The sport’s number one podcast is insightful, fun, riveting and, at times, hilarious. We catch up with its presenter – and host of the 2019 Good Web Guide Awards, Alex Payne.
But as most people hang up their hopes for another four years, at The Good Web Guide, we’re keeping the rugby fever torch burning for a little while longer. That’s thanks to Alex Payne, Sky Sports’ lead English and European rugby presenter, who we are thrilled to have hosting our hotly anticipated The Good Web Guide Awards on 20th November in London.
Alex hit the headlines recently thanks to a racy would-you-rather game on his House of Rugby podcast with interviewee, former England rugby star and husband of Zara Phillips, Mike Tindall. The Daily Mail reported details from the pair’s banter-fuelled chat, which included Tindall’s answer to whether he’d rather be married to a royal or to win the World Cup. (Clue: he’s a wise man. He made the correct choice).
We’re massive fans of House of Rugby, the UK’s number one rugby podcast, which Alex presents with former England rugby player, James Haskell, and with whom they host a variety of special guests. That it is billed as a forum for the pair to ‘do their best to discuss anything but rugby’, is what makes it a total winner; we love the circuitous back-and-forth, anything-could-happen nature of the show, which is delivered straight to your headphones every Wednesday.
For some presenters, another weekly commitment to talking about the sport they spends their entire professional life discussing might feel gruelling, but as Alex explains, House of Rugby allows him a refreshing near-total absence of constraint.
‘There is a far greater freedom in the podcast on YouTube space,’ he says. ‘As a presenter, it is a real treat to have no constrictions in terms of time, whereas in television we are constantly being moved on due to the framing of the show. Although we record the House of Rugby as a live show, the ability to edit it before it goes out does allow you to try things and take more risks. I suppose the biggest difference is that occasionally the odd swearword slips out on the podcast and no one bats an eyelid. On television, I’d be up before Ofcom the following day.’
In addition to lacking time restraints, the podcast also allows him to explore something that television precludes: his own friendships with players past and present. He expands: ‘I was given a very good piece of advice when I first started at Sky, which was to never make friends with rugby players. It allows you to keep a professional distance, which is a necessity when you need to ask sharp questions or explore criticism of individuals. House of Rugby is a much warmer environment. It is a much more about the people who come on, and we love to explore characters and individuals. We want to be a safe space where players can really be themselves and say what they actually think.’
Recently, we particularly loved the episode in the immediate aftermath of England’s post-final heartache, in which – over a pint – Alex, James and Mike Tindall discuss matters as wide-ranging as the power of sport to inspire; how, in the face of bigotry coming from America, important it is to see a black captain lift the trophy; the unifying potential of sport; and, erm, dressing up as Boris Johnson for a quiet weekend at home.
For Alex, his own favourite editions of the show have been the truly revelatory ones, those that delve into guests’ characters and allow listeners a glimpse of their real lives. ‘Although we have a lot of fun and there is a fair amount of chat flying about, the episodes I have enjoyed the most of those where the guests are comfortable revealing a lot about themselves, he says. ‘With that in mind, we did two fabulous interviews with Ben Ryan who coached Fiji to Olympic gold – his tale is utterly extraordinary and is being made into a film. The other episode I really enjoyed was with former England prop, Paul Doran-Jones, who is James’ oldest school friend. A lot of the show was classic ribbing between the two of them, but the whole interview swung on one answer when Paul started to talk about his struggles as a single dad and his work with Fathers for Justice. It was absolutely fascinating, and really brave of him to open up. I love it when our guests give us something we were simply not expecting.’
We love the unscripted quality, which can, at times, feel like a session down the pub with mates pre- or post-game at times, but can also provide a forum in which to geek out about the finer and more technical points of the game. At the helm is always the reasoned voice of Alex Payne, which – as with all talented interviewers – echoes the tenor of his guests, veering between the serious and the raucously daft with nimble ease. And his own favourite guest?
‘Joe Marler,’ he says without hesitation. ‘We have done two shows with Joe, both of which are far and away the most exhausting interviews I have ever done in 15 years of broadcasting. The man is an absolute legend, but has a first-class degree in being awkward with presenters. It is an enormous challenge, and hard not to give up and go home. I absolutely love working with him but certainly have to be fully loaded and totally prepared. The great news is that he’s joining us for 20 shows this season. I’m off for a lie down.’
We’ll be listening.
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By Nancy Alsop