‘I was all over the shop, sleeping in the car outside rugby stadiums’

You know an interview has gone rollickingly well when the interviewee wraps things up by saying, “You have my number, if you ever need me for anything I’m here.” So it was last Wednesday when RugbyPass chewed the fat over the phone with BT Sport rugby presenter Craig Doyle.

It was a chaotic but brilliant conversation spread across four different calls due to dodgy London connections, starting on a train platform where the tannoy announced there was a trespasser on the line at Ealing Broadway and concluding in a Heathrow Airport terminal lounge.

Every twist and turn piqued the interest as the gift of the gab raconteur was in his element, keen to breezily talk despite the rollercoaster nature of an on-the-move hook-up that was originally slated to take place over Zoom.

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There were plenty of gags, everything from his reminisces as part of the 1990s streaker gang at Twickenham who sat pitchside ready to chase down any unwanted interlopers from the crowd to all the various behind-the-scenes banter – including regular sack tackles from Ugo Moyne – with BT’s stellar cast of rugby pundits.

But serious topics were also delved into deeply, none more important than the horrible toll the pandemic took on Doyle and his existence as an Irishman based in Co Wicklow but working as the face of a British TV company’s rugby coverage.

“It was really brutal, really brutal. I found it very hard and I suffered really badly to be perfectly honest,” he said, embracing the delicate issue where working from home wasn’t a runner once the Gallagher Premiership got going again behind closed doors in August 2020. No sooner had Doyle said the word honest did the call drop for the first time and there were tenterhooks for a short while, wondering if the interview was finished just when it was about to get really absorbing.

Have no fear. As soon as Doyle had completed his delayed rail journey, he was back on the blower and – all the more impressively – hadn’t forgotten the topic he had just started to devour when the line went dead. “All set to go, you were asking me a very interesting question. It was really hard because I couldn’t really fly,” he said, seamlessly picking up the life-in-the-pandemic thread.

“I was nervous about flying because of my mum and kids and all that so I would drive over and literally drive everywhere. I would drive to Newcastle and then Sale and then London and you couldn’t stay in friends’ houses and hotels were a bit weird. I’d have a hotel now and again and I didn’t have my place in Bath at that stage, so I was sleeping in my car in motorway service stations and all sorts.

“You’d finish a game and come off air and go out to the car park and everyone would be gone. It was unbelievably horrible and lonely. So that is the serious honest answer, it was hellish. It was hellish and I really struggled. Mentally I really struggled actually and it is interesting as we have just made this documentary with Brian (O’Driscoll).

“We spoke a lot after because we had started the documentary (After the Roar, which will premiere on BT Sport on September 23) before covid but it was interesting my experience during it and my father had died just before covid, a few months beforehand, so I was dealing with all of that.

“It was interesting. The two of us would have considered ourselves fairly solid characters mentally but actually, we realised none of us is bulletproof. Covid proved that to me so, in answer to your question, it was really tough and it was survival for most of it.”

What eventually got Doyle through those dark days? “It was tough, I didn’t cope very well. I was a nightmare at home and I guess I was dealing with the loss of my dad and all that, I had to go and talk to someone and get it all out of me to be perfectly honest with you. It was a really rough time and I didn’t tell any of the lads at work really.

“I was just motoring on through and then just told them all saying look, ‘This has been really tough, I found this really difficult’. It was just a lesson there that you are meant to say stuff out loud to your pals and when you do it it really helps. So yeah, it was an eye-opener. You get to a certain age and you think, ‘Ah sure, that stuff doesn’t happen now I’m 50′. It was mad, a real eye-opener.”

Tell us more. “I was all over the shop. I was dealing with the death of my old man and you are doing that on your own while sleeping in your car outside rugby stadiums, it’s not great and then not seeing your family. And then even coming home, we are in a bungalow with an upstairs room, I’d have to sleep upstairs away from everyone because you are terrified of infecting anyone. It was really isolating.

“It was a really isolating experience, a really lonely one. I know it was much worse for a lot of people but you only know your own experience of it and I found it absolutely brutal and a worry but kind of inspiring in its own way. I didn’t know BT was going to continue, because without the Premier League we would have been stuffed, my main ambassadorial stuff with Everest Windows and all that, that was looking very dodgy because they were in real s***.

“I rang Brian and said, ‘We need to push this production company [3 Rock Productions] hard, hard because it might have to be everything for us’. And actually, it inspired both of us to get off our arses and really push it so good came out of it – but it was a rocky journey getting there.

“It’s only afterwards when you speak to people, you take away stuff that you are so used to which is generally people and the energy that you get from other people, especially if you are a bit of an extrovert, you live off that effort. You take that away, f***in’ hell, the world is a s****y place.”

Post-pandemic, the effect has been to ignite a fresh enthusiasm in Doyle for his BT Sport rugby presenting job and to also source himself a proper base in English. “Gratitude is a huge thing and sometimes you need a little kick to realise how lucky you are and it certainly did that for me and most people actually – although I do speak to a lot of people up near me in Wicklow who loved it because they just loved to have the place to themselves.

“I enjoy work now more than I have ever enjoyed it. I love going to matches and I love chatting with people. I will never take that for granted again and I will never hide my feelings again. If something is great I will say it. Even on TV. And if there is a s*** match on TV I will say whatever has to be said now. It’s a real eye-opener on that front, the honesty in how you live your life,” he continued, adding that Bath is now his home when in England.

“That was a really important part of it because you get to a stage where staying in hotels on your own isn’t healthy, it’s not good, you get lonely, so I found a little place in Bath. I know loads of people there and I have a nice eclectic mix of friends between David Flatman and Richard Bertinet, the pastry chef. There are loads of people down there and when I am over (in England) for a few days that is where I will stay and it’s much better.

“You think you can travel but I see it all the time, I’m here in the airport and you see people in lounges and I have seen their faces for years and years and you can see the sadness in them sometimes just being away from home all the time. You need to have roots all over the place, I think. It’s a definitive, psychological shift away from the workplace.”

Doyle cuts quite an impressive, polished dash on the rugby field these days, working the sidelines and firing off the live TV questions with aplomb, but he was a disaster when it came to playing despite his education at the famed Blackrock College. That didn’t stop him from trying, though, and his willingness to muck in went far, starting at Maynooth College and then in London after he emigrated.

“I was a terrible player but I shared a house with a couple of guys who were very good,” he said about his university days in Ireland. “We were out in North Kildare playing Hosie Cup, a sub in the Towns Cup, we were beaten by Tullow in the first round of that but I love it because I was s*** and suddenly I was training with all these guys who were really good and I learned so much. It was the best time and I’m still friends with all those guys, still go and help them out with the odd thing.”

Then came his bizarre Twickenham debut. “I had a cousin who played for Queen Mary in East London and he said, ‘Do you want to come and play a match for us one Saturday morning?’ I said, ‘Yeah, why not’. I was just kicking around and then he said, ‘Oh, we are joining the streaker squad later on’. So we played a game in the morning and then went off to Twickenham.

“You remember the purple tracksuit? I was given the purple England tracksuit and was on the halfway line over at the old West Stand and if a streaker ran on two of us had to come on and tackle him. But actually, they were playing France and a cockerel ran on the pitch.

“I was sent on to get the cockerel, went to grab it and it ran between my legs. There is a photograph in the Telegraph of just my arms bent over and this cockerel running between my legs. That is the only international cap I ever got. It’s the only rugby story I have to tell these lads (at BT Sport) because they don’t want to hear any other stuff.”

We don’t know what became of the cockerel but do know that Doyle went on to achieve fame and fortune at the BBC, especially when presenting its globe-trotting Holiday series, and then elsewhere before BT Sport bought into rugby in 2013 and the Premiership became the Dubliner’s way of life. “I’m not going to say we are the best, but we are brilliant at what we do, we have been doing it a long time and we are the sum of our parts.

“We have guys who have had a lot of success in this league over the years and they have a lot of credibility, but they are individuals with quite different personalities. All of them behave exactly as they want to behave so it never feels like it is formatted. It always feels a little bit loose and that is a really important part of it.

“There is a lot of knowledge there, there is a lot of passion there, and we were the first to break away from a very formal setting to cover sport. BT said to all of us, ‘We have employed you to be you so just go away and do it, just go out and have a good time’. That has been the key to it, its looseness, not knowing what is going to happen next.”

Doyle’s words on Wednesday to RugbyPass were prophetic given that best-laid plans for the opening weekend of the 2022/23 Premiership season were shaken the very next day with the death of Queen Elizabeth II, a development that had the presenter and pundits, Lawrence Dallaglio and Monye, decked in black and striking the perfect tone on the sidelines for the live BT Sport Saturday afternoon broadcast from Exeter.

Doyle loves the dynamic amongst his colleagues. “You can have all that mucking about and having a laugh but if the coverage itself isn’t brilliant, if the foundations aren’t strong, it just becomes an annoying broadcast and that is really key to it, our analysis is really tight, our commentators are really good. I have just come from a meeting where we were looking at a new statistics package for the new season, so we are always looking to improve and change. That is the key to it.”

“Of course, they [BT’s pundits] are really competitive people, all of them. I mean, look it is a team effort but they all want to be the best every single time they do it. I love that and I will tease that out of them as much as I can because I like that. You get the best performance out of them, and you get a nice bit of banter out of them as well.

“They are fairly competitive. They are supportive but they are competitive. They will happily call people out. They will call me out if I get something wrong or if I overstep the mark, so it is a fairly honest place. It does feel like a team, it feels like being in a rugby team at times or any kind of sports team where there is an honesty to it.

“But yeah, very competitive. Everyone wants it to be brilliant and because nearly all of us started on the first day at BT Sport, we kind of feel a bit protective about it. I never had that before. With the BBC and ITV, you were coming into these long-standing organisations but we have all been here since day one, so it has been all of our babies a little bit and it definitely brings a different edge to it.”

This calling you out, do any examples spring to mind? “It’s constant, constant. Jeepers. When I think of some of the stuff that I said on air, live on air and a rugby ball coming through and hitting me on the head, Ugo Monye went through a stage of sack tackling me just before we went live, just the messing. I have been at Worcester doing a game and Austin Healey poured a jug of water for the commentary box on my head. There are constant moments like that.”

Then there are the fans. “It’s a love-hate thing when you go to Gloucester and you’re in front of the Shed and they are chanting things about double glazing to me or whatever it might be that day, asking me do I dye my hair. It’s funny but it makes doing your job interesting.

“So places like Gloucester, Welford Road, The Rec, the atmosphere is phenomenal and they are queuing outside the gate at the terrace to get in. Those places, you just point a camera and it’s a better broadcast. You get a lot of energy from the crowd, they start throwing abuse at Austin Healey when you are at Gloucester and you have a laugh about it, it just makes it a bit more natural.”

There are drawbacks, mind. “The matches are too long, we are getting 45-minute halves and they just kill you. It’s funny, we had a big meeting today, Austin Healey, Ugo Monye, Lawrence Dallaglio and Ben Kay, and we want all the stats, we want all the help with that but still just standing there and talking about a game with a load of lads who know what they are talking about, that is the best way to do it. And yeah, when the game is very long and you have got two minutes to review a game that is full of moments, it’s pretty hard going.”

Hard going but very manageable all the same as what does get said isn’t waffle. “I have been going to matches since I was in a pram, I know the sport really well and you know yourself, when you are involved in something you know really well it becomes an awful lot easier when you know what you are talking about.

“I guess in past I did things that I wouldn’t have been comfortable with. That makes it harder because you are just terrified of getting it wrong. I did horseracing at one stage for the BBC and I didn’t have a bloody clue about it and didn’t really care that much but when you are doing something that you love and you care about it becomes an awful lot easier.

“Also, you get to the stage where some people are going to like the way I do it and some people won’t and that is just the way it is. When you make peace with that and stop trying to be someone else, it becomes a much easier job and a more fun job.

“There would have been a time when there were shows on RTE, chatshows that were meant to be hybrid comedy chatshows, that stuff is not my territory. That is not what I am good at and it is hard and then you get criticised. The hardest part is when you get criticised and you agree with the people. At least when I am doing sport and then doing rugby I am comfortable in the place and it feels fun.”

  • BT Sport is the home of Gallagher Premiership Rugby. The new season continues with Gloucester versus Wasps at 2pm on BT Sport 1 and Ultimate on Sunday, September 11. Visit www.bt.com/sport/rugby-union

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