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Perfectly polite RTÉ sports panel underlines absence of someone to stir the s**t

Firebrands and provocateurs used to be ratings gold, but these days media organisations are playing it safe with earnest analysis

When it comes to Gaelic games coverage, that one-time pundit accessory of choice, the s**t-stirrer, has gone the way of the dodo and the foot-pass. Like dinosaurs, failure to adapt has turned those creatures of old into mythical figures of fascination.

Did Joe Brolly actually question Seán Cavanagh’s manhood? Or label Marty Morrissey as less than beautiful in his own way? Is Mickey Harte really some lone biker of the apocalypse, riding into Derry like that vision of hell in Raising Arizona? What had any of it to do with football?

Eamon Dunphy’s most lyrical highlights had little to do with soccer. They were more paeans to the little guy sticking it to The Man in a world full of spoofers and bluffers waving green plastic hammers. As for George Hook’s rugby shtick, rarely has an image fitted a sport so snugly.

But it was watchable as hell. Even as its most ridiculous, it was colourful. A firebrand getting hot under the collar could turn the blandest of events into a national conversation. Even if you really, really wanted to, it could be all but impossible to ignore them. They were ratings gold.


But that was then, and this is now, and when it comes to the punditry dilemma, most organisations have opted for safe rather than sorry. Stirring can pull a crowd but the risks ain’t worth it any more. In a world waiting to be offended, earnest analysis is both wiser and cheaper.

Top-class agitators aren’t totally extinct. Roy Keane’s agony at becoming the thing he once despised – a talking head – remains an enthralling spectacle. His fellow Corkman, Donal Óg Cusack, has a wobble in him too. But they’re increasingly the exception to prove the HR rule.

That got underlined on Sunday when the Ulster football championship began in Clones with Monaghan taking on Cavan in a local Derby. Joanne Cantwell couldn’t be accused of understatement when teeing up the first significant game of the championship.

A wonderfully evocative clip framed on the GAA’s opportunity for “a chance to be great” spanned the decades, from a doleful Dev dolefully peering out from the Hogan stand to David Clifford in his pomp, and a voiceover channelling Bowie and “a chance to be great, just for a single moment.”

Even before the throw-in there was another skilfully-assembled clip about how much better the Ulster championship is than all the others, accompanied by a sonorous voiceover explaining all about the province and its “customs ingrained in the soul”.

And there, in the midst of it, were two of the biggest beasts of yore: Brolly in all his chippy glory, and Pat Spillane with his famous dig about puke football. Even now, having waved bye-bye to both, RTÉ can’t resist playing its greatest provocateur hits.

The new team on duty on Sunday were Peter Canavan, Cora Staunton and Paul Flynn, a hugely garlanded trio with abundant expertise and pedigree who have forgotten more about the game than most of us will ever know.

Quizzed by Cantwell about what we can look forward to over the upcoming championship months, they were as informed as they were fluent. Flynn said it won’t be just about the big three of Dublin, Kerry and Mayo. Staunton disagreed, and Canavan agreed with both “to a certain extent”.

After the somewhat bombastic build-up, Canavan did manage to prick the Ulster championship bubble somewhat by pointing to a tiny crowd undeterred by stormy weather: “The advert talked about burgers, bunting and bustle. Well, there’s more bluster here than anything else.”

What followed was balanced, fair-minded stuff from plainly reasonable people you’d be happy to see at your front door any day of the week and which made for middle-of-the-road TV tedium. Stirring it might be an increasingly dangerous balancing act but tilting too much to the other side is no TV bargain either.

Not that charismatic flame-breathing fire-starters are a prerequisite for informative and entertaining TV. Saturday night’s Leinster-Leicester rugby clash saw Donal Lenihan continue his understated excellence in translating what often seems to the uninformed like opaque confusion.

Armed with impeccable credibility from his playing days, and a wry line in restraint, Lenihan isn’t afraid to deliver a dig close to home either, wondering at one point how the Leicester prop James Cronin had ever been allowed leave Munster.

But what really works for him is a less-is-more approach that proves such a contrast to co-commentator Hugh Cahill’s more overwrought instincts. The sight of two other veteran props, Cian Healy and Dan Cole, had Lenihan wondering how many times they might have faced each over the years.

“I’d say they know each other by the smell of their breath at this stage,” opined Cahill.

“Yeah,” responded Lenihan.