Six Nations 2020: Commentator Jim Neilly on concrete bunkers and 'Uncle Fester'

By Mark SterlingBBC Sport NI
Jim Neilly and Joe Schmidt
Neilly has got to know many Ireland coaches during his career, including the last incumbent Joe Schmidt
Six Nations Championship
Dates: 1 February-14 March
Coverage: Watch live coverage on BBC TV, S4C, BBC iPlayer, Connected TVs and online; listen to match commentaries, shows and podcasts on BBC Radio 5 live, sports extra, BBC Scotland, BBC Ulster, BBC Radio Wales, Radio Cymru and BBC Sounds; follow text updates on the BBC Sport website and mobile app.

"I took a deep breath and did it. Then thought 'wow, this is something I'd like to do for the rest of my life'."

And he has.

When Jim Neilly gets behind the microphone for Ireland's opening Six Nations match at home to Scotland on Saturday, his TV and radio commentary career with the BBC will have spanned six decades - the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s.

The Belfast native remembers his debut international commentary in Dublin's Lansdowne Road vividly, and paints a very different picture to the modern Aviva Stadium surroundings in which he will sit for the visit of the Scots this weekend.

"I had just left teaching and joined the BBC in Belfast when I commentated on Ireland against France in what was then the Five Nations on 20 January 1979," he remembers.

Lansdowne Road
Neilly watched the action from a box situated in the West Stand at the old Lansdowne Road

"I was sharing the commentary box with the great Peter West, who I had grown up watching and listening to as he presented all sorts of things on radio and TV, including the original Come Dancing as well as cricket, tennis and rugby.

"We were sitting in the old concrete bunker in the middle of the West Stand. You could almost reach out and touch the players as they came out of the tunnel and on to the pitch - a far cry from the open-plan, high-tech set-up of today.

"You ducked down as you walked in and we had to put foam on the roof because people kept banging their heads, but I loved it. The view was perfect and when we closed the door we were wrapped up in our own world in there."

Getting carried away by Bowe

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Looking back on the competition over the last 41 years, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of his stand-out memories are inspired by Ireland successes.

"It was very special in 1982 when Ireland won the Triple Crown - which was always very dear to Irish hearts - for the first time since 1949, after winning the Grand Slam the year before," Neilly enthused.

"I knew a lot of the players, and regarded them as friends, so it was very emotional when the final whistle went when they clinched it against Scotland."

While fond of those memories, Neilly has also thoroughly enjoyed the success the Irish team have enjoyed in more recent years.

"I remember Brian O'Driscoll's hat-trick in Paris early in his international rugby. There was also the 2009 nail-biter in Cardiff, of course, when Tommy Bowe outpaced his Ospreys colleague Shane Williams to score beneath the posts. I got quite carried away with that one.

"Then there was two years ago at Twickenham when Ireland beat England on one of the coldest days I can remember. Jacob Stockdale kicked and chased for a third try, and Ireland won the title."

Peerless O'Driscoll and gentleman Johnson

Keith Wood
Wood captained Ireland and was part of two British and Irish Lions tours

And what about the best individual players Neilly has watched from behind the mic? He has seen plenty during his 41 years and wastes no time in listing those who have impressed him most.

"If you look back at Ireland teams there were some outstanding talents, players such as Fergus Slattery, Will Duggan, Ollie Campbell and little scrum-half Colin Patterson," he continued.

"Then you come right up to O'Driscoll - who was peerless - Paul O'Connell and Rory Best, as well as players who maybe didn't get as many caps as they should have done, such as big Stevie Ferris.

"Keith Wood, known as Uncle Fester (from the Addams Family) with the bald head, was another player that I enjoyed watching. He ran about knocking people over and scored tries for fun - I think he still holds the record for the most tries scored by an Irish forward."

Rory Best and Jim Neilly
Rory Best is among the players Neilly has most enjoyed watching in the Six Nations

Former England lock Martin Johnson is another who stood out for Neilly - for his off-the-pitch attitude as much as his performances as captain of the Lions, England and Leicester Tigers.

"He was a colossus, one of the best second rows the world has ever seen - and a great captain," said Neilly.

"He came to play Ulster with Leicester after England had won the World Cup, and he stood for 40 minutes signing autographs after the match, only stopping when the lights were turned out."

A colourful buzz in a dull winter

Neilly has lost none of his enthusiasm for a competition which he says "always brightens up a dull winter", with the supporters in the stands and on the streets an important part of the mix.

"It's still a massive part of the sporting calendar. I always loved the buzz around Dublin on the morning of the game as we walked to the stadium from our hotel," he added.

Owen Farrell
England lost in the World Cup final to South Africa in November

"The Welsh fans would make a holiday of it, arriving in Dublin on the Tuesday before the game, while the French would come in with goatskins full of good red wine, get their position on the East Terrace and start to sing. Extraordinary."

And what about predictions for the 2020 Six Nations title? Neilly believes the field is as open as it has been for many years.

"I think England or France are favourites, although you also can't rule out Wales. England go to Paris on the first weekend and some people are already saying that could be the decider.

"I don't see anyone winning the Grand Slam but if I was to put my money on someone to win the championship - apart from Ireland, of course - it would be hard to look past England."

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