Fox Sports' NRL expert comments man talks international footy and the Auckland 9s.
BACK WHEN GARY BELCHER was swerving his way around defenses on the suburban paddocks of Brisbane, Canberra and Sydney, end-of-season international football was a lot simpler ‒ mostly because there wasn’t much of it. In Belcher’s day, the greatest Aussie players only got one shot at representing their nation on summer eve every four years, when the esteemed Kangaroo Tour swung into action, taking in places like Keighley, Widnes and Wigan.
Today’s post-season international rugby league? It’s complicated. There used to be the Tri Nations; not every year, but every now and then. This turned into the Four Nations, which features the Big Three of Australia, New Zealand and England, and a qualifier ‒ might be Wales, France, PNG, Fiji or Samoa, this year’s challenger. The Four Nations isn’t held every year either, only every couple ... otherwise it’s just the Kiwis and Aussies going at it in a one-off Test. Unless it’s a World Cup year. Follow?
Belcher was among a plethora of Aussie stars back in those simpler days of the ‘80s and ‘90s. The mustachioed and usually lime-green-draped fullback strutted his stuff in 15 Tests for Australia across 1986-91 and played just as many Origins, all the while maintaining fantastic form for his beloved Canberra Raiders for eight seasons.
We sat “Badge” down at the bar to reminisce about international footy’s glory days on the eve of this year’s Four Nations tournament. We also wanted to see how all this talk about modern fullbacks being better than the No.1s in his day sat with him (don’t mention the war).
So apart from your Fox Sports NRL match-day commentary commitments, what else keeps you busy these days?
I co-host a nightly radio program for Crocmedia called Sportsday Queensland, which goes out across the state. I’m on air with Scotty Sattler; we record it each day. It’s all sport – 90 per cent rugby league content because we go out to Queensland. The subject matter is right up our alley ...
Apparently the great Mal Meninga and you moved down from Queensland to the nation’s capital after signing with Canberra together all those years ago. How did that come about?
I was a Souths Brisbane junior and when Mal was about 18, he played for the Police Academy, which was an affiliate of Souths. Wayne Bennett coached him there and he progressed to Souths’ seniors in about ’79; he’s a couple of years older than me. I turned up in the seniors in ’81 as an 18-year-old. We played together for four or five years and then he signed with the Raiders. I thought I’d be crazy to play against him, so I signed as well. We moved on from it, but the Brisbane competition was great back then; only a bee’s dick behind the Sydney comp standard-wise. There was a massive flow of players from Brisbane to Sydney in the early-to-mid-80s. I think we had about 50 blokes at the end of ’85 who went to clubs in Sydney.
What were your first impressions of the Sydney comp when you arrived down south?
Back then, while being interviewed for magazine profiles and stuff, people would ask me, “Who are your favourite players?” I’d rattle off Bruce Astill and John Grant. Granty played for Souths Brisbane, he’s now the ARLC commissioner. And they’d say, “No, no, in Sydney” and I’d say, “I don’t have any favourite players in Sydney.” I knew guys from afar ‒ you know, internationals, so I’d just say Bob Fulton and Graeme Langlands ... My impression was that it was a good comp. As I said, it wasn’t that far ahead of what we had in Brisbane, but certainly it got more intense in the bigger matches. In my first four games or so, in 1986, the Raiders weren’t winning, but we were competitive. We went to Belmore to play against Canterbury and Chris Mortimer and Andrew Farrar and their outside backs jammed up and absolutely smashed us with that umbrella defense they had. I remember thinking, “Shit, this is a bit different, down here. These blokes, they’re full on.” I realised, then, that there was a gap.
Was there any sign back then that so many of your Raiders team-mates would end up excelling at coaching?
Not at all. I had no idea that our former team-mate Craig Bellamy, now at the Melbourne Storm, would turn out to be one of the great coaches. I had no idea Mal Meninga would turn out to be the greatest coach in Origin history. But I knew we had some special guys. Now Laurie Daley has made his mark ... It’s probably a reflection of the people that were in charge of us. A lot of it has to do with Tim Sheens and the way he went about his business and how thorough he was. And those men will have their own influences on other people.
Is it true your broadcasting career began halfway through the 1986 Kangaroo Tour at games which you weren’t playing?
It is actually – that was my first gig. I’m pretty sure it was Australia against Leeds. In fact, Wally and Sterlo had their first media gigs on that tour as well. David Fordham was doing the commentary. The Kangaroo Tour was the epitome of our game. To go on one was massive and I remember every footy fan at home stayed up late and watched the games or taped them. Fordo asked me if I’d like to have a go and I was thrilled – a bit nervous, but I loved it straight away. He was a great man, Fordo. He was always proud that he gave us all a start.
How do you prepare for a match-day broadcast?
Friday generally is my day off radio; that’s the day I do most of my prep for games; collating all the info we get from Fox Sports. They’re very good in that department. I’ll make a couple of phone calls to people I know are involved in the clubs or have an opinion about the teams playing; just toss things around. I do my radio Monday-Thursday with Scotty; he has a good spin on things as well. That always helps.
What are the main differences between the modern-day fullback and the typical number-one from your playing days?
I keep hearing that they’re totally different from our era; that they’re all ball players now. But I can think of guys like Dale Shearer, who was a great fullback and a ball player; Tim Brasher ... Look, I don’t see a massive difference, but I keep being told that they’re totally different to how we played. Callers will quite often say, “I can’t believe how fullbacks play these days,” and it makes me think: look what we were doing when we played. We had ball runners like Garry Jack. For every Garry Jack, who was a wonderful ball runner, you have an Anthony Minichiello, who is in the same boat – who’s just really a ball runner, but who’s not a ball player. I think what was probably happening about the time I was playing was that a lot of guys who had grown up playing other positions were being moved to fullback. We saw that this year with the likes of the Cowboys’ Michael Morgan; how easily he slotted back in there. He’s always been blessed with speed and natural movement, but now he has the ball skills to go with it. But all that was happening back in my day as well.
Do you think today’s game is poorer for not featuring the strong, ad-lib attacking flavour it did back in your playing days?
I think a lot of modern coaches don’t allow it in the way they coach, but the best players are still trying to spot opportunities. That’s how Greg Alexander played; he was a wonderful fullback, too. He was on the Kangaroo Tour with me in ’90 as a fullback. And that’s how the best players still play, but I think in some coaching structures it’s not really allowed enough. I think the worst thing a coach can do is not allow their players to play what’s in front of them. There was a lot more opportunity when I was playing for that kind of footy. Probably the biggest difference in the game today from back then is the defensive structures. Teams are just so much more organised now. I know why coaches coach the way they do; they have to come up with plays to beat that defence, but if you’re prepared to allow your players to play off the top of their head at times, they can do amazing things.
What kind of dynamic is there within the Australian team environment? Is there a sense you’re playing alongside the game’s royalty?
I guess so. For me there was an overwhelming sense of pride for having made the Aussie team. The peak of our game was to make the Kangaroo Tour. That’s since kind of been superseded by State of Origin, but I think we’ve contributed to that because it’s really convoluted now with what happens at the end of the year. Four Nations or Tri Nations or Tests against England or a World Cup. I can’t keep up. To be quite honest, I’m losing a bit of interest in it, the end-of- season stuff. Kangaroo Tours every four years, that was it. Everyone looked forward to it so much; fans and the whole game. There was a sense that it was our duty to make sure Australia stayed on top. Australia dominated for that long, that up until New Zealand broke through a few years ago, I was kinda starting to hope that other nations would win just to spice it up a bit.
Is Super League getting closer to NRL standard all the time, or is that wishful thinking from fans of the international game?
I’d like to think so. I don’t follow it too closely, because I’m just too tied up covering the NRL, but when I do catch glimpses of it, I see a similarity to the footy that was being played there a few years ago. They still have Aussie coaches who are making it a bit defense-oriented, but the crux of the game over there is to score points; to outscore the other team, even more so than over here, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. I get really disappointed when England gets beaten at World Cups and Tri Nations and Four Nations because ... they have to crack it soon again, don’t they? I think it will be great for the game if they do manage to do that. With the Burgess brothers and James Graham and Gareth Widdop around, you’d think sooner or later they’re going to do something special.
Just how important to the international game will Samoa’s qualification for this year’s Four Nations prove?
We’ve had PNG, and France has had a go; we just don’t have a fourth nation that’s proven strong enough. Maybe we should have a combined “Pacific Nations” – Fiji, Tonga, Samoa ... They’d be so competitive against the other three teams. I’m looking at the list of Samoa players who they’ve named for the Four Nations – I see the Mata’utia brothers – Sione and Chanel, etc. It’s kind’ve a shame that Anthony Milford’s not available for them. I think they’ll have a go. I don’t think they’ll make the final, but it would
be great if they did.
And finally, what was the most promising thing to come out of last year’s Auckland 9s – which seems to be the new way we’re launching the season now?
I think it was great that all the NRL teams bought into it – the prize money helped, but I think it was great that everyone sent capable teams over there. I don’t think it can do any harm to our game. It’s a great thing for players to be able to let the shackles off a bit, go and enjoy themselves, throw the footy around with more open space. Good on ‘em to the guys who put it all together – I hope it lasts for many seasons to come. There used to be a great buzz around the sevens in the ‘90s – it wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all, but it certainly attracted a lot of attention.
How seriously would teams and players across the board treat an event like the 9s – would the competitive animal instincts in players be too hard to contain?
No doubt at all. In fact, it’s so unpredictable, isn’t it? Certainly a lot more so than the NRL. We saw it last year – the Cowboys were beaten in the first game and they still went on and won it. I have no doubt the players will buy into it even more so this time. They’ll be hounding their coach to give them a go if they’re not in their club’s squad early.
THE COUNTDOWN IS ALREADY ON TO THE 2015 NRL AUCKLAND NINES, LIVE AND EXCLUSIVE ON FOX SPORTS - JANUARY 31 TO FEBRUARY 1.