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A Whole New Ball Game

Dennis Cometti, mid call

Thursday 6.45pm

If the winds of change were blowing, the air around the food vans outside Gate One still smelled of hot chips. Not only that, a pair of Collingwood fans were playing the old Seven anthem, ‘One Day in September’ on a struggling car stereo.

Wandering past, I asked them whether they were playing the song as some sort of ‘Last Post’ to the Seven era. They sipped on their beers and looked at me blankly.

‘Nope. Playin’ it because we like it,’ one of them said finally.

***

I arrived in the commentary box with two journalists covering the Tim Lane-Eddie McGuire ‘one hat, two hat, red hat, blue hat’ affair, and in order to prove that I had other agendas as well, immediately began taking notes on the composition of the sandwich platter.

My role, after all, was to observe, and any opinion I had on Australia’s greatest ever sportscaster being told that his insistence on a term of his contract was roughly parallel to a recruit arriving at Collingwood, demanding number 5 and wanting to play in Nathan Buckley’s position wasn’t going to get in the way of observation.

So let it be said that the cucumber and hams were proving about half as popular as the chicken and avocados. Although it is still round one – too early for cucumber and hams to panic.

***

Eddie was standing in the centre circle, sun setting behind him, with half the box pushed against the glass watching his every move.

‘Gee do you think he can get away with being central ump?’ one journalist quipped.

In actual fact, Eddie was recording his opener, and we grabbed headphones to hear the words flowing out of him with the jocular charm that has taken him from world expert on who’s icing what limb to centrepiece of a media empire. With taped footage of fat men in war paint ready to roll, McGuire reached his crescendo:

‘…final pots have been sunk. They’re excited, they’re ready to go … BECAUSE THIS IS AFL ON NINE!’

You got the impression Eddie had been waiting to say that for some time.

***

Special comments man Gary Lyon arrived back from the Richmond rooms, his pancaked face shining, his chest heaving after 18 months of adopting a more relaxed attitude to beer and donuts.

‘Gee, they were a bit a pumped down there!’ enthused Lyon, having just conducted an interview with Danny Frawley, where the Richmond coach had spoken with insane intensity straight through his eyebrows.

‘That’s my first time in another team’s rooms. I thought he was going to hook me.’

Meanwhile, Dermott Brereton was receiving a briefing from Luke Tennecliffe, a statistical analyst who sits with the team.

‘In the Wizard Cup, Richmond kicked 50% of their score in time on.’.

Tennecliffe began saying something else, but before he could finish I was distracted by Lyon calling us towards the window.

‘If you’ve never seen Eddie run, come and watch this.’

Sure enough, below us McGuire was on his way up, evidence perhaps that whatever the last 18 months have been like for Lyon, beer and donuts have been part of Eddie’s life for considerably longer.

***

Dennis Cometti began the call, and within three minutes, the wait for fans of the expression ‘nothing doing’ was over. There is a beautiful rhythm to watching Cometti work. He punctuated disposals with a light tap of his foot, and sometimes, a click of his pen. He rolled his head up and down between the live action and the television monitor in front of him. The gentle nodding seemed to flow with the undulations of his baritone, and whether it was his style or a touch of sympathy for the president of a team being thrashed, he handed to Eddie each time with two gentle touches of his colleague’s back.
Eddie, for all the fuss, called without fuss. By the standards he has set on Triple M, he was subdued, and in the first half, it was only a silent ‘holding the ball’ gesture, some eye rolling and a frantic point at the lack of Magpie options on the Members wing, that made me think club President rather than broadcaster. Throughout, photographers snapped his profile, one getting so into the task that for a moment his body covered the light that is beamed to the umpires to restart the game. Individuals, as Eddie has pointed out, are not bigger than the game. But if photographers covering individuals block out that restart light, that could all start changing.

***

In the second quarter I realised that I was being filmed taking my notes, and so tried to write more intelligent comments than I had been writing for most of the first half. ‘Dermott Brereton has bright orange pen –pen equivalent of fluorescent green boots’ I scrawled. ‘Gary Lyon loves making line drawings on the telestrator – Magnadoodle moves into the 21st century’.

At half time I discovered the reason we were filmed – the Sam Newman joke of the night was to poke fun first at Tim Lane for not wanting to wear the Nine logo, and then the ‘world media’ that had allegedly turned up to dissect every word Eddie uttered.

‘In the second half, Four Corners are coming in, I kid you not,’ Eddie laughed.

As the footage rolled, I felt like piping up at the back of the studio and telling Newman that this third of the world media was there to cover microphone technique, what was said off air, and fluctuations on the sandwich platter. I wanted to say that the 4 Corners crew were there to do a general story on the AFL as a business, not to cover the Lane-McGuire situation (TX 8/4/02). I wanted to say the sorts of things that drunk people and people with disabilities and women in tight tops have been trying to say for years when they find themselves the butt of a Sam Newman joke.

But there’s an old saying in television, ‘don’t heckle stars who are nuzzling up to their demographic when you’re off mike, off camera, and lucky to be invited into the studio.’

So instead, I just smiled and wrote some inane notes on how low the studio chairs seemed to be. Eddie, for his part looked sheepishly bashful. Ah Sammy, you’ve resorted to personal attack again. We really have to look at reigning you in.

***

With 10 minutes to go, Eddie passed to Cometti and started madly winding his arms, signalling to Lyon and Brereton that despite a flat scoreline, the energy levels had to be raised. On cue the two old opponents began arguing over whether a free kick was ‘soft’. Brereton, (once called ‘The Kid’ and now using that very word to describe any player under 30) began laughing and elbowing Lyon. Lyon niggled back and suddenly the commentary box had its spark. It says something for the professionalism of McGuire that when then the moment demanded a back of the classroom wrestle, he had been able to inspire it.

A few minutes later, the siren sounded. Off air, Dermott joined the fans in the Richmond Club song. ‘Oh we’re from Ti-ger, YELLOW AND BLACK!’

‘It really is the best song in the league’ said the man who once kicked 11 in a lifejacket on a day when the Tigerland song was never going to play.

Saturday 6.45pm

Channel 10 were in charge of the commentary box 2 days later, and this time Stephen Quartermain was the general.

‘Rob, don’t do the bottom button of your jacket up,’ Quarters advised special comments man, Robert Walls. Strictly speaking, a woman called Natasha was in charge of wardrobe, but when a man with Quartermain’s jawline starts talking fashion, you give him some room.

On the other side of the box Michael Christian donned the blue shirt and tie for his premiership season debut on national television. Blonde hair crept down over the collar, indicating that neither age nor General Quartermain could weary his commitment to the mullet hairstyle that was so much a part of Collingwood’s premiership win in 1990.

‘I’m dosing myself up on cough medicine and cold tablets.’ Christian said, pointing to a stash of medication. ‘I’m worried that if I start talking too deep, I’ll start coughing uncontrollably.’

***

‘Ah Chris, you were so close, you were so close to history,’ Quarters laughed, clapping his co-commentator on the shoulders.

What had transpired was that after gathering the ball at the top of the goal square Gary Ablett Jnr had narrowly failed to score a goal with his first kick in AFL football.

For Christian, it would have been a moment played and replayed, something Quartermain knows something about given one of his early interviews was the famous ‘lucky lane 6’ Laurie Lawrence camel clutch after Duncan Armstrong’s gold in 1988.

But it wasn’t to be. Instead, Walls, Quarters and Christian dutifully marked a rushed behind in their ‘Football Records’, a nice retro salute to the tens of thousands in the outer doing exactly the same thing.

***

In many ways, luck didn’t run with Ten on the night of its season debut. For one, the statistics provider to the commercial networks, Champion Data, suffered a computer crash and so the commentary team did much of its work without stats, and with IT technicians dangling under the benches.

Secondly, for non Essendon fans, the game was an absolute shocker. From about the 20 minute mark of the first quarter, the result was always going to veer between a murder and a shalacking, and that’s pretty hard to make exciting. The commentary team did its best, and the fact that Natasha in wardrobe spent the last quarter stretched out reading ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ was no indictment on their call. She must have supposed that if things started to spiral out of control fashion wise, Quartermain could assume control.

***

In the break before the wrap up, Walls’ hair was styled, Christian was finally released to cough to his heart’s content, while Quartermain plotted his closing remarks. In the end, he signed off with a very Eastery, ‘The chocolates tonight, go to the Bombers’, and as credits rolled, and it brought a big smile from Christian.

‘Nice one Quarters. Been planning that?’

‘Nah. Just came to me in the break.’

Quartermain then rose and stretched while Walls looked wistfully out on a deserted MCG. I assumed he was thinking of September days of long ago, of days of triumph and days of defeat. Why wouldn’t he? Give me some days of triumph and days of defeat out there, and I’d think of nothing else.

‘Gee I’m starving,’ Walls said standing up. ‘The trap is though, you eat late, and you eat badly.’

So that’s what he’d been thinking.