Austin Healey is a busy man.
He admits that with rugby training camps, renewable energy firms and rugby punditry among a long list of projects, his calendar “is full every single day of the year” but he’s enjoying the diversity seven years on from retiring from rugby. “Well I was quite diverse as a player too,” he quips. “Maybe it was setting me up for that diversity afterwards.”
Previously part of the ESPN presenting team, the former Leicester Tigers, England and Lions winger (and scrum-half and occasional full-back and every-now-and-again fly-half) is getting ready to link back up with Ben Kay (also a former Tigers teammate), alongside the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio and Martin Bayfield, as one of a roster of rugby experts on BT Sport, which has exclusive broadcasting rights to the Aviva Premiership for the next four years.
Austin is already clear on his role ahead of the season kicking off on 6th September. “I’ll be making the tea. I’m not sure how Lawrence likes his tea but I’m going to do the standard building trick of making it really poorly first time round so they don’t ask me again! No, I’ll be doing a little bit of everything. I’ll be doing in-game analysis, as I have been doing for the past seven years, and I’ll be doing co-commentary and punditry. I just try and break down the visual side of it and create an understanding of what’s going on, breaking down misconceptions about rugby and trying to demystify it for people.”
He is adamant that having club rugby all in one place (and free for those with BT Broadband) is “actually going to be a lot better for the supporters. If you’ve got a team, whoever you support, Leicester, Northampton, Worcester, Bath, Saracens or Quins then the only place you can watch them is on BT Sport. I’ve seen the first round of fixtures and literally every team is covered within the first few weeks, so it’s much better for the armchair fan.”
Affectionately known as the ‘Leicester Lip’ on the field, Austin recently copped “maybe 100,000 death threats and abusive swear words” for a few “tongue in cheek tweets” about Wales having ten players in the final Lions Test “but it was a joke. People that can’t see the joke and take sport that seriously need to get a bit of a grip. And it seems fans can expect the same on their screens. “Rugby is full of characters, both supporters and players, and often there’s a need to stifle your delivery of that but we completely disagree.
“It’s about talking to your mates and that attitude of taking the mick out of each other as Leicester fans do with Northampton fans, as Bath fans do with Gloucester fans, there is a bias and a rivalry, there’s also humour that goes with it and we want to retain that.”
Even though BT Sport sneaked the Premiership rights from Sky, Austin doesn’t see the project as a battle of the broadcasters. BT Sport is actually looking to do things a little differently.
To that end Rugby Tonight will be a Wednesday evening show that “won’t take itself as seriously as other midweek shows you might have seen.” As well as previews, highlights and insights, “it’ll be about the fun and also the secrets of the sport and then probably a little more of the humour side, a little bit like The Footie Show in Australia.”
With half a million people already signed up to the new channel, there is huge scope for bringing rugby to the masses and Austin is relishing being a part of this. “Rugby now needs to become a little bit more open.” Negotiations are ongoing with individual clubs about access, but BT Sport is looking to “allow people into the centre and the feelings of the players and the coaches and if we can do that it’ll broaden the horizons of the sport for more people to enjoy it.”
If you’re reading this blog then the chances are you’re a rugby fan but Austin is taking an all-inclusive approach. “Most of the standard football fans will understand the offside rule, the handball rule, know what a foul is, know what a free kick is etc. The only thing that’s different [with rugby] is that people think it’s too complicated, they don’t understand it. But it’s actually very simple, that’s where I come in to really try and demystify the whole game.
“It’s just a collection of different rules. Actually there’s a multitude of other laws that you don’t really need to bother with. You just need to watch it for what you get and that’s where I try and explain it, break it down. If you understand rugby you get far more excitement from watching it than a football match that’s 1-0. There are far more incidents in a rugby match than there are in a football match and attending a game of rugby is better than a game of football because you’re allowed to take a pint of Guinness out onto the side of the pitch. There are no policemen and no segregation. It’s a shame for football because it’s also a beautiful sport. Hopefully it’ll get back to that family atmosphere: I’d love to take my daughters to a football match because it’s intense and you feel the weight of the occasion. But I’m not having them there while there are profanities being thrown out into the field every second.”
So what continues to drive Mr Healey? Simple: “I love rugby. Rugby is inside me. I want to go and see good rugby and people giving their all. So I’m massively passionate about commentating for BT Sport. I get to the weekend and I’m excited, I’ve done all my preparation – you stay hot on the facts and you’re still in the sport in terms of stats and knowledge, so I do that Friday, Saturday, Sunday and it keeps you alive, keeps you going.”
Austin has had plenty to keep him going since his playing days, including a three-year stint for an investment bank, which he admits was “driven largely by necessity. Once that necessity had been filled then it was time to have a bit of fun.” Cue a string of reality TV appearances: Austin Healey’s Big Tackle, Strictly Come Dancing, The Wall, Seven Days on the Breadline, Mastermind. In fact, “we turned down Mr & Mrs, that’s about the only thing we haven’t done!”
The Wall subsequently scooped the dubious ‘Worst British TV Panel Show/Satire’ award in the 2008 Comedy.co.uk Awards but does he feel even a smidgeon of regret at taking part? Not a jot. Though four young girls may have twisted his arm.
“My daughters asked me to do that because it was their favourite show. I thought to myself ‘I really shouldn’t do this’ but then the whole series was filmed in six days in Glasgow. The kids came up and stayed the week with me jumping in the pool and we had a brilliant time. Ok people will say “you’ve sacrificed your integrity there, son” but the reality is I enjoyed it, my kids enjoyed it and I’ve never really given a stuff what people think about me anyway.”
Fair enough, Austin.
He also has fond memories of the other shows, particular Strictly, “which was a great experience, dealing with that pressure and losing 2½ stone. I lost all my banking weight in four months and I’m still in the sort of knick I was in when I finished, so health wise it was amazing.”
In fact the series of TV appearances served as a kind of rejuvenation. “I had three years of commuting to Canary Wharf in a suit on a train packed full of people and it wasn’t me. All those TV shows were done at a time when I’d left the bank, where I’d had a very prosperous time, and I wanted to have some experiences and some fun. Most people who know my persona, know what I was like when I was playing for Leicester Tigers and know I am a bit of an extrovert. I wanted to have a bit of that back. It felt like I’d sort of lost myself for three years.
“It was a great learning experience but I felt like I’d reached the point whereby I’d learnt enough from it and I didn’t want to be in a large corporate environment.”
Monday to Thursday, Austin still does a ‘normal job’, as a partner in a renewable energy business, and runs Super Skills Travel, a rugby camp programme he set up with Will Greenwood, “so I still get a bit of coaching with kids which I really enjoy.”
Amongst all this Austin manages to find time to keep fit and even still play the odd game of rugby. “I’m doing a lot of cycling. I’ve done a bit of work with Giant – their head offices are here in Leicestershire – so I go out cycling with those guys at lunchtimes during the week if I’m here. We have a bit of a village team. Actually we look like team Giant and all think we’re professional cyclists!
“I last played 80mins in the Legends Charity game at Leicester in November against Ireland. I was slower than I would have liked to have been. But I came out ok. There’s a big England Legends game against Australia at the [Twickenham] Stoop in October and the word on the grapevine is the Australians are training very hard for. The English guys are starting to pick up the pace now because that’s going to be serious.”
Anything else? “I’m a big golf player! Well I was. I don’t play as much nowadays.”
While the TV shows were fun at the time, Austin’s driving force behind working for BT Sport is a return to the game he loves. “It’s very difficult going from doing something you love in front of people, having the opportunity to win or lose at the weekend, to a corporate environment. When you get something back that inspires you and you’re passionate about, when you go to bed thinking and wake up thinking about it, in much the same way you do when you’re playing and in the same way you think about your family, then it makes you into the person you previously were. Not someone who is moulding himself to an environment because of necessity.
“Ultimately I get to go to all the rugby matches and watch the sport.” What more could you want?