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Return of Graeme ‘Heaps’ Hughes a refreshing blast from the past

If you managed to catch the Newcastle and Manly clash last Sunday afternoon you would have heard a voice that may have been vaguely familiar. Perhaps you knew it well, as those of us over the age of forty probably did.


As part of Foxtel’s retro round, Graeme ‘Heaps’ Hughes was invited back to call the game alongside a couple of greats in the shape of Wayne Pearce and Steve Roach. Roach has recently been added to the rotating panel of Foxtel’s special comments experts.


It had been nearly twenty one years since Hughes had last called an NRL game and his season spent calling the Warriors home matches was well received by viewers. It had been twenty five years since he had called premiership matches in Australia, the 1991 season was his last of four successful years as the anchor of Channel Ten’s coverage.


The Steve Jackson try at the end of the epic 1989 grand final will always be linked with Hughes’ voice as the front rower crashed over to end the Tigers’ dream.


The usurping of the TV rights by Channel Nine in 1992 saw the rise of Ray Warren as the most common voice heard in televised football media.


Despite having been removed as chief caller in 1986 by Channel Ten and forced to spend his time backing up Rex Mossop, Warren was in the right place at the right time when Nine began their current long relationship with the game.


Riding the wave of success of the advertising campaigns of the late eighties, Nine slowly developed its own style that has morphed over the years into the slick and commercial presentations that we see in both weekly NRL and Origin matches.


Around the same time, Ray Hadley was developing a long standing loyal audience through his broad radio exposure on 2UE and subsequently 2GB. David Morrow had a faithful audience at the ABC, yet it was Warren who forged ahead in popularity and respect and effectively became the ‘voice’ of the game. His biography also bore that somewhat bold and confident moniker.


Unfortunately, the contrast between the early calls of Warren and some of the recent over the top drivel that Nine has put free-to-air viewers through is vast.


The naturally understated Warren of the eighties has been slowly lost and some sort of caricature of his former self now exists.


Mind you, Warren is not solely to blame. The elegant sight of Phil Gould marching as he delivers melodramatic diatribes on Origin night has started to wear thin on viewers.


The clunky and poorly presented expert analysis of Brad Fittler and Andrew Johns is hard to watch at times.


Legends of the game undoubtedly, yet their clumsiness in presentation and language is far below the level presented by Fox Sports.


Inane dialogue between commentators in the Nine commentary box is choreographed and staged to the point of ridiculousness. Gould’s use of repetition is particularly annoying.


Fans have supported the Foxtel coverage increasingly as the year has unfolded and while Nine will enjoy huge ratings for major games, the reason they have held on to Warren and sucked every last millilitre from him is testament to their precarious position.


The swathe of disappointment towards Hadley’s calls on Nine has made that appointment seem curious and the support that Andrew Voss enjoys on Foxtel reinforces that the Nine needs a replacement, and soon.

Hughes called a terrific game on Sunday. The difference in approach was clear from the outset.


No grandstanding, screaming, or filling in the silence with useless details that could go unsaid.


The silence was beautiful. Sure, the commentator is there to talk, however, Hughes possesses something of an old school approach were he calls a players’ name as they take possession and then waits to see what occurs. If that player is tackled in a regulation tackle without anything unusual occurring, he might say nothing.


If the defence produce an outstanding defensive play he may comment on the quality of the tackle, if the hit is enormous or a break in the defensive line is found he will then raise the intensity a little. It would be fair to say that throughout the game I couldn’t visualise veins popping out from his forehead once.


The call was intelligent, level headed and directed at people who know, love and respect the game. Too often in recent years have we heard commentators raise their voices to heights where the chance of the audience believing that it is natural is minimal at best.


There were no moments of matey banter between the three commentators and the game was merely analysed instead of being hyped and elevated to a status of which it did not deserve.


Hughes spends most of his time on his weekday 2SM ‘Talkin’Sport’ program with allies, Peter Tunks, Brett Papworth and Gavin Robertson on 2SM. The show receives its fair share of criticism. Some critique the older demographic of callers as representing the more conservative and ageing wider audience of the station, others question the quality of some of the shows participants.


The hosts become increasingly frustrated at the courtesy shown by some callers, some who can’t keep quiet long enough to let the hosts speak, others who look for conflict with each call rather than a vigorous discussion about the state of the game.


Another criticism is levelled at the airing of callers who quite clearly have been drinking heavily through the afternoon. Many listeners find it hilarious. I agree with those who see the message as a bad one and the subsequent lack of intellectual discussion on the issue at hand as a waste of time.


As an occasional listener I have found that through the wide array of personalities and odd viewpoints, Hughes does maintain a comfortable sense of calm and dignity. His interviews with officials such as Todd Greenberg, Tony Archer as well as coaches and players are usually precise with well thought out lines of questioning.


It’s a shame that some of this quality is lost among the kookiness of Robertson and volatility of Tunks.


Hughes’ stance on a return to calling the game has always been clear. He did not retire from television broadcasting. This leaves a pretty significant door ajar. The general consensus appears to be that Warren will indeed retire at seasons end and Nine would surely be on the case already.


Hadley might be their horse, but Voss and Hadley will undoubtedly be kept apart. Could a big money offer to Warren Smith and the excellent reputation he has built at Fox lure him away?


The chances of a Queensland appointment seem thin, with Nine hoping to appoint familiarity just as they have done at their news desk in the past.


Hearing Hughes again on the weekend was pleasing to the ear and the game could use his skill and style, even if it is merely used as a counterpoint to others.


It will be interesting to see the developments over the next six months. I, for one, wouldn’t mind listening to Hughes call the Football again, be it on Channel Nine or elsewhere.


My only hope would be that he would keep the style that serves him well and continue to call in an understated and insightful manner that gives the game the respect it deserves.

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