If the AFL really wanted to strike a blow at Rugby League they should have forgotten years ago about poaching star players, and gone after the game’s greatest asset, Ray “Rabbits” Warren.
It’s not just his voice, which is deep liquid gold and is no doubt as familiar to you as the voices of your own family. It’s the way he captures the mood of the crowd, the rhythm of the game, the unfolding human dramas of the team, and the excitement of each hard-won try.
This week we all made a small personal sacrifice for the great man, in going without his Friday night and Sunday afternoon calls while he went back to his home town of Junee to attend the unveiling of a statue in his honour.
It was a reminder that we really should be thankful for every game he calls. It’s no certainty that Rabs will get to each game. For him, just travelling to the match and home again is a real challenge.
Flights are always scheduled for after midday, an appropriate time for a calming glass of chardonnay. A producer goes with him, and while there’s no hand holding, it’s a fair description to call him the “Rabs Whisperer”.
Driving isn’t much easier. Rabs has been known to stage a practise drive to a stadium the day before a game to plot his attack. He’ll call the police ahead of the big day and find out about road closures. He’ll even know the names of the officers on each roadblock. With his car parked and pointing in the right direction for a speedy escape Rabs is finally ready to work his magic.
And to listen is to hear a true champion at work. Only cricket’s Richie Benaud, formula one’s Murray Walker, and cycling’s Phil Liggett are in the same league … each of them truly the voice of his sport.
The passion has always been there. He was six years old when he decided he was going to be a caller. The Warren family didn’t have a lot, they didn’t even have a refrigerator, but they had one very important thing - a whopping great radio.
Inspired by race-callers such as Ken Howard, eight-year-old Ray collected dozens of coloured marbles, named them all, lined 10 of them up at a time behind a ruler and let them roll down the hall, calling them like a race.
As a young man he finally got his chance, leaving the police force for a job at a radio station. Let’s just say police work was never his true calling. His superintendent told him: “Theoretically Ray you’re a fine policeman, but practically you stink. We send you to accidents and you can’t stand the sight of blood. We send you to break the news to families and you get more upset than they do.”
Rabs went on to commentate the AMCO Cup, the Melbourne Cup, and rugby league for Channel Ten. He would have headed Ten’s commentary team for the Los Angeles Olympics, but his fear of flying kept him in Australia.
In 1986, Channel Ten did the unthinkable, firing Rabs from the league.
Broken-hearted, he unsuccessfully applied for jobs delivering orange juice and picking up garbage, and ended up driving around the country calling races. For five years he didn’t watch a game of rugby league, saying, “I was too frustrated, bitter, and embarrassed around the game I loved”.
But in 1990 an opportunity arose for Rabs to co-host Channel Nine’s Commonwealth Games swimming coverage. It would reinvigorate Ray’s career, and the sport of swimming itself.
Ray’s commentary puts you in the pool. He and Ian Thorpe side-by-side, starting evenly, aware of the threats in other lanes, building lap by lap. As Wide World of Sports' Tim Sheridan told me, “When Ian swam the seventh and penultimate lap Rabs would be steadily lifting his voice (I can hear it now!) positioning the viewer for the climax. Then Ian would hit the final wall, and with plenty of head room left, Rabs would go with him, ‘Now the big man turns, and the size-15 feet go into overdrive!!!’”
With Grant Hackett he would measure his commentary across 30 laps, creating and sustaining the tension, keeping viewers gripped for every stroke, as Hackett battled the clock.
Sure we all love a crop of champions, but without Ray Warren’s subtle, smart, and entertaining commentary, swimming would never have become the prime time sport it is in this country.
Roll on London! Tell Qantas to stock up on chardonnay, and book Rabs a car park, we’ve got potential champions heading for the pool, and we have a proven champ in the commentary box. Australia is in for a treat.
And roll on Friday night, a night when league fans should be as grateful for having Rabs behind the microphone as he is for being there.
“I don’t practise religion openly but I never stopped thanking God for giving me the chance to do in life what I wanted to do. Imagine going to work … to do the job you dreamed of doing 60 years ago,” he said.