Daniel Keenan talks to broadcasting legend George Hook about his work in sports media and the state of Irish rugby.
One of Irish sport’s most outspoken pundits, it seems that George Hook has been around forever. The fact is that he has only been mainstream for about ten years. With a talk show on Newstalk, a column for the Irish Independent, and probably most famously, a place on the panel for the Six Nations opposite Tom McGurk and Brent Pope, it is easy to see why George Hook is a household name.
He grew up in a rugby school, and “adored the technical part of the game,” which is what drew him to rugby coaching. The majority of his life was spent outside of the media, coaching London Irish, Connacht and the USA National team among others. He also ran a catering business, but all these ventures ultimately failed. It wasn’t until 2000, when a two minute segment on RTÉ turned into a much longer affair, followed by numerous fleeting television appearances, that he was put on the panel for the Six Nations.
Hook’s love of language is the reason that written journalism is his favourite medium of communication. “With writing, there’s this whole idea and then you have to construct it, and you have to have full stops, and commas and semicolons. I mean I just adore language.” He says what he likes least “is television. We can be on the air for five hours and what will my involvement be? Ten minutes? What television makes you do is talk in sound bites.” It is on television that Hook has coined many of his famous phrases, some of which he admits to coming up with live on television, others he has prepared, such as “If Reggie Corrigan’s sell-by date was written on my yoghurt carton, there’d be trees growing out of it.”
Hook is well known for his critique of Irish players and management, but his criticisms also extend to his fellow pundits. He says that “there’s no liking in the RTÉ panel” and hates any comparison to another opinionated sports broadcaster, Eamon Dunphy: “I dislike him more than any other human being on the planet. He criticises managers, he’s never managed; he criticises coaches, he’s never coached; he’s criticised administrators, he’s never administrated. He’s played twenty-three times for Ireland. Have I ever played for Ireland? No, but I’ve coached in the Rugby World Cup.”
His criticisms of pundits also extend to former players, as he got into a Twitter row with Brian O’Driscoll, who voiced his preference for having ex-players on a rugby panel, rather than just sports journalists and broadcasters. “All the players would prefer to have players in the panel, because they get an easier ride. No near current player will criticise any of the players they played with.”
“My opinion is not necessarily right, but interestingly to fair-minded people, it would’ve been right more than it’s wrong.” For a man who refers to his opinion as a separate entity in itself, it’s no surprise that Hook will stick by his guns. He says that people prefer to focus on when he’s wrong rather than when he’s right: “When O’Gara was nineteen years of age, he wasn’t on the Munster squad, I said I thought this guy was the best fly-half since Ollie Campbell; nobody else even knew who he was. What happens far too often is that I say Ireland will beat Scotland, and Scotland win, and then hey presto, George is an eejit.”
As for the present Irish rugby team, Hook is, predictably, not shy in voicing his opinion. To the bemusement of some, he “takes the piss” out of O’Driscoll more often than anybody else: “He [O’Driscoll] reads the paper every day, he listens to the radio, and it says ‘Brian O’Driscoll you’re wonderful’, and then there’s this curmudgeon who says maybe you’re not wonderful, maybe you’re not perfect. Understandably, he’s not happy.” Of O’Driscoll, Hook says that he’s an “average captain”, but despite the criticisms, he ranks him alongside Jack Kyle and Mike Gibson as the greatest Irish players of the game.
The selection of this year’s Irish Six Nations team has rightfully come under a lot of scrutiny. Hook is an advocator of having O’Gara at fly-half, and has interesting ideas on how to solve Ireland’s openside flanker dilemma, believing Jamie Heaslip is the only current Irish player with the on-pitch intelligence and work ethic to fill the problematic No 7 jersey.
And what about the man in charge of the Irish team? “Kidney is a very interesting guy, in that I think even he would not suggest he’s a great technical coach. He is undoubtedly one of the best managers Irish rugby has ever had. The problem is that the game is moving at a fantastic rate of change.” While every top rugby nation is finding new ways of defending, attacking and utilising players, Hook says Ireland are falling behind under the tutelage of Kidney, stating, “We’ve been slow to change, because essentially we have in Kidney someone who’s slow to change.”
Now at the age of seventy, Hook still doesn’t contemplate retirement. He is a self-confessed workaholic whose “perfect departure from this earthly coil would be to hit Tom McGurk a box live on television, then keel over dead! RTÉ won’t fire me, I will leave. I’ll make that decision to leave when I know in my heart that I can no longer look at a rugby match and access it.”