Whether it be Bill McLaren, Ian Robertson or Eddie Butler, rugby has always been associated with great commentators.
Legendary Scotsman McLaren will forever be known as ‘the voice of rugby’ but now it’s Nick Mullins and Miles Harrison who are the most famous of the sport’s operators behind the microphone.
On Saturday, Mullins and Harrison will commentate on the Premiership final between Saracens and Sale for BT Sport and ITV 1 respectively.
It will be the first time English rugby’s showpiece game will be broadcast on both a paid for service and a main terrestrial channel.
Ahead of the game, Mullins and Harrison sat down with MailSport’s Alex Bywater to discuss the art of the rugby commentary, the state of the game, and much, much more…
Miles Harrison (L) and Nick Mullins started their careers together, but are rival commentators
Mullins will be with ITV1 for the Premiership final, while Harrison is on comms for BT Sport
Alex Bywater: You’re both good friends but as rival commentators, how would you sum up your relationship?
Miles Harrison: We don’t get on!
Nick Mullins: We hate each other! What’s interesting is we’ve never done something like this. Miles has always been a mate, going back a long time.
MH: We don’t discuss it much these days but we’re very similar ages – 56 and 57! We both joined the BBC at similar times and were brought up in that school all those years ago. It was a great place to learn our trade. We’re still mates with everyone from that era.
NM: There was a whole bunch of us who came through when Radio 5 Live was first starting – Simon Brotherton, Jon Champion, Peter Drury, Mark Pougatch.
AB: It’s like a who’s who of commentary!
NM: I wouldn’t have called myself Miles’ boss but to start with I was a producer. My main job was making sure Ian Robertson got on air. Robbo needed more help plugging things in than Miles!
MH: We’re from the same broadcast family so we’ve naturally built a very strong bond. Whenever we see people from that era, we just pick up the conversation as if it never stopped all those years ago.
AB: Do you compare commentary notes now?
NM: Miles was the first one to do something different beyond Bill McLaren. Bill is someone we both have deep in our hearts as someone who inspired us. Miles moved to Sky and was part of what they did in the early to mid-1990’s. They absolutely redefined the way rugby was done on the telly. We loved Bill but what Miles and Sky were at the forefront of was making it a thoroughly modern and professional sport in terms of the way it was broadcast. It was the level we’ve now all come to expect. I always felt like I was looking up to Miles because he was doing stuff no-one else had ever done with Stuart Barnes. I’ve never felt a rivalry.
MH: Very kind of you to say that! Rivalry? No. We have a genuine friendship. You can listen to another commentator and take little bits from them but at no point should you move away from being yourself. You have to commit to your own authenticity as a commentator. It was great to be involved with Sky but when their coverage of the Premiership came to an end, I knew BT was in very safe hands and they’d do it their way.
NM: My job as a commentator and broadcaster on the day of the Premiership final is lots of things. But essentially, it’s to be good company. If you’re not, you’re not a good commentator. When I listen to Miles, his commentary feels very natural, very warm and welcoming. He’s the kind of bloke you’d be happy to sit next to in the stands. Think about his commentary of Brian O’Driscoll’s try for the Lions against Australia in 2001. As a commentator you’re meant to be impartial, but a Lions tour is slightly different. When Brian does what he does and Miles shouts “You beauty” it’s just a magical moment. I think I was in The Alma in Wandsworth with pints of beer going over my head! I’m sure Brian loves that commentary. To hit the right note, with the right words and to sum up the moment perfectly is the skill of the broadcaster and Miles’ commentary on O’Driscoll’s try was a great example.
They have a great friendship, and both were heavily inspired by the great Bill McLaren
They admit there’s a lot to marry up about the complexities of rugby, but offer companionship
AB: Rugby is a complex game. What makes a great rugby commentary?
MH: That is such a difficult question to answer. There is a lot to marry up. Nick is right. A sense of companionship is so important but you also have to know when to concentrate on other aspects. Your words have to appeal to everyone. If you spend too long explaining something, you’re missing what’s going on. You have to be accurate and explanatory.
NM: I’m going to jump in here. There has been a trend, in cricket in particular, for the trained broadcaster and journalist to be removed.
MH: Commentary is instant journalism. For me there is no better challenge in broadcasting. If you’ve never played the game to any decent level but have always wanted to, it’s the closest you’re ever going to get to that feeling.
AB: We’re all in that boat!
MH: Absolutely. To know when to take the temperature of the match is absolutely key. You do that not only with your words, but also your tone and style of delivery. There are so many things whizzing through your head.
NM: When I’m doing the final on Saturday, I’ll remember what Bill always taught me which was never talk about something the viewer can’t see at home. When 80,000 people are doing their nut at Twickenham, it’s the most glorious sound. I don’t care how good your analysis is because at that point, it can wait. Miles and I had the same boss at the BBC – Bob Shennan – and his advice was unless what you’re saying is better than the sound of a full stadium, shut up! As a commentator you’re the guardian of the noise. Don’t be dribbling over it.
MH: I love co-commentators who understand that and are able to let the moment breathe. It comes after a try obviously, but another key moment is when the teams walk out. I love to be quiet then.
They tell Mail Sport exclusively about the challenge of delivering ‘instant journalism’ in games
The advice is to remain quiet when the roar of 80,000 fans at Twickenham is telling the story
AB: ‘Instant journalism’ is a fascinating phrase Miles. How do you go about delivering that?
MH: It can be daunting but what comes out is natural. You do have to hold yourself back from saying the sorts of things you might do watching the match on your TV at home. Professional commentary is not shouting at the TV with a beer in hand. There is a distinct difference. You can’t be shouting or swearing.
NM: I’ve often thought that would make an interesting channel though – an X rated commentary!
MH: I would absolutely love that but I’m not sure how many would view it!
AB: Why has rugby always seemed to have legendary commentators?
MH: Nobody has been better than Bill. It’s as simple as that. Nick has already said how much we admire him. There has been no rugby commentator who has had a better voice. Commentary evolves and moves with the times. Bill was very aware of that. I still treasure a personal handwritten note he gave me at the start of my career. People will have their favourites in terms of the modern commentators and that’s fine. It is a matter of taste. Sometimes it’s you and sometimes it’s not. Bill was untouchable.
NM: What I would say about the nature of rugby is that there is a degree of friendship and respect between the players, coaches and the media that doesn’t exist quite as much in football. I know Bill felt that responsibility to look after the game. Bill loved rugby and the people. They trusted him to portray what they were about.
MH: To the general audience, Bill’s legacy is his commentary, his warmth, and his companionship. In particular it’s his velvety voice – just unbelievable. But his legacy in the game was way beyond that. It was the way people thought about him and the handshakes he had with players and coaches. It was his ability to be part of what were closed captain’s runs sessions because he was trusted to keep certain information to himself. Bill was amazing at setting the highest standards.
NM: I remember when things changed for Bill. He’d always been allowed into closed training sessions. One day Bill asked to go and watch the Wallabies train and they said no. I suspect there were periods towards the end of Bill’s career where he thought ‘This is not the sport I first got involved in.’ It does change and it changes season on season. There is that element of secrecy now. The most important thing Bill did was establish trust between the audience and the commentator. If you’re not trusted as a broadcaster, you’re wasting your time. The level of preparation Bill did – in terms of research and pronunciation – has seeped through to us.
MH: I remember working with him in 1993, very early on in my career. If it was a deliberate move by the bosses to put us together then it was sheer genius. Those days have lived with me forever. When you’re talking about commentary skills, I think accuracy has to be at the top of the list because that leads to trust and respect. I don’t want to say ‘It was better back in the day’ because you have to move with the times. But one thing in modern-day sports broadcasting which gets to me a little bit is that sometimes a mistake is celebrated as if it’s OK or a bit of fun. If you make one you’ve got to admit it and react accordingly, but don’t think it’s a joke. We all make mistakes and I love a bit of fun in the commentary box. But if you make an error, respect the audience who don’t like that.
AB: Do you two feel a responsibility as the voices of English rugby today?
NM: If that means we’re doing a good job and protecting the legacy of people like Bill, then great. If I feel a sense of achievement in anything it’s that his work with us wasn’t wasted.
MH: You hear players talk about their desire to leave their shirt in a better place. It sounds a bit of a cliché but I love the phrase. It applies to us as broadcasters too. You’ve said a wonderful thing to us there Alex but we don’t have time to stop and think about where we are in our careers. If we did, we wouldn’t be thinking about our next broadcast. That might be the one that trips you up and means you’ll be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Fear factor is something that motivates a lot of players and it also drives a lot of broadcasters.
NM: You don’t get much time to look back because the game moves on so quickly. The toughest thing is to stay relevant in a game that’s becoming quicker and quicker with more and more detail. It’s all on another scale to the past. Not only that, what the audience want from television now is also completely different. It’s like another universe now with the levels of analysis and statistics.
AB: How do you see future of rugby broadcasting with the likes of Netflix and Amazon around?
NM: Who knows what it will look like in 100 years but I’d be amazed if it wasn’t produced by the individual clubs. Football is leading the way on this. If you’re a Bristol fan, you want to watch their games through Bristol eyes and listen to commentary with Bristol ears. I think that’s happening to broadcasting, journalism, and the way we consume sport. We were always brought up to be impartial. Increasingly, broadcasting is becoming more partial and I fear that’s what the audience wants. I feel uncomfortable with that.
MH: Nick’s right. You can see it emerging. But I think there is still a strong place for fans to see coverage from all angles. One of the joys of doing the Lions is it’s the one time you can let your impartiality halo slip a little bit.
NM: But you can’t be ‘We’ and ‘Us’ because the moment you are, you stop being impartial.
MH: If you do that, you can never go back. It’s a small step from passion to one-eyed. If that happens in my broadcasting career I’m gone overnight. You can’t be like that.
They discuss the future of rugby on TV, after the collapses of Worcester and Wasps this year
AB: It’s been a dreadful season for English rugby off the field. As broadcasters, how do you think the sport can sell itself better as a product?
NM: There has been a shadow over this season ever since Worcester and Wasps went out of business. I’ve not enjoyed this season that much. I can’t beat around the bush on that. I’ll be glad when it’s over. As much as we try to sell the product, two clubs have already gone out of business and it could soon be three. The sport needs to learn some pretty major lessons from this. I don’t want to go through another season where we finish with fewer teams than we started with.
MH: I echo that. I’ve found it very difficult this season with Worcester and Wasps. It’s upsetting with the people you know at both clubs and the scramble they’ve had for jobs. It’s happening to a lot of people in life at the moment so rugby is not necessarily a special case. This year’s final to my mind should almost be a dedication to those two clubs. I know I’m biased but I do think rugby still has an awful lot going for it. There are clear issues in the sport which need to be addressed and I’m not trying to belittle that. It’s clearly a key moment for the game and the decisions which will be made in the immediate future will absolutely shape the sport for a lifetime. I hope within that framework we can continue to tell the positive sides of the sport.
NM: I hope there are Worcester and Wasps fans who can feel involved in rugby this weekend. The sport hasn’t forgotten them.
Three quickfire questions…
Best match you’ve commentated on?
MH: South Africa against the Lions 2009, second Test. It was the best match I’ve seen. It simply had absolutely everything.
NM: World Cup 2019 – Japan against Scotland. The game went ahead in Yokohama after Typhoon Hagibis. The stadium was surrounded by water and thousands of lives in the area had been decimated. When Japan won, there were grown men in tears and the Japanese don’t show emotion. For the country’s rugby team to bring a nation back together like that was just amazing.
Best player you’ve commentated on?
NM: I’ll give two – a forward and a back. Martin Johnson and Brian O’Driscoll.
MH: There are loads flashing into my head. Richie McCaw. Am I allowed a back as well? For absolute talent, I’d go Jason Robinson. His ability literally raised me out of my seat and turned me into Murray Walker! How have I not said Christian Cullen! It’s too difficult!
Who do you think will win this year’s World Cup?
NM: I’d love it to be Ireland but if not them, France.
MH: I think you’d get good odds on New Zealand now but in terms of who I think will win it, when it’s that close being at home can swing it. France.