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Sonja McLaughlan: Talking Rugby, Living the Dream

By: Karen Gasbarino-Knutt

Any ardent rugby fan in North America knows this name: Sonja McLaughlan.

Anyone who watches any rugby that involves England, 6 Nations, World Cup, or Premiership Rugby will know who Sonja is and what she does. They will know the voice, hear the confidence in the preparation, recognize the on-field post-match persona, mic in hand, interviewing captain, coach, man-of-the-match.

What viewers may not know is that Sonja McLaughlan has been doing the same job for 30 years this year because she’s very good at it. She’s prepared. She’s an encyclopedia of information and statistics. And she has talked over the years to many (if not most) of the game’s biggest names and stars. Is she affected? Not in the slightest. Is she a pleasure to work with? If you ask her colleagues at the BBC, they’ll say yes, she’s amazing, fun, and extremely professional.

To me, Sonja is the gold standard of women in rugby. She is knowledgable and respected, and maintains integrity under pressure. She shies away from nothing. A few months ago she was dragged into a raging debate on twitter regarding models on the Formula One grid. She held her own. And if I didn’t already respect McLaughlan immensely, my admiration for her expanded ten-fold as I witnessed how she handled the discussion.

If it sounds like I am a “fan” of Sonja McLaughlan’s, that assessment is not far off. I believe her authenticity makes any woman who wants to be taken seriously in our sport look good. There are those of us who have something to offer. In this respect, she’s a fantastic ambassador and mentor.

I appreciate not only McLaughlan’s willingness to grant me an interview, but the responses to my questions are in-depth, thoughtful, and informative. It’s a great insider’s view into the mind and routine of a full-time, week in and week out pundit. Furthermore, McLaughlan offers her thoughts regarding the potential problems rugby is facing in the professional era, and with 7s rugby now being an Olympic sport.

Read on for all these insights and more:

You are fearless in your approach. You have said that you are not in your position to make friends; but would you say that there are any players (past or present) that you would call a friend?

I’m good friends with a lot of former players, especially those who’ve become part of our team on the BBC’s Six Nations coverage. I actually share a godson with Jerry Guscott, and at the risk of sounding too sentimental you can’t help but be fond of good men like Jonathan Davies, Keith Wood and Andy Nicol. Paul O’Connell was in London recently and phoned me to see if I wanted to meet up for a coffee. They’re a great bunch, a lot of fun, and it’s a real privilege to call them friends. But it’s harder to be friends with current players as you have to maintain journalistic impartiality.

Which players do you have a great respect for (again past or present) and why?

I’ve been fortunate to watch and interview some of the greatest players the game has ever seen, and names like Martin Johnson, Brian O’Driscoll, and Richie McCaw immediately come to mind. I’m drawn to players who make an impact – whether that’s with a dazzling side step like Shane Williams, or leaders of men like Lawrence Dallaglio. To be honest, I have total admiration for any professional rugby player these days. It’s such a brutal game at times, and they rarely complain despite the demands both physically and mentally.

You have said in the past that while you feel that some things have occurred that might have had to do with you being a woman, for the most part this has not been a factor. But through the years, have there been any instances where it was obvious you weren’t being respected because of your gender?

People might assume I’ve faced rampant misogyny throughout my career but in all honesty that’s not been the case. It was tough in the early days when I was often the only woman at press conferences, and I was quite self-conscious about that. Whilst it’s changed, there are some days I’m still the only woman sitting in the press gantry. But I’ve worked very hard, and hope I’ve won the respect of players, coaches and fellow journalists. I’ve had the odd awkward moment during an interview – and caused a rumpus once with a question Warren Gatland didn’t like (but I’ll leave others to judge whether he would’ve responded the same way if the reporter had been a man).

What is your favourite aspect of game day?

I love arriving at the ground and that sense of anticipation in the air. It’s heightened during the Six Nations with the sense of history and rivalry. It’s very special to stand on the pitch in Cardiff or Edinburgh before the fans arrive and watch the staff painting the lines or tending the grass. It’s in marked contrast to the cacophony of noise that follows.

You’re very conscious of being in a privileged position, so I always take 5 mins to savour it.

What is your game-day routine?

The hard work actually starts the day before when I sit down to do my homework. I’ve done match notes for every game I’ve ever worked on, as it’s important to be fully prepared. I do them by hand as the process of writing the information down means I’m less likely to forget something! I read the sports pages on the morning of a match in case there’s a breaking story, and then work out what questions to pose to the team coaches in the pre match interviews. I give them a great deal of thought and try to think what the viewer at home might want to know. If it’s television, that means half an hour with a make-up artist at some stage before I head to the tunnel to chat to the two coaches. I like to spend time watching the players warm up in case there’s an injury or an issue.

Two players had a brief scuffle ahead of the Calcutta Cup match in February which I witnessed before going live to describe what happened. During the match I scribble notes and with about ten minutes to go start working out questions I might want to ask post-match. Some games go to the wire and you have to think on your feet at the last minute. When Jonny Sexton struck a drop goal to give Ireland a dramatic win in Paris, I threw away any notes and just went with the drama of it all. You have to be able to adapt – and quickly!

You have said you like the work on radio because it’s more relaxed and you have more time to prepare. Does that make it more enjoyable, or are you also happy when you’re working on the adrenaline of having to shoot from the hip for live broadcast?

I genuinely love them both, and I’m very fortunate that I have variety in my career with a mix of radio and television. In the last few years I’ve been doing a lot of presenting on radio (BBC 5 Live) and I enjoy the chance to express my personality a bit more. We have a great team on the wireless, including former England internationals Matt Dawson and Paul Grayson, and I do a regular magazine show with them which is a lot of fun. Imagine a few mates at the pub chatting about their favourite sport and that’s close to the sound we’re aiming for.

There are two problems facing rugby today that could have potential to affect our enjoyment of it. I wonder if you could comment on both, from the perspective of 30 years watching it grow, become professional, and watching players become bigger, faster, more strictly trained, etc:

  • The 7s game has really taken off. Some tier two nations especially find themselves having to choose between putting all their resources behind 7s or 15s, which means that either one code suffers, or in the present state Canada finds themselves in, both. What are your thoughts on this?

The RFU in England is the richest union in the world, but is currently making a raft of redundancies with costs ballooning and income stalling, so it’s not just tier 2 countries who are struggling to balance the books. It’s a difficult situation, and inevitably tough decisions have to be made. As soon as 7s became an Olympic sport that changed everything. It was hugely successful in Rio and is a brilliant vehicle for taking the game to a new audience. Yet, it demands players with a very different set of skills and fitness levels, and so to my mind needs separate investment. On the women’s side in England, the current policy of ‘flip flopping’ resources between Sevens and XVs has been a failure.

  • Professionalism has become a complete numbers game, and whoever has more dollars/quid gets the player. This creates more tension between the have teams and the have-not teams in the Premiership / Championship / Pro14. It’s also getting a bit like the professional sports over here (NHL, NFL), where players are signed for ridiculous amounts. This will have a trickle down effect, and tickets will inevitably cost more. What are your thoughts, and do you feel that this is eventually going to be detrimental to the game?

The reality in the English Premiership is that only one of the dozen clubs (Exeter) actually turns a profit, and the clubs are still very reliant on wealthy owners and money from television. Yes, newcomers Bristol have made Charles Piutau the world’s highest paid player with £1million pounds a season, but the salary cap is there to guard against wage inflation and ensure a level playing field. Exeter Chiefs may’ve become English champions in 2017, but they certainly didn’t buy their way to the title by signing star names. Newcastle Falcons made the play-offs last season having been 8th at best since their return to the top flight. Gloucester are tipped to do well this season and break into the top 4. Saracens and Exeter continue to set the standard, but the Premiership remains hugely competitive. The biggest issue is whether the English clubs can become self-reliant? This is the 22nd season of Premiership Rugby, and whilst it’s a vibrant league, there are question marks over its long term sustainability.

What does downtime look like for you? (Or do you get any)?

I actually try to avoid rugby when I’m not working although I don’t manage to stay away from it for too long. It’s a long season, so you have to learn to pace yourself otherwise you just end up exhausted and burnt out. I go on long dog walks or exercise with a personal trainer to keep mind and body fresh for the various demands that come with doing my job.

Do you have any plans of ever doing anything differently?

I’ve been working in broadcasting for over 30 years now so I think it’s too late for a career change at this point! And why would I want to do anything different?

I’m doing my dream job and I still love it.