Go ask your average eight-year-old young rugby league fanatic what he wants to be when he grows up, and he’ll tell you he wants to be like his heroes, Johnathan Thurston, James Tedesco or Jarryd Hayne. He wants to be an unstoppable prop, a fullback, or the captain that leads his side to victory. Andrew Voss, legendary Fox Sports NRL commentator, on the other hand, wanted to call games since he first heard Rex Mossop’s voice fill the airwaves back in the 70s and 80s. But then again, as he unashamedly admits, he’s a “weird fish.” Some of the most creative, inventive and downright strangest calls have come out of Vossy’s mouth, so we tend to agree (but hey, why not call the middle of the field the ‘hey diddle diddle’?). He’s got a new book out called Stuff You May Have Missed, in which he opens the lid on his own considerable experiences of the game of rugby league, as well as some of the moments from his early life that led him down the strange path that allowed him to do what plenty would consider a dream job: talking shit about footy and getting paid for the privilege.
First of all, what can we expect from your new book?
Stuff You May Have Missed was the title of a segment that I did on The Footy Show back in the day. What started off as just a collection of stories from years of my working life in the media, and specifically involving the sport of rugby league, became a bit more of ‘Andrew Voss: the life story.’ I ended up covering right back to the very early days as a kid and explored things like when my father died when I was eight and how I fell in love with the sport.
What do you think influenced you to pursue a career in commentary from such a young age?
Honestly, I would tell people from the age of seven or eight I was going to be a rugby league caller; it’s what I wanted to do. At the time a bloke called Rex Mossop, who was quite a controversial commentator, was massive in my world, and then I had my father die when I was eight. I figured rugby league became such a big part of my life because it gave me somewhere to belong. I can’t remember ever grieving the death of my father — I know that sounds a bit hollow but I honestly can’t and I don’t. But rugby league was something adults liked, and here I was just a kid and I threw myself into it, knowing about it so I could talk with adults about it. It made me feel older than I was. It’s a little deep, but I think some self-examination made me realise these things.
How did you get your first break?
Back in the day you wrote to radio stations, and I turned in a little cassette of a phantom call of a game that I’d done — you know, five minutes off the top of my head — and most of the time, in fact all of the time bar one, I had no reply to it. It was a fellow by the name of John Brennan at 2UE who responded to me. I was probably 16 years old and he said, “That’s really good. You show great potential. Stick at it. All the best for the future,” and that’s as far as I got. But he must have passed my letter on to another bloke there, Peter Bosley, who was an around-the-grounds reporter. He rang me and said, “Well, come along to the football games with me,” so, as a 16-year-old, I went out and sort of kept stats and got a little glimpse of what it was like. I thought, ‘Wow, this is what I want to be doing. I want to be coming along, watching rugby league, talking about it and getting paid for it,’ but it would be another five years before I got to the next step.
Do you have any horror stories like Fatty Vautin’s live “fuck it” on debut?
In the book I wrote a chapter that goes under the name of ‘Salamigate’, and to talk to you about it, I’m probably breaking my own promise that I made in the book because I never wanted to talk about it again. In my time at Channel 9 I did a game down in Canberra. I had a little snack before the game of salami and some biscuits with some plum paste and thought nothing of it. But then during the first half of the game, it hit me like a freight train — the sickness — and I didn’t know which hole it was going to come out of. So I ducked off for about 90 seconds. We’re talking winter in Canberra. We’re talking single-figure temperatures with toilets way down the end of the grandstand — cold cement cubicles, and I was heaving. I was driving the porcelain bus and somehow made it to halftime. That’s the only game that I had to bail out. I want to move on from it so let this be the last time I speak about it, because in the book is the last time I ever write about it: Salamigate, Channel 9.
Speaking of Channel 9 and Fox Sports, are there any technical differences in working for the two organisations?
In my time at Channel 9, right at the top of the tree was Kerry Packer, who took a very active interest in rugby league. The first time I ever called a game on Channel 9, Kerry Packer heard it and said he never wanted me on air again. And I’m forever indebted to Kerry Burns, the boss of sport at the time, who said, “No, give the kid a chance. You know, he’s OK.” I look back on that now and think how good it was to have a boss so far up who took an interest in the game, and who could also relate to the viewer who was watching out in the south-west of Sydney on a 33-centimetre screen. He said, “You’ve got to call more names.” So, at Kerry Packer’s request, we altered our style on Channel 9. On television you don’t normally call so much. Kerry Packer said, “Identify who the tacklers are a bit more like a radio call,” so we did.
What’s your favourite analogy or metaphor for something in footy?
You’ve come out with some crackers in the past.
I’ve been described as a weirdo. Phil Gould, legend of rugby league, writes in the book that I am a weirdo, and there’s certainly no legal action pending. When I’m calling my mind can just wander. I can remember sitting in a Chinese restaurant in the build-up to a game, and I’ve got kids and they always go over to the fish tank where the crabs are. I’m thinking, ‘Oh gee, how sad is he? This poor crab,’ and the kids are tapping on the glass. Anyway, later that week I was calling a game and it just came out in commentary when a team was struggling and they were now down by 20 or 30 points. I said, “They’re in as much trouble as a crab in a fish tank at a Chinese restaurant.” That just came – I had no plan to say that but this shit is in my head.
What about the voice acting you did for the Rugby League videogame series?
In that, you basically sit in a studio the size of a phone box for three days straight, screaming your tits off, and you have freestyle sessions where you’ve just got to throw in commentary lines. I’m exploring the points of my brain, trying to come up with a hundred different ways to describe a tackle and to describe a player’s appearance when he gets angry, and I end up at the point where I’m saying, “Well, he’s got a head that’d get him out of jury duty.”
Do you have any ideas for a new NRL-related TV show that you’d like to host?
It has to be away from a panel. Maybe it’s time we did a show about rugby league’s dark secrets. I think if we lifted the lid on all the stories that have happened, I’d say probably only 10 per cent have made the press and have horrified people. I reckon we could probably dig out another 90 per cent that have never been heard — could make quite a show. But I don’t want to host that. Let someone else do that.
THE FIRST TIME I EVER CALLED A GAME ON CHANNEL 9, KERRY PACKER HEARD IT AND SAID HE NEVER WANTED ME ON AIR AGAIN
Who would host it then?
Probably John Hopoate. You know, a rugby league philosopher and a bit of a problem child, Hopa would be my choice.
You get to make one more corner post rule change; what is it and why?
Wow, yeah, the corner post — that’s going to be written on my tombstone. Well, we probably need to piss off the scrum once and for all because it serves so little purpose. We either fix it up or we get rid of it. So I’ll campaign to get rid of the scrum. I think it has become such a farce that it just serves no purpose in rugby league.
Are there any moments you wish you’d called?
I would have loved to have been alive when the famous St George Dragons won 11 straight premierships. To call some of those old matches of the day at the SCG – you see the crowd figures (70,000) and you think, ‘Wow, how good would that have been?’ And to be set up on the sideline, like I usually set up a card table, and call the football there at the SCG, I’d love to go back in time to be a part of some of those events.
What do you think is really holding rugby league back, in terms of popularity and expansion?
I think it’s the clubs, if anything, that hold back the game in some way. It’s a catch 22. They’re so important to the success of the game and the popularity of the game, that if we’re going to expand they can’t be selfish. I honestly believe we should have a second team in New Zealand, I think a second team in South-East Queensland and I really think a team in Perth, but then again I’m not the one paying the bills and trying to spread the money around.
What about player’s off-field antics; could they be holding back the game at all?
I think we go way over the top in reacting to off-field incidents, but it does do damage. I’m not naïve, I’m not saying it doesn’t, but I do think we go over the top. On one hand you do have to be firm, and you’re trying to set standards and what have you, but on the other hand, I think you have to be a realist and be compassionate; you’ve got to help some of these blokes. Some of these young blokes live in this false world. Some of them haven’t had jobs, they’ve come out of schools, we pay them as stars and they don’t handle things all that well.
So what’s your opinion of this new good-behaviour fund that’s aimed at cutting down scandals in the league?
I can appreciate where they’re coming from but you’ve got to get the full story; you can’t take reactionary measures. I have learnt the story ends up very different to how it started, and that’s happened in so many cases. If there has to be action taken, take it, but if it doesn’t, make sure you come out and publicly declare the innocence of the player, because I think some blokes have been hanged along the way for things that are minor.
One last question. Who is the greatest player of all time?
First of all, I’d say it’s an impossible task to compare eras. The way the game is played has changed so much. But of what I have seen I’m now comfortable in calling one of the current players, Johnathan Thurston, the best I’ve seen. I think he’s a sensational player, the competitive nature of him: he backs it up with skill, he stands to defend at the front line and he’s incredibly popular to boot. He’s a great character, he’s a goal kicker, a point scorer, he’s won Grand Finals, he’s the whole package – so I’m going to give Johnathan Thurston that one.