Rugby League Week #20: Scorchio! It’s the Eddie and Stevo show

Hola! This week’s column comes direct from sunny Spain. No it doesn’t. What do you take me for?

I’m in Spain alright, but if you think I’m spending a well-earned break tapping away at a computer when I could be outside swatting flies, downing the odd ice cold cerveza or torturing lizards, you can think again.

The days when I might wring 1,500 words out of seeing a Batley shirt on Bolnuevo beach are long gone. You’ll have to make do with something altogether less geeky like how many times Stevo utilised the words ‘penalty’ and ‘referee’ during last night’s Wigan-Saints derby – written last Saturday morning – instead.

And yes, people of Hull. Wigan-Saints does deserve that title. No less a figure than the great Lord Derby himself lent his name to the annual horseracing jaunt and that particular match alone, aside from the French cup final of course.

Which must be true because Eddie Hemmings said so, live on air, in 2013.

Lately I’ve taken to watching Super League with the sound off. Not in total silence. I tried matching BBC Five Live’s commentary to the pictures, but there is always a slight delay, so I stick the headphones on and listen to music instead.
And it’s really quite amazing how that changes your reading of the game.

Stripped of all noise, including that made by the crowd and without the referee mooing like a constipated heifer, you see what’s going on for exactly what it is, especially if viewing as a neutral. You aren’t swayed one way or the other by the mob roar or men on the mic, can rationalise without prejudice and appreciate how the officials get way more things right than they get wrong.

There’s no atmosphere, of course, other than that provided by the soundtrack between your ears, but I do recommend it as a one-off experiment at least. It also makes Twitter meltdowns all the more hilarious.

Speaking of which, during last night’s game, it was once again the turn of the Sky Sports team to come under fire. And you can certainly see why the lead duo, Eddie and Stevo, don’t tweet. For them, going on social media would be like stepping voluntarily into a stoning pit of insults, so why on earth would they?

I’ve interviewed and mixed socially with both fellows down the years and found them to be perfectly decent and amiable individuals, enthusiastic, good fun and totally committed to the wellbeing of rugby league.

Stevo especially is not only the salt of the earth, he’s the mustard, pepper and vinegar too. Funny, knowledgeable and the most amazing good company, I’d challenge anyone to spend five minutes with him and not come away enchanted.

Yet just as it is the coach’s lot to be sacked one day, it is the eventual fate of the rugby league commentator – and co-commentator – to be roundly disliked. And having written the biography of poor old Eddie Waring – a man with whom Stevo in particular has so much in common – I know that of which I speak.

Many of the criticisms are valid on the face of it. Yet the fact is that much of the displeasure is simply a manifestation of the contempt bred by familiarity.

All the online talk of Sky’s need to ‘freshen things up’ is a dead giveaway.

Listen to anyone droning on and on for long enough and pretty soon those colourful little phrases that were so endearing at first become irritating clichés, the verbal tics and non-stop bluster start to get on your nerves. Ask my wife.

Commentating on rugby league is also a fiendishly difficult thing to do well. And again I know, because as a co-commentary ‘pundit’ (nobody tell Trade Descriptions) I do it from time to time on the radio. As such, my admiration for those in the big chair like Eddie (both Eddies in fact) who have to describe and identify in a split-second knows no bounds, even as they are getting on my tits.

If you don’t believe me, just have a go yourself in a roomful of people who are simultaneously sending you texts saying you’ve no idea and ‘can’t we have Andrew Voss instead?’ punctuated with all manner of rude emojis.

And do you know what? If the all-popular Vossy did descend from on high to save the eardrums of us all, I give you a cast-iron guarantee that in a matter of weeks, voices would be raised in opposition to this gobby journeyman Aussie, coming over here and stealing our airwaves, spouting his usual bollocks about meat pies in Wakefield and pub grub in Warrington. I bet he’d admit that himself.

Anyway, aside from simple Sky fatigue, my own reasons for turning the volume down were primarily twofold.

One: Sky’s actual match commentary is way too busy – there are simply too many voices. It’s a cacophony of chatter. A tower of babble. Distracting.

I don’t mind a well-stocked build-up; it’s during the match itself that the production could do with a bit of a trim.
When as mild-mannered a figure as the great football and rugby league commentator John Helm points out, as he does in June’s Forty-20 that: “There’s a role for the analyst and a role for the presenter and the same in the commentary box. If I have an issue with Sky’s coverage … it would be that Stevo maybe steps outside that definitive role when it is not necessary,” then you know there is a problem here that needs to be addressed.

As I say, variety during the lead-up is fine. Angela, Bill and the rest fulfil necessary roles on video or prowling the touchline, while Brian Carney and Jon Wells never fail to inform and entertain, as they did again here. But that’s because their emphasis is on players and tactics, which brings us to point two.

For way too long now, Sky’s commentary team have been obsessed with referees and their decisions, foregrounding all of that over the achievements and skills of the athletes. And, frankly, I’d had enough.

What other sport would have a former referee as one of its FIVE match commentators – and if there is another sport that does that, then they are idiotic too. I get why Stuart Cummings is there. It ramps up the controversy and plays to the victim mentality mind-set of rugby league fans since time immemorial.

But shouldn’t we have a bit more faith in the game on the field? Or are Sky – and we who spend 80 minutes howling about forward passes, offside and the like – saying that, actually, our sport isn’t all that entertaining after all and could therefore do with a bit of a verbal leg up?

Well, after a few weeks’ sabbatical I thought I’d challenge my own pre-conceptions and switch the sound back on again. And what better game to do that on than a Saints-Wigan derby?

With Leeds having lost to Castleford, the winners would go top. “The stakes couldn’t be higher here at Langtree Park,” said Eddie, leaving himself with nowhere to go in the play-offs, before adding that the coming game would have: “…an intensity about it that mirrors the State of Origin in Australia.”

Presumably, that would be the same State of Origin that Sky can’t be bothered to bid for and broadcast here? Familiar breathless hype? Check.

Then it was geek time. For the record, let it be known that during the first half, Stevo only muttered the word ‘penalty’ three times, just one of them “silly”. And for his first – a straight description of the outcome of Mose Masoe’s hit on Michael McIllorum (who in the build-up told us he’d got “a bit more smarter”) – we had to wait nigh on 20 minutes.

The second too was descriptive, prior to Adam Swift’s try on the half-hour. In part two, Stevo only used the word twice and not once in the game did we hear the dread phrase: “Should’ve been a penalty.” True, we had a burst of ‘utlilised’s (which I’m convinced he now says because he knows it annoys his critics, in which case good for him) and a couple of stanzas, but not one single “should’ve been a penalty”. Bravo.

Eddie said ‘penalty’ five times in the first half and four in the second, but given how he has to talk most and state when a misdemeanour has taken place, and that the game had a 10-7 penalty count in total, that wasn’t bad at all.
Terry O’Connor said ‘penalty’ three times throughout and Phil Clarke not at all in the opening half before twice muckying his ticket in the second.

As an aside, despite being a truly great player in his day, Phil is another who comes in for a lot of stick on Twitter for his supposedly endless stream of statistics, though I would like to defend him.

For one thing, I love how whenever the commentary awaits his input on a supposedly ‘dodgy’ decision, he never fails to ignore the bait while steering the talk back to the skills, or otherwise, of the players.
As for the word ‘referee’, well here things got a little trickier, but again were nowhere near as bad as I’d anticipated they would be.

Even with the remit broadened to include ‘Silverwood’ (for t’was he) and ‘the official’, Phil and Tez managed one mention each to Stevo’s 13 and Eddie’s 15, which says a lot about the relative amounts of time on air and the focus of attention from all concerned. And even then, in what was a very competitive match until Saints began to pull away late on, the references never felt intrusive.

In fact, Eddie probably mentioned Sir Bradley Wiggins more than Richard Silverwood (I wasn’t counting that, what do you take me for, some sort of anally retentive weirdo with too much time on his hands?) and there were even a couple of occasions when a fuss could have been made of the reffing but wasn’t.

Mark Flanagan appearing to be in front of the kicker and therefore offside in the build-up to Travis Burns’s try being one – though thankfully we had Mr Cummings on hand to flag it up instead – and the penalising of a bloodied Jon Wilkin when the game should have been halted for a head injury being the other.

So is that it then? Is the music henceforth ditched? Well, I don’t know about that. I am on holiday after all. Maybe that’s what’s making me cheerful.

It’s Castleford-Saints tonight. Anyone know a bar with Sky Sports?

Tone’s Tips: Victories for St Helens, Warrington, Wigan, Catalans, Leeds and Huddersfield. Arm-wrestling to join shoulder charges and Cumberland throws on banned list.

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