Rugby 2021 Will Nine, Stan Sport & Sean Maloney prove a winning team for Australian rugby
They say a change is a good as holiday, if that is indeed the case then few others could have used a vacation like Australian rugby after its 25-year association with Fox Sports came to an end last year.
The new kid on the rugby broadcasting block is only partly that, with Stan Sport coming together with Nine Entertainment Co. to scoop up the rights from Rugby Australia in a move that was deemed equal parts bold and exciting, with just as much cynicism and concern, when it was announced in November last year.
While that will continue throughout the year, Wednesday marks a vital point in what many hope will be the rebirth of the sport in Australia and rocket it back to the halcyon days of the early 2000s, enhanced by one key change: There will be quality free-to-air content available each week throughout the season.
For the man tapped to carry the broadcast, it represents an exciting challenge and the latest upSOT in what has been a rollercoaster run behind the microphone.
Is Sean Maloney the new voice of rugby then? Not quite. At least that’s how he sees it anyway.
“It’s not a term I would ever feel comfortable adopting and there’s a reason for it,” Maloney told ESPN ahead of Nine and Stan Sport’s official rugby launch. “I reckon there has been such a changeover from when Gordy [Gordon Bray] was going and Clarkie [Greg Clark] as well.
“Now the beauty of the game is and the way things work is that you’re a voice of rugby, a mum or a dad who are passionate on Facebook commenting on an ESPN yarn or a yarn on Nine or whatever, or writing their own yarns, the fans, they’re all voices of rugby.
“So I think that is that shift now in 2021 where everyone rightfully has an equal voice in the game and that would be the way that I would look at it. I’m one of a country full of people who love the game, and there are many coming back.”
Having kicked off his commentary career at Fox Sports back in 2012, Maloney has ridden the ups and downs that often go hand-in-hand with a job in sports media. He was fortunate to learn from Clark, a man he says he “can’t speak highly enough of as a bloke or a commentator”; picked up sevens stints that earned a permanent spot on World Rugby’s Sevens Series commentary team, lost his job at Fox, called a World Cup final, only for COVID to ruin last year’s international season and thrust him back to the competition he says he dreamed of calling as a kid: the Shute Shield.
His call of the 2019 World Cup final for the world feed would have missed a portion of the Australian rugby community given the game’s association with Fox Sports at that point, but it remains a clear career high for a man who had, ironically, piloted Fox’s The Cup Runneth Over show the tournament prior.
“I still get goosebumps when I think back,” he told ESPN. “There is so much preparation that goes into it, like player backstories and that kind of thing; I studied how both teams played and how they got through all of their games at the World Cup. And you get to that point where you want to have every angle covered, it’s like a game of chess when you’ve got every possible move ticked off ahead of it, and then you get to the moment when you know one team is going to win.
“So England had to chance their arm late; Peter-Steph du Toit makes a big cover tackle; the ball comes over to Cheslin Kolbe and he cuts through the defence to score, and South Africa win the World Cup. It’s hard to describe the adrenalin rush that goes through you in that moment…you feel that rush with the fans that are around you and you compound that by knowing that it’s your voice taking it to those who can’t be the stands around the world.
“And then in the aftermath, at a Brookyn Nets game at the Barclays Center after the World Cup, it was when Siya Kolisi has just joined Jay Z’s company, Roc Nation Sports, so Siya Kolisi was there being presented as the new addition to their line-up and I had a friend who was there watching it.
“And they put a highlights package up on the [Barclays Center] big screen, and it was my voice over the top of Siya lifting the trophy. So stuff pops up like that and it makes you feel good when recollecting it all.”
Maloney says his commentary style has matured since he first started calling Western Force games back in 2012. He credits sevens rugby, in particular, with helping him hone his craft, especially when it comes to nailing the big moments.
“You learn how to manage your voice; you learn how to understand your voice better; your knowledge of the game and communication develops over time as well; when to bring in your expert; how to frame a question to the expert; so I think that’s all improved,” he says. “And your voice changes over time as well, which is a good thing.
“But the one constant I’ve always tried to keep is mixing up your SOTS [sound on tape], those little soundbites, and this was one of the things that came about through sevens [commentary].
“Let’s say Sydney Sevens, there are 45 games in a weekend, of which you might do 15 matches, there might be six tries on average in a game of sevens, so that’s 90 tries that I might have to commentate. I don’t ever want to call them with the same upSOT, all at the same level or using the same words, so sevens was a great learning tool. It forced me to mix up my vocab, mix up my adjectives and then ride the moment.”
So how exactly will Nine and Stan attempt to take rugby into a new era?
Given the rights were only secured in early November last year, the two parties were hardly left with oodles of time to organise their promotion, marketing, technology, talent and everything else that goes into a modern sports broadcast.
ESPN understands both Nine and Stan are very much racing the clock to be ready for the Feb. 19 kick-off, which suggests there might be more than just a few gremlins across the opening few games.
Stan Sport did however release its price-point of $10 a month, which goes on top of an existing Stan subscription. There is a 30-day free trial to encourage sign-ups.
The first three rounds of Super Rugby AU are, in fact, particularly vital for both Rugby Australia and their new broadcasters. Maloney understands this, too.
“Clean air, having that run up before the other codes kick off, if they can get it rolling in that free-to-air medium it would be so massive,” he told ESPN. “And this is what excites me about this, this is why I think this year might be a little bit different.
“In previous years some of the teams have been a little gun-shy in terms of promotion or stoking the flames of competition, it has sort of never eventuated that way.
“I think this year there seems to be a lot more buy-in across the provinces and I know the guys at Stan and Nine have already spoken with a number of the coaches outlining their vision, and the feedback from the coaches has been really good as well. And essentially it all comes down to them, so they need to be onboard.”
While Nine and Stan will confirm its commentary team once and for all on Wednesday, former Wallabies Drew Mitchell and Morgan Turinui, All Blacks great Andrew Mehrtens and former Fox Rugby host Nick McArdle are all understood to be involved. Existing Nine talent Allana Ferguson is also tipped to combine her rugby league duties with some 15-player work, while ESPN understands another high-profile female talent will also join the team.
Andrew Swain, another former Fox employee, will serve as a Maloney’s back-up caller.
“Morgan Turinui is one of the sharpest minds getting around, having his insight and analysis, he’s got a really good ability of making the complicated simple. I think he’ll fly,” Maloney said.
“If Mehrts is involved, he’s such a smart guy, he’s hyper intelligent, and he has the ability to mix that hyper intelligence with some cheekiness, self-deprecation and we have spent plenty of time together already. I had a lot of really fun moments at the World Cup with him; we both kind of kept each other in check, staying away from the highballs and staying away from Roppongi, definitely staying away from the lemon-flavoured highballs which were like rocket fuel.
“There’s the professionalism of McArdle that will come back in terms of hosting; Drew Mitchell will go really well and he’s obviously still got that close connection to a lot of players as well. So he brings that closeness which is really really important. And Swainy, too, I’m really excited to be working with him again as well.”
Just how Nine and Stan bring rugby’s new era together will be worth tuning in to alone, and will likely bring a few of those disengaged rugby fans, and perhaps some new followers too, back at the outset.
But there is only so much quality commentary, fierce debate and technological misdirection that can mask the action out on the field. In the end, the players – so too the officials – ultimately have to carry the show.
Australian rugby looks to have the emerging talent to satisfy its new broadcast partner, but the proof will be in the play come Feb. 19.
“I can’t get enough of watching Harry Wilson play,” Maloney replied when asked about one of the guys he was keenest to call. “I love that he levels blokes with and without the ball and there is no carry-on, there’s no fake tough guy to him, he’s just such a terrific player.
“I think he has the potential to be one of our best No. 8s for the Wallabies, I have massive raps on him.”