With a distinguished career as a broadcast journalist and long-time voice of Irish rugby, Jim Neilly sees his beloved sport as more than a game for Sunday evening television.
Jim Neilly has already apologised for being late before our scheduled interview to discuss his career and the state of Irish rugby. On his original call, he wasn’t sure if it was “just the traffic” or something more time consuming. Now as he settles into a large cappuccino, the barista finishes his sentence about the sketched like froth on top, looking like “an atomic bomb.” Once comfortable, more sincere sentiment about his delay from Hillsborough arrive on account of three lanes being reduced to one. He hasn’t reached the impassioned tones that have come to characterise his familiar commentary on major rugby international matches or world title boxing bouts; but there is a distinctive gravitas to the voice peeved by traffic congestion. He is certainly beginning to warm to speaking at an excitable if less audible level than he might otherwise at Ravenhill, the Aviva or Twickenham.
Aside from the support of his great friend and broadcaster George Hamilon, Neilly ventured into a career as a broadcast journalist almost by chance. On that subject he describes himself listening to a rugby game between Instonians and the City of Derry in 1977. “I met George for a beer that night and said he (the commentator) wasn’t very good and he said why don’t you try it?” A week later Neilly broke his hand with Instonians (he won’t tell me how), and was forced to stop playing rugby for six weeks. While recovering he accompanied Hamilton to a Murrayfield trip for an Ireland Scotland B international. Equipped with a tape recorder and microphone borrowed from his friend, Neilly completed his first novice broadcast at the back of the Murrayfield stand.
He recalls the event proudly, clearly entertained by its amateur gloss. “We played the cassette in the car on the way back to Stranraer. We laughed so much using words you wouldn’t want to hear on broadcast journalism (programmes). At one stage George missed a turn and we drove into some woman’s farmyard. It was so funny.” From there his cassette reached the head of BBC sport, by way of Hamilton’s hand. After receiving a phone call from the BBC asking him to try “some stuff” on their Saturday afternoon Sportsround programme, Neilly began formal commentating with Collegiates against Civil Service from Deramore Park in December 1977.
Names, dates and times are never missed on Neilly’s watch – not even at this Belfast coffee shop where it would be easy to skip a few while being distracted by two restless babies within spitting distance of our conversation. In between a series of broadcasts in 1978, he suffered another lengthy layoff (this time a dislocated shoulder) and decided to concentrate fully on a career in broadcast. No longer a member of the teaching profession as he had been for the previous seven years, (including educating those at Belfast’s Boys’ Model), he progressed to live broadcasting with the Ulster Schools Cup Final. That game saw Bangor Grammar defeat Annadale Grammar. As though only recently prepared notes on the former school’s performance that day, he picks out their winning captain Kenny Hooks, “who went on to play for Ireland quite a few times.” Following 35 commentaries of the event, Neilly has yet to mention a grandson of local friends and family.
Ulster schools rugby has traditionally been dominated by Methodist College Belfast, Campbell College and Royal Belfast Academical Institution. The schools cup in the province predates all other rugby competitions with the exception of the Hospitals Cup. With distinct love for his alma mater RBAI, Neilly rattles off their greatest achievement in the sport, that of their contribution to the international game. “They have produced more internationals than any other school in all of Ireland. 85 internationals, 13 lions and 2 lions captains. Not even Blackrock has come close to that.” The professional type of structure within schools rugby has often been admired by outsiders looking in but Neilly is convinced the pressure to succeed at such a young age has a negative effect on those who commit themselves to stepping out at Ravenhill on March 17th. “You wonder sometimes, by the time they leave school have they had enough of rugby?” He says with concern. “The numbers playing rugby after (Secondary) school have dropped, in my mind, alarmingly because they think if they aren’t making it as a pro there’s no point in playing. I think that’s wrong and it’s very sad.” Away from rugby at schoolboy level, Irish rugby is in rude health presently with three sides involved at the quarter final stages of the Heineken Cup. The national side have added to expectations befitting past grand slam teams also.
To be consistently within touching distance of these pulsating moments has been a pleasure for Neilly. Just out of shot from front-line, bruising competition is his most treasured position. “It’s not Songs of Praise or the Antiques Roadshow. It’s live, vibrant, muscular rugby.” He seems to remind himself of the fact, as though Ireland holds her breathe before a crucial game to be won or lost on Johnnie Sexton’s right boot. No less enthused about manager Joe Schmidt (always very heavily focussed) and players Devin Toner (everyone thought he was a big, lanky giraffe but he has been a revelation this year) and Peter O’Mahony (he has been working his socks off) to name two; it is refreshing to hear the full complement of players being mentioned by Neilly.
While much has been written and broadcast about supposed or actual divisions among Northern and Southern team mates in the past, no such tension has been obvious from their performances of late. Indeed the recent displays of Ulster men in green jerseys have been notable across the pitch. Dan Tuohy made the absence of captain Paul O’Connell a moot point after victory against Scotland. Rory Best’s return to the front row after suffering a broken arm against New Zealand has been powerful – so powerful, as to create crushing mauls from which Ireland rumped to win over Wales. A try for backs Andrew Trimble (Scotland) and Paddy Jackson (Wales) have helped the cause too. As a proud Ulster man Neilly wouldn’t have it any other way.