. However, we’ve been talking with various parties about enhancing the sound coverage of something like a rugby match so you can hear the crunch of the players hitting each other, while, of course, filtering out some of the choicer verbal exchanges that perhaps you wouldn’t want the viewers to hear.”

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