by James McMahon
The spanking new Aviva Stadium looks magnificent as the sun beats down from on high. It maybe late August, but the warmth of the summer rays is always welcomed. Down on the pitch, another welcoming party is in situ, ready to usher in the return of provincial Irish rugby to RTÉ Sport.
The Magners League trophy holds pride of place as the various presenting and punditry talent are called forth to take their place with the shining silver creation. Among them is Daire O’Brien, a new recruit to the presenting team for the upcoming season.
The Cork native spent four seasons anchoring Setanta Sports' rugby coverage, and as he says himself he has built up the ‘air miles’ when it comes to covering the Magners League, and the Rugby World Cup. The latter which Setanta covered in 2007 was, according to O’Brien, 'a great experience', despite Ireland’s failure in the competition.
Ahead of his new role with RTÉ, the presenter sees a continuation of sorts, albeit within a different landscape: 'I’m doing the same job for a different channel, but to a much wider audience. That to me is great because it feeds in to what I believe about rugby - in that it has the potential to be a mainstream sport that people can enjoy.'
O’Brien certainly has a passion for the game, yet this is something that has evolved over the years. He went to a rugby playing school, yet by his own admission was ‘crap’ at the sport. He supported Munster in the days when the Interpros were the height of the campaign: ‘The whole scene back then lacked momentum; there was nothing really to latch onto. The prevailing urban, trendy ethos of rugby did nothing for me, and it wasn’t until the early the 2000s that my interest in the game really blossomed.'
Munster had a couple of unsuccessful attempts at winning the Heineken Cup and the latent support that the province once had was morphing into something more tangible.
For O’Brien, events off the pitch were just as important as the struggles on it: 'For a lot of guys like myself living in Dublin, you can travel to Limerick or Cork and hook up with old acquaintances and school pals. Brand is a horrible word and it sounds quite cold, but what Munster did for rugby is something that you can be proud of supporting.
'It’s egalitarian; fun, but above all it’s social. When you add in the euphoria that accompanies a famous win, it really is potent stuff.’
O’Brien is at pains to point out that such virtues are not the mainstay of those who follow the southern province: 'The support for Leinster has grown even in those counties within its geographical boundary that once supported Munster. The values in rugby are decent; the players are paid well - not hefty salaries - and the game is good to watch.
'The participants are now easily identifiable, local lads on the pitch, week in, week out. You’re only a first cousin away from knowing a few of them and that gives it a huge attraction. The Magners League is now the weekly helping. If you’re coming to something sporadic, like the Five Nations in times gone by, there is no affinity. A competition over the course of eight months helps to establish a connection with games involving all four provinces.’
How is it all going to unfold ahead of the Grand final next May? O’Brien sees Leinster and Munster in the mix, along with the Ospreys, whom he feels should be winning the competition every year with the squads they have. As for a value bet, Ulster is the team. 'At odds of 20/1 a fiver would not go astray, as I feel they have recruited well and they should, at least, finish in the top four.'
The rugby calendar is a congested one and as the new campaign gets underway, much focus will be on the Irish squad as they head for the World Cup in New Zealand a year from now. O’Brien feels the national side are in reasonable shape, but could do with an extra two or three players stepping up to the plate. Can the Magners League unearth previously unseen talent?
‘We have eight to a dozen players who, if they stay fit, are still capable of performing at the highest level for the duration of a World Cup tournament. We need guys to emerge from the provinces and the Magners League is a great opportunity for that to happen.
'With an expanded tournament, because of the Italian clubs coming in and the International matches, opportunities will be there for players to get more game time. If you look at the GAA and the way the back door system has worked, those who previously did not shine on a national level are now seeing more competitive action, and the more successful a team is through the qualifiers, the greater the opportunity that such players will have to showcase their talent. I would hope that we can find a few hidden gems from this year’s Magners League. Somebody in the mould of Keith Earls, for example.'
O’Brien was described as the ‘new kid on the block’ during RTÉ’s launch. A new kid he may be within the sports department, but the upcoming presenting role will be his third coming with Montrose following a reporting stint with Prime Time in the mid 1990s and later work on the radio programme ‘Morning Glory’ with Ryan Tubridy.
For another employer, O’Brien worked with George Hook, whom he describes as ‘a big personality’. How their relationship evolves on the television screen will now doubt be worth watching over the course of the season.