How to Call a Toe-Poke

by strobydoctor

The moment

It is often, and truly, said that the real measure of a player is how they perform in September.

September.

Whether spoken quietly, hopefully, painfully or reverently it is a word that evokes the big stage. We judge our players most tellingly by how they meet these critical moments, the moments that decide their season, our premiership and their legacy. In September the true greats declare themselves in screaming fist pumps of self–realization, the only men left standing as wave after adoring wave crashes over them.

It seems more than reasonable, or an interesting diversion at the very least, to extend the same criteria to the commentators of our great game. Do they deliver in the big moment? Who is it that manages to share and express not only the event itself but also the accompanying insight and nuance?  And who will fail to illuminate us at all and instead resort to kick, ergh, into the forward line, GOALLLLL…

This piece is firmly focused on the men of radio. Beyond personal preferences, especially regarding commentary style and tone, this article contends that there are a number of key precepts that inform commentary quality. As a basic tenet the ‘ball-by-ball’ commentator must always, and without it seeming desultory, ensure the listener is in touch with the basic facts of the game such as the respective scores and time. Within the current play we should be aware of the location, and possession, of the ball, and the key events and efforts from each player such that we understand the prevailing status of each side. The key difficulty of the medium of radio is that it demands the caller not only ‘keep up’ with the passage of play but also select, frame and appropriately weight key still images.

Behind the principal caller the special comments men, forever dining off their hard-won wisdom, should provide us with insight and colour that adds to our understanding, interest or appreciation of the game. During the quarter time breaks, they can luxuriate in their analysis, and perhaps even find the time to drop some self-referential reflection, but within the call they should provide us with sharp fragments of football intelligence. They need to quickly convey the current threads of the game whilst not talking over the principal caller and blocking the listener access to the play itself.

Within this mix, within the box itself, this information, excitement and experience must find an appropriate balance and flow such that one not only sees the play unfold before them but also are drawn in to its outcome.

The Toe-poke

For the purposes of the current exercise we have selected the Matthew Scarlett toe-poke from the depths of the 2009 Grand Final, readily acknowledged as it’s defining moment. It was a moment not only paramount in its influence but also unexpected and fundamentally unorthodox, thus representing a particularly testing microscope through which we can examine our callers.

At the twenty three minute mark of the Grand Final the two best sides of the  season found themselves with their scores locked (StKilda 9.13.67 and Geelong 10.7.67). If you need to stop for a moment, duck outside for a fag and refresh yourself on the vision then the youtube link is here. Braver readers may elect to plow on without visual recourse.

Off left half back flank the dead legged Steve Johnson chipped inboard to the middle of the ground and a waiting Gary Ablett Jnr, who had got out the back of Clint Jones. Descending on him from behind was a lunging Zac Dawson who had bravely run off his line. A contest that would decide the day more than any other…

Except for the 53 times Max Rooke had thrown himself horizontally at the ball.

Clearly the toe-poke is the critical moment at play and the centerpiece of our current analysis. But this passage of play provides numerous other moments to the astute caller; from Ablett breaking loose, Johnson’s decision making process, the excellent Dawson spoil, Koschitzke radiating confusion, the Ablett bomb, the dead-set goal square contest, the Byrnes-Varcoe work at the feet of the contest under intense pressure from who else but Lenny Hayes, the desperate inch-short dive of Fisher and the triumphant Chapman executing again across his body.

The analysis is necessarily Geelong centric given that the passage is the premiership winning sequence. To the victor go the spoils, none greater than the writing of history. The victor or anyone with enough self-importance to start their own blog…

 

Another view

It seems more than reasonable, or an interesting diversion at the very least, to extend the same criteria to the commentators of our great game. Do they deliver in the big moment?

1. 3AW

Rex Hunt, Tony Shaw, David King, Dennis Commetti.

As Steve Johnson takes the ball Tony Shaw exclaims early “Ohh Ablett’s out” demonstrating the useful wandering perspective of the background analyst. The Ablett mark/Dawson spoil is called but in a somewhat underwhelming fashion, given how far Dawson had come off his line and the merit of his effort despite its ultimate outcome.

The actual toe-poke almost conveys the opposite effect. The significance of the contest is well appreciated by general hubbub from the box, which almost drowns out the initial description of the moment. Hunt immediately allows for this by reinforcing “Scarlett…he kicked it to Ablett” so that the moment is deftly covered.  As Yablett  (only use of nickname in the sequence) jets away and bombs inside 50, Hunt drops into an experienced race-calling patois to accurately note the rapid series of events that crescendo at the Chapman goal. Short only of the perfection of calling the efforts of Byrnes or several desperate Saints, it is an admirable call.

The post goal analysis sees Rex catapault to 13/10 on the Clive Peters E E E Easy hyperbole scale, which is, perhaps for once, almost fitting given not only the significance but also sheer excitement of the moment. However one is drawn to remember that he reaches 11 several times per quarter. He correctly appreciates the play’s import and is especially aware of the centrality of the toe-poke though he reaches too far and over-cooks it ”Scarlett rose to the top and put his life on the line”. The ultimate proof that he’s boiled over, and ended up undermining his otherwise surprisingly excellent call, sees him declare Geelong in front by 5 points which is an enormous and unforgivable sin given the actual score and the small time left in the Grand Final. Hunt scrambles to correct himself but his garbled “6 points” is overwhelmed as the special comments men move in.

David King chips in with a well-placed appreciation for the hands of Varcoe and the impact of Chapman. Shaw then brings us back to the effort of Scarlett again, providing the 3AW team with an excellent wrap up and weighting of this great play. It is a shame not to hear from the perceptive Nathan Buckley but more than enough of the team have had their say and exceedingly well so. The dulcet tones of Dennis Cometti warmly return us to the centre bounce …

 

2. MMM

James Brayshaw, Garry Lyon, Jason Dunstall, Brian Taylor

We enter the scene with Brayshaw calling as Taylor chips to Enright. Garry Lyon interjects “look at Ablett” so insistently that one can actually hear him pointing at a man 20m in the clear. However the central fact of where this is (further down the wing, in the centre of the ground?), is not communicated by Lyon or subsequently by Brayshaw.

Brayshaw obediently leaves the flight of the ball to reinforce what Lyon has said “Ablett is off the chain” before switching his focus to the desperate efforts of the incoming Dawson, which are appropriately credited, but strangely followed by “a desperate handball in there”. Handball? Several things happened but this was not one of them. Is he calling Dawsons spoil incorrectly or quelle horreur is this his call of the Scarlett toe-poke?

Regardless his entire sentence is “here comes Dawson, a desperate handball in there, back to Ablett” and our highpoint, our moment is completely and utterly missed by Brayshaw and perhaps the entire box from which there is only a solitary and, in Triple M terms, muted “Oh”. Ablett streams away, goes long and the toe-poke has never happened.  Listening with hindsight, and given the premise of the current exercise, this is hard to move past. It is almost an anti-climax to hear Fisher and Rooke called in the marking contest before the ball falls to Varcoe and the Chapman goal.

After the predictable and deserved acclaim for Chapman, which Lyon primarily expresses through appreciative noises, he reaches too soon towards the broad generalities of the Saints failures throughout the game. Dunstall at least brings us back to some analysis of this significant passage of play and gives due credit to the brave and unlucky Dawson in coming off the line. He then drifts into an ill-timed diversion on whether the superstar Ablett should have had a shot or not which is twice as long as their only mention of Scarlett “followed up and got the ball forward to Ablett”. The specifics of the toe-poke have not only not been mentioned but also afforded no particular significance.

There is a final unforgivable crime, the actual score is not mentioned at any point in the analysis before they return to the call, and in fact 64 seconds elapse before it is mentioned. All we get is Brian Taylor taking over the call fervently insisting that StKilda are gone, and that Triple M have unique access to the knowledge of the time left, before the others come back in to discuss what St Kilda must do.

 

3. ABC

Gerard Whately, Mark Mclure, Stan Alves, Drew Morphett

Scarlett pumped

Fortunately Gerard Whateley, rather than Drew Morphett, is at the helm of the ABC call as Enright takes the ball. He conscientiously reminds listeners that the scores are level, and then immediately notes the space that Ablett has found in the middle of the ground. He is also clear that Steve Johnson has not yet seen him and even finds time to quickly clip his disappointing day “finally something”. As Johnson eventually comes inboard, Whateley shares the insight and tension of being ‘above-the-ground’ and thus ahead of the play and more aware of diminishing opportunities by noting that Ablett has “hung there for a long time”. His tone lifts in excitement as the play begins to unfold but loses nothing of its precision, as he immediately ticks the Dawson spoil, though it should be noted there is no reference to him having come so far off his line.

Nothing more need really be said of the moment itself, other than Whateley is completely present “Toe from Scarlett”. In the background of the call there is a strong, instinctual and guttural response from the ex-player Mclure “playyyyed”. It is not only perfectly appropriate but it also is pitched as a background comment and does not overwhelm the swelling Whateley call.

Ablett continues onwards and then sends the ball crashing into “the square” which throws us automatically into a pulsating contest, though Whateley does only find time to individually call Rooke’s selfless endeavor. He even nearly calls the critical but invisible Byrnes “they all pile in”, and is then sharp on the Varcoe handpass before he culminates with a wonderfully exultant call that rises with the crowd “Chapman has kicked THE Goal”.

In the post goal analysis, Whateley spends more time than other stations reminding us of the key facts such as the actual score and time left as well as the exquisite emotion of “the long hoping ball” in. He then cedes to the ‘experts’ who have waited patiently to share their considerable insight and reflection. As Stan Alves and Mclure lean forwards into their microphones they are entirely focused on Scarlett. Alves immediately goes back to the effort of Scarlett and is the first to coin Scarletts immortality “well has there ever been a more crucial toe-poke” to which Mclure rejoices “wasn’t that brilliant!” a reinforcement of the ingenuity of the play.  Alves is quick to extend their collective insight by recognizing that the decision to toe-poke allowed Ablett to be “released”. It cut out crucial time (bend over, get in hands, rise, handpass) and set up the entire play.

Alves then wraps up the analysis by turning to ask what StKilda can do to fight their way back and recognizing the valiance of their efforts for much of the day. As he takes over the call Drew Morphett chimes in as a fourth voice to recognize that Scarlett had come a long way to be in the centre of the ground, before returning us to the call.

 

4. SEN

Anthony Hudson, David Schwarz, Terry Wallace,

Anthony Hudson is acutely aware of Ablett being on “they’re on in the middle the Cats…he’s got to kick it to Ablett”, before Steve Johnson has even received the ball from Enright. Being well on top of this, he has time to centre in on the supposed simple mark for Ablett, and to share the surprise and excellence of Dawson’s efforts “No! Zac…saved the day”. He is clear in noting that it is Scarlett that gets it back to Ablett but not the manner of it. A toepoke is not the inherent impression.

After an excellent start to the sequence it seems that a slightly breathless Hudson may be slightly rushing his call here. As Ablett kicks deep forwards all we get of the goal-square marking contest is “Fisher…will there be a score” before he works back strongly to a nice final flourish as Chapman “goes his own sweet way” to his  “golden goal”.

Hudson wraps up nicely with the score and a clean and immediate handover to the special comments men. David Schwarz enters with a strong appreciation for a range of efforts from Dawson, to Scarlett to the goal square contest “brave effort after brave effort” before heralding the lethality of Chapman. His ultimate recognition for the significance of the play en masse at this stage of the game is clear, including the precise part of Scarlett “deft touch with the foot”. Terry Wallace follows up with a useful third tier analysis of Sam Gilbert having had to leave Chapman alone to meet an earlier contest.

 

The Verdict

  • ABC 9/10.
  • SEN 7/10.
  • 3AW 6.5 / 10
  • MMM 4/10.

 

Overall the SEN call is a focused, professional and clean call, not overwhelmed by exclamations from the back of the box and characterised by crisp handovers between the commentators. Ultimately it slightly underwhelms in its overall tone and rhythm, and doesn’t quite deliver us the transcendent experience that the moment deserves.

Comparison with the 3AW call is instructive in that the SEN call is less flawed but also less engaging and insightful. The 3AW call is surprisingly excellent, in its actual call of the moment as well as its specialized analysis. It is only when the entertainment motivation spills over that it not only detracts from but wholly undermines the entire call. A point must be taken off, just as Rex did.

The MMM call and analysis is poor which is primarily, but far from exclusively, due to its complete failure to appreciate the Scarlett toe-poke. Brayshaw would have some recourse to the first defence of the ‘ball-by-baller’, it happened too fast, too much was happening, what the fuck are all these other lads here for then? However the ‘lads’ have no such excuse and only serve to compound the initial error. If one continues to listen to the post match wrap there is still no particular acknowledgement of the Scarlett effort. They never even knew it happened.

The ABC call is outstanding. Whateley calls the key moments with precision, awareness and infectious enthusiasm. Most importantly his call is instructional without seeming rushed or jammed. With the true mark of a great caller, he somehow seems to convey more information in a shorter or similar period of time. Just as the great players always seem to have more time…

The special comments provided by Alves and Mclure are focused and intelligent. Their genuine delight at the unorthodoxy and significance of the moment is patently clear. The combination between the callers superbly blends information, excitement and experience. The moment is the ABC’s as well as Scarlett’s.

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