The Gordon Bray Interview You've Been Waiting 50 Years To Read
Was it not the legendary John Farnham who in his classic anthem ‘The Voice’, sang: “make a noise and make it clear”?
Well, Gordon Bray, aka The Voice of Rugby, has been making beautiful clear noise from behind the microphone for 50 years.
That’s right, 50 years. This spritely septuagenarian has been the superlative soundtrack to our rugby lives for an expertly compiled half century.
It really isn’t a Wallabies game without Gordon calling it. So with Rugby World Cup 2019 in full swing, we thought we’d ask him about how he got started… and plenty more.
ANT: Many apologies Gordon, I’ve called you a couple of minutes late. I bet you never started calling a rugby match a few minutes in.
GORDON: No, but I nearly missed the start of one once. It was at ANZ Stadium in Sydney and I was down on the field doing a link before the match. Then when I tried to go up to the commentary box, the bloody lifts weren’t working, so I had to walk up one of those ramps that seem to curl around forever. With two minutes before we went to air, I had to go to the toilet. I must have had a lot of fluid that day because it lasted a lot longer than I thought!
ANT: This sounds like one of those anxiety nightmares. Tell me you made it on time.
GORDON: I did, but it’s funny you should mention that, because I do have anxiety dreams about commentary, and not necessarily in the days before a game. I’ll dream that I’m about to miss the start of the telecast, or that I’m driving to the ground and get a flat tyre, or even that I’m playing for Australia and I haven’t brought my boots.
ANT: I can’t believe you still have anxiety after all these years.
GORDON: It probably underlines my insecurity. I definitely do get nervous before a game, but I think it’s healthy to keep the butterflies in the stomach. It keeps me focused on not tripping up over words or having a mental blank. It’s pretty hair-raising when you can’t find the name you’re looking for and your mind goes blank. But I’m a bit like the Wallabies. If I get a good start, then I’m inspired and energetic and then it all just unfolds from there.
ANT: I think you’ve inspired many people over the years.
GORDON: What’s lovely is when people come up to me and say “I’ve grown up with your voice”. That’s quite a common observation, and to me, that’s when I feel pride. It’s very fulfilling to have given people some enjoyment.
ANT: Tell us about the early days in your career.
GORDON: I’ll never forget the first day when I walked into the old ABC sport office in William Street, Sydney. There was racing caller Geoff Mahoney, soccer commentator Martin Royal, rugby league commentator John O’Reilly, legendary cricket commentator Alan McGilvray, and the great Norman May. And the first thing May said was “G’day Gordo, when are we going to the pub?” All of our early education was down at the Strand Hotel a little further down the road in William Street.
ANT: Ah, the good old days. But seriously, what an incredible team of mentors to have as a young sports broadcaster.
GORDON: These people were household names in sport in Australia. All of them were icons, and to be introduced to them as part of the organisation… I still pinch myself 50 years later. I learnt little bits from each one, and tried to develop my own style.
ANT: Which you've accomplished with great flair. Speaking of the greats Gordon, the late great Richie Benaud lived by the maxim that you should never tell the television viewer the blindingly obvious which they can see for themselves. Do you have a motto?
GORDON: I agree with Richie, I’ve got to say. I think television is a medium where the fans at home can see what’s happening. A lot of them know their sport, so you don’t want to tell them how to suck eggs. My approach is to supplement what they are seeing. And of course, as commentators one of our first jobs is to identify players. Not everyone knows who they area, so my goal is to stimulate and raise viewers’ enjoyment, and to humanise players.
ANT: And one of the ways you’ve humanised players and even refs over the years is to refer to their professions -- especially back in the amateur era when more players had jobs, but even still sometimes today. In fact, just last Sunday in Network 10’s telecast of the Wallabies vs Wales match, I heard you refer to French referee Romaine Poite as the police detective from Toulouse!
GORDON: People often comment on that! One of the ones they remember is the Taranaki pig farmer, former All Blacks halfback Dave Loveridge. Then there was the unemployed nightclub bouncer from Ngongotaha, Hika Reid and the Manawatu meatworker Mark Shaw.
ANT: You’re going to love this, Gordon. When I was at university in Sydney in the 1990s, there was a band called Pig Farmers from Taranaki. I think you cracked pop culture!
GORDON: Even today I love sharing players’ backgrounds or jobs where I can. One of the Fijian players that came on against the Wallabies in their Rugby World Cup match recently was a fire fighter, another a prison officer. One of the Welsh players was a scaffolder. Current Wallabies player Tolu Latu was a forklift driver, so he’s used to shunting heavy objects around!
ANT: But of course, it’s not a one-man job in the commentary box, is it?
GORDON: No and it’s a joy to work with Burkey and Scotty Mackinnon. And let’s not forget the great Nathan Sharpe during our domestic Test matches. I’m proud of the fact we work as a unit and are very supportive. It’s not all about individuals. Scotty’s great. Mind you, you’d think a man with his versatility could compartmentalise his skills a bit when it comes to simple chores. I heard he had a $120 laundry bill here in Japan.
ANT: $120 for a laundry bill???
GORDON: He’s covered the Winter Olympics and so many overseas events, you’d think he’d have learned to do his own washing in his room by now.
ANT: I’ll be sure to rib him about that on Sports Tonight. What about Matt Burke?
GORDON: I love working with Burkey. I called most of his Test matches when he played, and remember him back when he played for Joeys and made the Australian schoolboys team. You could see what a phenomenal talent he was even then. I’m on record as saying he is Australia’s greatest ever rugby fullback.
ANT: We’d better not let him read this.
GORDON: Ha! One good thing about Burkey is he wears his heart on his sleeve in commentary. We’re probably both a bit like that, while hopefully still maintaining our objectivity. We’re not barrackers, but we’re not there to be impartial either, and there are of course times when our excitement bubbles over.
ANT: One thing that makes your voice so distinctive and lovely to listen to Gordon is the way you enunciate your words really beautifully. Has anyone ever asked you why that is?
GORDON: They haven’t. I lost my father to a workplace accident when I was nine years old, and I was brought up by mother. We had great assistance from Sydney Legacy, and when we sat down at the table as a family, my mother June concentrated on table manners. “I do not want you speaking through your nose,” she would say to my siblings and me (there were four of us). Although she came from a modest working-class family, she taught us proper etiquette. She would even make us say our vowels properly. A-E-I-O-U. Back in those days we didn’t even have a TV set, so there was a lot of conversation at the table. "How now brown cow" was a regular aside. She was very strict on that side of things.
ANT: Well I think she did a great job.
ANT: Now Gordon. I have to ask you some obvious questions that you always get in interviews like this. In 50 years, what’s the greatest game you ever called?
GORDON: It would have to be Japan beating South Africa at the last World Cup in 2015. It was the greatest upset in rugby history. It really was mission impossible for the Japanese and they pulled off a miraculous win. They made a movie out of it called 'The Brighton Miracle'. I play myself as the game commentator. You can watch it on Amazon Prime now and it releases in Hoyts cinemas in Australia and New Zealand on October 31, two days before the World Cup Final. The reaction in Japan has been phenomenal.
ANT: Can't wait to see it. And I think I read a piece this week where the film’s writer, director and producer Max Mannix said, quote unquote, that you “nailed it”. Gordon Bray, movie star! Wow.
GORDON: Max Mannix actually played rugby league on the wing for the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs, and was defence coach for Eddie Jones at the last World Cup, so he brought great inner sanctum knowledge to the project.
ANT: Ah, there you go again, always dropping people’s background. In life as in commentary! I love it. And what about a great game involving Australia?
GORDON: The game that really stands out in terms of sheer emotion and atmosphere is the one they call “the match of the century” in 2000 at the Olympic Stadium before almost 110 thousand fans. The All Blacks were up 24-0 after 10 minutes and Lomu was running over people and you thought “Oh my God, what’s going on here?” Then we came back and drew level at 24-all. In the end, Jonah scored the winning try and I think they won 39-35. But everyone I bumped into that night said “Wow, how good was that? That’s what the game is all about” -- and they were all Wallabies fans. And I think we still won the Bledisloe that year anyway with the Ealesy penalty goal in Wellington.
ANT: We did indeed. And the Tri Nations as I recall. OK next obvious question. Greatest player you’ve seen?
GORDON: As a boy growing up, I idolised former Wallabies scrum half and captain, Ken Catchpole. I used to imagine myself as him, even when I was playing at school. I never got to commentate him, but I did get to commentate WITH him at the ABC. He’s no longer with us sadly, but his performances in South Africa in 1963 were just extraordinary. He captained the Wallabies in South Africa at 21. There wasn’t a lot of him, but I loved his passing, his lightning running, his cover defending. He was a lateral thinker with fantastic vision, and he’d have to be nearly the greatest I’ve seen.
I’d also mention Mark Ella and David Campese as two of my all-time favourites, and John Eales is certainly right up there too. They’re the ones that really stand out for me. I was so disappointed when Mark Ella retired in 1985 after the Grand Slam in 1984, aged just 25. I’ve never seen hands like his, or onfield awareness of space. He used to work two or three phases ahead.
ANT: Do you prefer the rugby in the professional or amateur era?
GORDON: I think it’s interesting that professional coaches are now trying to rediscover the amateur ideals. I guess it comes down to humility and genuine love of the game. Sure, they’re highly paid now, but it’s about developing the amateur ethos as a culture, about being tight and together as a team, about a brotherhood and sisterhood (women’s rugby is now the fastest growing team sport in the world) and not being driven by money. The Wallabies have worked hard under Cheika to develop that bond, and hopefully that’s been drummed into the new generation coming through.
ANT: Tell us about your own glorious amateur rugby career.
GORDON: As a player I had three years in the first XV at scrum half for Homebush Boys and captained them in my last year. We won the state wide Waratah Shield. “Aussie” John Symond was the heart of our forward pack. His parents had the green grocers store at Strathfield Station and they supplied the oranges. Then I played some lower grade games with Eastern Suburbs which was cut short when I joined ABC Sport aged 20.
ANT: And of course, you honed your impeccable knowledge of the rules of rugby as a referee.
GORDON: I took up refereeing in 1986, and did 199 games as high as second grade. My biggest game was probably the Australian schoolboys versus New Zealand schoolboys as a touchie. Jonah Lomu was number 8, Jeff Wilson was fullback and the fly half was Carlos Spencer. The Australian team scored an amazing try, but their fullback Gavin Mansfield put his foot on the line and I was slow putting my flag up. They’d gone five metres past me and everyone missed it. When they realised my flag was up, I got pelted with oranges and plastic bottles. The crowd went berserk. I was not a popular figure that day. After the game, the Australian coach came up to me and said "I wish you’d been in the commentary box!"
ANT: Well we're glad you HAVE been in the commentary box for so long, Gordon. Thanks so much for sharing some stories with us, congrats again on 50 fantastic years, and good luck with the rest of the World Cup on Network 10.
GORDON: Thanks Ant. Go Wallabies!
The Wallabies play Georgia in the Rugby World Cup on Friday, October 11. Tune in from 8:30pm on Network 10, 10 Play and WIN Network.