Needed: rugby commentators who know the job

October 5, 2003

The World Cup Rugby tournament kicks off in Australia on October 10 and, following the local team's abysmal performance in the Southern Hemisphere season that just ended, there has been much breast-beating and gnashing of teeth over the Wallabies' showing. There have been fears expressed that the home team will be shown up badly on its own grounds.

But during a tournament of this magnitude, there are many other things that can bring a nation into disrepute - and little, if any, attention has been paid to the fact that one lot who are definitely going to make Australia a laughing stock are the commentators who will do duty on free-to-air television.

Rupert Murdoch's Fox Sports will be taking footage around the world, but in Australia, the majority will be watching on the free-to-air channel, Channel 7. And I doubt very much if the commentators are up to scratch. Channel 7 is unlikely to do anything about it either.

There is a trend of thought running through the world of sports journalism that in order to comment on a game, either in print or on air, you need to have played the game at the international or national level. That this flies in the face of the fact that a person who is competent in one profession is extremely unlikely to be competent in another, is of no import. Hence, we have a bunch sitting in the Channel 7 commentary box whose "expertise" is more than just a bit of a joke.

It is worthwhile noting here that British cricket commentators Brian Johnston and John Arlott, both of whom have passed on, never played for their country. Neither did Australian Allan McGilvray, but can anyone say that he did not know the game? There are umpteen examples which I can quote here but this should suffice to make the point - past players, however good they were, are not the best when it comes to commentary.

In 1996, Chris Handy was bleating "Go you good thing" every time Australia scored a try in an international match; today his tired, jingoism continues apace on Channel 7. Handy was a good player in his time; he is a pathetic excuse for a commentator, bringing so much of bias to the job that it is laughable to listen to him offer "expert" comments on a game.

Gordon Bray, the lead commentator on 7, has an apt surname. As a commentator, he is an unmitigated disaster. With a microphone in front of him, he turns into a bigot who wants Australia to win at any cost, and one who can never offer reasoned commentary on a game. Indeed, in some cases, Bray appears to be unaware of how to interpret the rules of the game. Thus, both lack the confidence to criticise what are often stupid decisions by referees.

Both Bray and Handy are short on language so they make up for it in hype. They have limited vocabularies so repetition is endless; Bray is unable to maintain a running commentary as he simply has no idea of how to do so. Both Handy and Bray are kept busy trying to provide plugs to advertisers - as Handy did with the Qantas wing cam during this season's Bledisloe Cup.

Two examples suffice of their ineptitude: during the first leg of the Bledisloe Cup, Australian winger Wendell Sailor took out New Zealand fullback Malili Muliaina while the latter was airborne. Sailor was promptly sent to the sinbin for 10 minutes as the rules prescribe. A couple of minutes later, Aussie hooker Brendan Cannon repeated the act with Muliaina. Obviously, Cannon should have been sent off. But English ref Tony Spreadbury, who otherwise had an excellent game, chose not to send Cannon off.

Neither Bray nor Handy had a word to say. This was a decision that favoured Australia so, of course, it could not be criticised. (In retrospect, it seems good that Cannon was not sent off; the All Blacks scored twice before Sailor got back on the field and only the Almighty knows how many more points they would have put on the board had the Wallabies been reduced to 13 men at this stage of the game).

And then there was the incident in Bledisloe 2, which resulted in a try for New Zealand. The ball was in a ruck, the All Blacks were trying to gain possession and ref Jonathan Kaplan kept shouting "hands off." Suddenly Gerry Collins reached in and picked up the ball. He hesitated a minute, expecting the ref to blow but when the shout of "play on" suddenly came from Kaplan, Collins gave the ball to Justin Marshall who passed it on to standoff Carlos Spencer; Spencer kicked high to the Wallabies try-in goal area, winger Doug Howlett's explosive pace enabled him to race Aussie centre Elton Flatley to the ball and the All Blacks had a try. This decision was plain wrong. But again, neither Bray nor Handy said much.

Their lack of opinion on such an error - this was one of two lapses from Kaplan who controlled the game well on the day otherwise - could well have been tied to their silence when Howlett chased down a well-placed kick from Kiwi centre Aaron Mauger and scored. Kaplan ruled that Howlett had charged before the ball was kicked; a replay showed that this was open to a great deal of doubt. But all that Handy could say to the viewers was "you make up your mind." A commentator who entertains such doubt is, in my dictionary, called incompetent.

I wonder what Handy and Bray would do if they had to call a game like the one between the All Blacks and England earlier this year. Australian referee Stuart Dickinson made a spectacle of himself by blowing his whistle nearly every minute of the game. A game that was billed as the showdown of the season was ruined and turned into a grim battle of attrition with the teams advancing by centimetres; England won 15-12 - not a single try was scored. The New Zealand commentators rightly pointed out that Dickinson was being a pedant and spoiling the game. What would ithe Aussie pair have done?

Both Handy and Bray would do well to spend a couple of weeks listening to Martin Tyler, the British soccer commentator whose voice was heard in Australia during the 2002 World Cup - SBS, the channel which showed the tournament in its entirety, hired Tyler to be the voice behind the action. Tyler is a professional, smooth, unbiased, knowledgeable and not short of a good turn of phrase to describe the game. He is also highly intelligent and quick on the uptake. Tyler's commnentary on a game involving England was a model of professionalism. Of course, Bray and Handy cannot incorporate some of these things into their act - but they would certainly know that they are not fit to be commentators if they do spend a day listening to Tyler.

Or go back to Sri Lanka in the late 1960s when Bob Harvey was doing rugby commentary for what was then Radio Ceylon. Harvey was slick, fast and professional. Sri Lanka is a nation that is fanatical about cricket and rugby; the country did not play either sport at the international level in the 1960s but plenty of good club sides visited and there was good rugby on display. (This was a time when a try netted three points). Harvey was just great.

The latest addition to the Australian commentary team's ranks, Tim Horan, is an equally sad mess. It's a pity that Horan, who played a decisive role in the Wallabies' 1999 World Cup win even though he was not 100 percent fit, has now gone behind the mike. He will now be remembered for incompetent commentary rather than being an ace centre.

There are plenty of things which retired rugby internationals can do - Australia's greatest wing three-quarter David Campese runs a sports shop and writes a ghosted column for The Australian. Bray and Handy would do well to look to his example.