OPINION: Spark Sport has passed their large pre-Rugby World Cup flying color test.
There are always a few "learnings" and "work-ons" in rugby, but the exciting streaming service can be very happy with what is equal to a bonus-point victory on Saturday afternoon.
The 208th meeting of the proud history between Auckland Grammar School and King's College took extra importance for Spark's first rugby game released in front of the global showpiece in a couple of months, as they had secured with TVNZ rights to.
For the record, Grammar won the exciting game 19-15 – in front of a colorful crowd of about 15,000 at their school, celebrating their 150th year. It was another extremely passionate, spine-flipping occasion, but this exercise was about giving punters a read about what to expect from Spark if they open their wallets to sign up for the World Cup, which starts on September 20th.
* Something new for historical clashes
* Sky is the limit of Spark Sport
* Technical issues hit again
* Spark names its RWC price
While Sky still shows schoolchildren rugby this year, Spark / TVNZ got the one-time rights to the historic Grammar v Kings fixture, in an important live TV dressing trial for a couple of months.
This is how things have played out from start to finish in this author's first taste of the Spark Sport experience:
Very fast and easy, this. Midweek I visited their website – www.sparksport.co.nz – and you can't miss their campaign for their Rugby World Cup tournament pass – it's right on you website.
At the top right I found the option "Sign up for a 30 day free trial". You fill out a simple form with your details, including credit cards, because they warn you will be charged $ 19.99 a month after your free trial if you do not suspend your subscription.
With Saturday's match kicked close at. 14.30 was Sparks (and TVNZ 1's) coverage on the way at. 14, and it was a slick opening with sharp graphics that led to battle commentators Scotty Stevenson and Isa Nacewa who did a stationary, so on-the-walk, on-field game.
Then they threw to a pre-recorded story of grammar, though there was an eerie end where Stevenson talked about it before it was finished, apparently because they were throwing an ad break.
While ads were shown on TVNZ 1, at Spark you were kept on the ground through a camera in the corner of the venue where you could still hear the people's buzz and the odd comment or two.
A news reporter Kimberlee Downs was introduced to the cover and interviewed Sir Graham Henry before Stevenson and Nacewa ran through the team lists that appeared on the screen, with some very commendable, safe statements.
A minor botch for the trainers, however, was the inconsistency of Sparks apostrophe in the king's name at the college – the out-of-game graphics were there, but in the screenplay lists, the scoreboard, and with their player's names, it wasn't.
Bragging rights are in line with the two schools' face in their traditional annual rugby fixture.
Then came a couple of nice buffering issues just as the teams ran out. My fiber plan is not the fastest possible speed available, but seeing the coverage struggle to load was a concern. One click on the update button and it was gone again and it was never a problem again.
After some good catches of the two schools' huge hooks, there were some engaging camera angles that took you into the final pre-game huddles and allowed you to hear the chat.
In a word, excellent. You wouldn't have known that you were not looking at a Sky Rugby broadcast – everyone knew clearly what they were doing – whether they were on microphones, on the cameras, in the trucks, anywhere – making it a polished product.
While the coverage was about one minute behind what was shown on the TVNZ1 broadcast, it was assumed that this was an expected delay for the stream. It would really not be too significant in the World Cup – as you either would see one or the other, but it just gives you the feeling that you are behind the time.
There were less replays than maybe you are used to on Sky, although it may have been that there were just as few stops at schoolchildren level. But when you wanted them – just like after trying – they were there in good order. On the screen you get the handy choice anyway, to rewind in 10 second blocks, then catch up to live or fast forward 10 seconds.
With a large selection of camera angles, there was also a good mix of cutting to different crowd shots, to paint the picture of the occasion.
The comment was amazing – Stevenson, formerly of Sky, is an experienced operator and brings a healthy rush of his work. Former grammar boy and Auckland, Blues, Leinster and Fiji rep Nacewa make a good comment to man and that duo will be joined by Ant Strachan coming World Cup time. On this day, Downs – who previously worked in sports – did some solid work as a sideline reporter, with Henry back at her side for input.
On the graphic side of things, a few surveys could be improved. One who stood out was that there was not a yellow card icon on the scoreboard in the upper left corner, since King's College had a single singing player. The other was that while it raised how many points a goalkicker had scored the day he got a shot, there was no sign of a kicking percentage for the day.
There was actually no match statistics at all, but assumed, as it was just a school game, there was no access to more detailed things like this.
In school games it is a good and quick affair.
Music was paused, with the viewer taken back to the corner camera that had also been used before the game.
Again, the cameras took us into the team's lectures, where the trainers could be heard, with the producers flicking us from one huddle to another a couple of times.
Stevenson and Nacewa then chatted us through the highlights of the first half, and Downs had a report from the respective pages about what they were looking for in other spellings.
In a very exciting ending to the meeting, the feeling of full-time work was largely taken – party and commissioning personified.
Downs had interviews with the respective captains before Stevenson and Nacewa offered their final thoughts.
Coverage was strong, with Good Charlotte's national song blasting out to a great selection of highlights from the day.
A truly enjoyable experience. Very visible, with image quality matched by the commentary and the camera work.
Rugby World Cup tournament cards are currently sold at $ 59.99, so from next month's $ 79.99, and September 11th is $ 89.99. Or from September 20, you can buy a match pass for $ 24.99.
Only 12 of the 48 games will be shown on TVNZ1, and only seven of them will be live, with all All Blacks fighting before halves being screened delayed by one hour.
While the kickoff times are pub-friendly, if you have more than one passing interest in rugby, the tournament card really looks like a must-have, and at least it looks like it's going to be a solid investment.