Infotainment Factory: How a 'blatant lie' launched a legend

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Tuesday, 13 August 2019

How a 'blatant lie' launched a legend


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Ray Warren's iconic career began with marbles, a peppercorn tree and a "blatant lie".

On Tuesday night, the Channel Nine rugby league caller was confirmed as an NRL Hall of Fame inductee.

He will be officially inducted at a ceremony in Sydney on Wednesday night, becoming the first Hall member recognised for contribution to broadcast media.

"I'm over the moon about it," Warren told Wide World of Sports.

"I've had some nice awards given to me through 53 years of broadcasting but to enter the Hall of Fame of rugby league, which has been my main sport and the one that's been so good to me, it's a wonderful honour."

Having called the footy for 30 years at Nine and now aged 76, Warren admits that his induction may mark a fitting season to retire.

"I think about it every day, to be honest with you. This year's not out of the question," Warren said.

"The Hall of Fame, it may well be the icing on the cake. I'm not saying anything definite at this stage, but it will cross my mind, I'm sure."

Warren is seven decades removed from where his dream began, back in his NSW hometown of Junee. 'Rabs' could not have imagined that one day he would have a bronze statue in Junee's Dobbyn Park, let alone an NRL Hall of Fame place.

"All I was hoping to do was get the break, to get a start somewhere," said Warren, who grew up listening to legendary race caller Ken Howard on the radio.

"I started rolling marbles and calling them as horses back when I was about six or seven. As I grew older, I used to go and sit down in the peppercorn tree at the local football field and I'd pretend to be Frank Hyde or John O'Reilly calling the football, or Alan McGilvray calling the cricket.

"So, I was dreaming for a long time. I can assure you, I never thought of things like this."

THE FOOTBALLER

Yes: Ray Warren played rugby league, albeit briefly.

"It's been a love affair with rugby league, really. I love the game. I played the game; I don't think I've ever talked about that publicly," Warren said.

"I played the game and I got bruises and I had trouble getting out of bed on Monday morning. But at the end of the day, I wasn't very good and you can only run 17 players out there. My desire in life was always to be a commentator rather than a participant."

Warren, a police cadet in Sydney, was a Western Suburbs junior. He spent a season as a paid player at Corindi on the NSW north coast, while he was up there working on the railway. After taking a police job in Canberra, he put together a coppers side that played in the second-tier of Group Eight, when the competition was struggling for teams.

"Then I finished up in hospital and retired from football," said Warren, who was just 23 at the time.

"It wasn't what I did to myself – it was what a number of players did to me! I got pummelled a couple of times and burst a couple of muscles. Finished up in hospital for about a week or so, and that was enough for me.

"I was mainly a centre-come-winger, then they moved me into five-eighth on this occasion and I got well and truly bashed up, I can assure you. But it did me a favour, because it made me realise I was more suited to the broadcasting box."

THE BIG BREAK

Warren moved to Sydney at age 17 to join the police cadets but something else was burning inside him.

"I'd only just arrived and unpacked my bags in a boarding house in Cleveland Street, Redfern, and I was hawking my work, my recorded broadcast of whatever, around Sydney radio stations," he said.

"A lot of that was simulated, because there were no horses racing around a track in Junee, that I remember in those days. So, I had to simulate a lot of that and most of the radio stations said, 'You're going to have to do the real thing and then come back'."

His chance was a long time coming and it coincided with his trip to hospital after that ill-fated game playing No.6.

"I went on to Canberra and I joined the ACT police force, and I got a telegram from the radio station at Young (2LF), asking me, did I want to still be a sports broadcaster," Warren said.

"So, it's six years down the track since I've hawked my product around Sydney and my answer of course was, 'Yes'."

Yet when the station manager – John Finlayson, who was also the local scoutmaster – explained his new role, Warren had to fib.

"I had a phone conversation with the manager and he asked, 'Can you call football?' I said, 'Yes, I can'," he recalled.

"But in fact, when I think about it, I'd never called a real match. So, I basically told him a blatant lie, which got me a start. But I ran an awful risk of making a total fool of myself, really."

Warren's first rugby league broadcast was in a renowned country competition, the Maher Cup, on May 21, 1966. Barmedman hosted West Wyalong and the away team won a ferocious match 3-0.

He travelled the Riverina for the next two years covering footy, broadcasting from rugby league-mad towns like Cootamundra, Temora and his native Junee. He was then picked up as a junior race and rugby league caller by Sydney station 2GB.

"That was the first big goal that I kicked," said Warren, who began commentating on television in 1974, with the old Amco Cup on Channel Ten.

"I made the transition very slowly, to be honest with you. I found it very difficult to cut back the amount of words, that are not required in a television call. It was very hard to get used to the fact there are pictures there and people can see for themselves.

"You've still got to put a bit of excitement into it, I feel, but I found it very difficult to make the transition. I probably only stated to get more comfortable about 15, 20 years ago. 

"The voice is just a natural voice. I was blessed by the man upstairs, I suppose, to be given a reasonable voice."

Warren was well on his way, but a major setback was looming.

THE FATEFUL PHOBIA

'Rabs' has a well-known fear of flying which cost him big time early in his TV career, when he was Channel Ten's chief rugby league commentator.

Also a wonderful swimming caller, Warren was expected to travel to Los Angeles for Ten's coverage of the 1984 Olympics. But he had other ideas.

"I pulled out of the Olympic Games that I was supposed to be the head presenter of in 1984 and it was probably the worst decision I've ever made in my life," Warren said.

"I can't dodge it: I still am scared. I'm frightened of flying.

"I went back to Los Angeles years later (2005), but the only reason I went was to go to Disneyland. And I must have been in Disneyland when I made the (Olympics) decision, I think.

"It didn't just cost me the Olympics, it cost me my job at Channel Ten in 1986. They said, 'Look, we don't see a great future for us, given that you're our lead sports commentator'.

"I'd done three Melbourne Cups for them and then I pulled out of the Olympics after that. They weren't necessarily all that impressed."

It was a costly decision. He was out of TV for several years, until a fellow commentary giant threw him a lifeline in the form of a State of Origin series.

"I went to Channel Nine in 1989. Darrell Eastlake actually said, 'How would you like to come and join me?'" Warren recalled.

"So, I went across to Channel Nine - I was out of work at the time - and I called with Darrell the 1989 series. I've done 93 Origins and I tend to think I'm coming up to 50 grand finals."

His comeback was officially sealed when Channel Nine sealed the broadcast rights to rugby league for the 1992 season onwards.

"I got a phone call from the late Ian Frykberg," Warren recalled.

"He said, 'How would you like to call rugby league again?' I said, 'I'd love to. How long have I got to make up my mind?' He said, 'About five seconds'.

"That's when I came on board at Channel Nine full-time, and I promised myself I wouldn't let flying get on top of me again. I've travelled the world many times, particularly for rugby league and more particularly for swimming. I've been to London a fair few times. I've been to Barcelona, I've been to Montreal.

"I realised I had to get used to it if I wanted to be a sports commentator and that's what I've always wanted to be. I'm probably the luckiest man in broadcasting, because I had a dream and it came true. But I lost my way there in the middle '80s and Channel Nine gave me a chance to put it back together again."

Warren is 18 months into a five-year exclusive contract with Nine. He will fly for Origin games, but otherwise avoids plane travel.

"When it's imperative, I get on the plane. People jokingly thought I was going to catch the train to Perth (for Origin II this year), but I flew," he said.

"I've been to Brisbane a couple of times doing Origin. It's not that I won't, because I've always got that nagging memory of missing the Los Angeles Olympics."

THE COMMENTARY BOX

The Mark Coyne miracle try in Origin I, 1994. The Newcastle Knights fairytale in 1997. The Billy Slater chip and chase try in Origin II, 2004.

Warren isn't in the habit of rating his own commentary, but those are a few special moments that frequently get raised from his career.

"Billy Slater - that was a wonderful try," Warren said.

"I fell in love with this game called rugby league and I have no trouble being passionate about it. That's where my excitement comes from, because I'm passionate.

"And I don't care who wins. People sometimes accuse me of being biased towards, say, NSW, but I prefer to think I'm not. I enjoy the game as a spectacle, as entertainment. I don't care who wins or who loses. If it's a good game, I'm having a good time."

Billy's epic chip and chase

And he's having a good time when the company is good, which it always has been over the years.

He enjoys a great friendship with legendary coach Phil Gould, with whom he's shared many days at the races, plus a Lionel Richie concert. 'Gus' was a crafty player before becoming an iconic coach and Warren remembers awarding him a man of the match prize during his radio commentary days; a transistor radio.

Since teaming up behind the microphones, their on-air blow-ups have become famous.

"There's a bit of theatrics in what we do on air, I don't mind admitting that. Particularly if a game is a little bit dead; I think sometimes a good old verbal stoush is good for commercial television," Warren said.

"When people talk to me about him, I'm happy to say, 'You don't really know the bloke and you don't realise how valuable he is to commercial television'. If somebody is prepared to say what they think all the time, they become polarising. But that's good for commercial television."

Warren admits to feeling a pang when Gould sat out play-by-play commentary duties for Origin II this year.

"I make no secret of the fact that he and Peter (Sterling) are the two best commentators that I've worked with until now," Warren said.

"That doesn't mean that the other young blokes coming through aren't going to be better than them. But losing a bloke like Phil beside me in a State of Origin … it was just an empty feeling, because he absolutely loves Origin. To him, it's probably the biggest event of the year. It probably even exceeds Christmas and Mothers' Day!

"He loves it and I have obviously grown used to doing Origin matches with him and Peter. They changed the roster this year; that's OK. That doesn't mean I can't say, 'Jeez, I'm going to miss him and him'.

"I love all of them. Peter Sterling's been with me since day one. An unbelievable commentator. Fatty, he's been there since day one.

"And now, the younger crop: Brad Fittler, Andrew Johns, Billy Slater, Johnathan Thurston, Wally Lewis, Darren Lockyer. It'd make a hell of a football side, wouldn't it? And he'd be the coach, of course, Phil. That'd be interesting, the bonding session."

Of this year's intake, Warren has enormous raps on Slater, while he reckons Fittler was made for TV.

"Andrew (Johns) is getting better. I think Brad understands the bottom line of television, which is entertainment. I find him to be a great entertainer," Warren said.

"I particularly note that Billy Slater is already embracing his new life and I'm sure he's going to be very good."

THE GREATEST

It's a mighty difficult question when you've spent 50-plus years in the game: who is the greatest player you've seen?

"Frank Hyde, who I was very good friends with, always said Johnny Raper was the best. My brother played with John Raper at Newtown; that's before he went to St George. I know Raper must have been good, but that's only because I've read about him or watched some video of him," Warren said.

"When I first came to Sydney, I thought Bobby Fulton was just the best thing I've ever seen. He won the '73 grand final pretty much on his own.

"Then I've seen Graeme Langlands do what he did and you sort of think, 'How are we going to replace these blokes?'

"But then comes a bloke like Slater, Lockyer, Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston, and Andrew Johns and Wally Lewis. Your memory goes back to the players you thought were irreplaceable and it reminds me all the time: none of us are indispensable.

"If you want an answer (on the best player), I'd probably say Wally Lewis, narrowly from Andrew Johns."

THE BOSS

Working in sport, his great love, Warren reckons he hasn't worked a day in his life.

He once made the mistake of saying something along those lines in front of legendary Channel Nine boss Kerry Packer.

"I once said, guest speaking, I'd be happy enough to do this job for nothing if I could," Warren recalled.

"And Kerry Packer was sitting at the front table. He said, 'Why don't you give me back my money and we'll start again?'

"There's many stories about Kerry that have been passed on to me and I love listening to them. The funny thing about him is, I used to be frightened of him in many ways. If he came on site, I'd make a beeline to the commentary box, so that I didn't have to confront him.

"For some reason, I thought he didn't like me. But then, John Cornell said to me one night, 'No, no, no – you're wrong. He likes you a lot!'

"But it was too late to like him (back), because he was gone."

From the Channel Ten days and the Packer era to the Channel Nine of today, Warren has been a constant in the game. In the lives of footy fans.

He is the voice of rugby league. He is a deserved inductee in the NRL Hall of Fame.

"I am rather humbled by it," he said. "Surprises do happen. And dreams do come true."

Ray Warren's iconic career began with marbles, a peppercorn tree and a "blatant lie".

On Tuesday night, the Channel Nine rugby league caller was confirmed as an NRL Hall of Fame inductee.

He will be officially inducted at a ceremony in Sydney on Wednesday night, becoming the first Hall member recognised for contribution to broadcast media.

"I'm over the moon about it," Warren told Wide World of Sports.

"I've had some nice awards given to me through 53 years of broadcasting but to enter the Hall of Fame of rugby league, which has been my main sport and the one that's been so good to me, it's a wonderful honour."

Having called the footy for 30 years at Nine and now aged 76, Warren admits that his induction may mark a fitting season to retire.

"I think about it every day, to be honest with you. This year's not out of the question," Warren said.

"The Hall of Fame, it may well be the icing on the cake. I'm not saying anything definite at this stage, but it will cross my mind, I'm sure."

Warren is seven decades removed from where his dream began, back in his NSW hometown of Junee. 'Rabs' could not have imagined that one day he would have a bronze statue in Junee's Dobbyn Park, let alone an NRL Hall of Fame place.

"All I was hoping to do was get the break, to get a start somewhere," said Warren, who grew up listening to legendary race caller Ken Howard on the radio.

"I started rolling marbles and calling them as horses back when I was about six or seven. As I grew older, I used to go and sit down in the peppercorn tree at the local football field and I'd pretend to be Frank Hyde or John O'Reilly calling the football, or Alan McGilvray calling the cricket.

"So, I was dreaming for a long time. I can assure you, I never thought of things like this."

THE FOOTBALLER

Yes: Ray Warren played rugby league, albeit briefly.

"It's been a love affair with rugby league, really. I love the game. I played the game; I don't think I've ever talked about that publicly," Warren said.

"I played the game and I got bruises and I had trouble getting out of bed on Monday morning. But at the end of the day, I wasn't very good and you can only run 17 players out there. My desire in life was always to be a commentator rather than a participant."

Warren, a police cadet in Sydney, was a Western Suburbs junior. He spent a season as a paid player at Corindi on the NSW north coast, while he was up there working on the railway. After taking a police job in Canberra, he put together a coppers side that played in the second-tier of Group Eight, when the competition was struggling for teams.

"Then I finished up in hospital and retired from football," said Warren, who was just 23 at the time.

"It wasn't what I did to myself – it was what a number of players did to me! I got pummelled a couple of times and burst a couple of muscles. Finished up in hospital for about a week or so, and that was enough for me.

"I was mainly a centre-come-winger, then they moved me into five-eighth on this occasion and I got well and truly bashed up, I can assure you. But it did me a favour, because it made me realise I was more suited to the broadcasting box."

THE BIG BREAK

Warren moved to Sydney at age 17 to join the police cadets but something else was burning inside him.

"I'd only just arrived and unpacked my bags in a boarding house in Cleveland Street, Redfern, and I was hawking my work, my recorded broadcast of whatever, around Sydney radio stations," he said.

"A lot of that was simulated, because there were no horses racing around a track in Junee, that I remember in those days. So, I had to simulate a lot of that and most of the radio stations said, 'You're going to have to do the real thing and then come back'."

His chance was a long time coming and it coincided with his trip to hospital after that ill-fated game playing No.6.

"I went on to Canberra and I joined the ACT police force, and I got a telegram from the radio station at Young (2LF), asking me, did I want to still be a sports broadcaster," Warren said.

"So, it's six years down the track since I've hawked my product around Sydney and my answer of course was, 'Yes'."

Yet when the station manager – John Finlayson, who was also the local scoutmaster – explained his new role, Warren had to fib.

"I had a phone conversation with the manager and he asked, 'Can you call football?' I said, 'Yes, I can'," he recalled.

"But in fact, when I think about it, I'd never called a real match. So, I basically told him a blatant lie, which got me a start. But I ran an awful risk of making a total fool of myself, really."

Warren's first rugby league broadcast was in a renowned country competition, the Maher Cup, on May 21, 1966. Barmedman hosted West Wyalong and the away team won a ferocious match 3-0.

He travelled the Riverina for the next two years covering footy, broadcasting from rugby league-mad towns like Cootamundra, Temora and his native Junee. He was then picked up as a junior race and rugby league caller by Sydney station 2GB.

"That was the first big goal that I kicked," said Warren, who began commentating on television in 1974, with the old Amco Cup on Channel Ten.

"I made the transition very slowly, to be honest with you. I found it very difficult to cut back the amount of words, that are not required in a television call. It was very hard to get used to the fact there are pictures there and people can see for themselves.

"You've still got to put a bit of excitement into it, I feel, but I found it very difficult to make the transition. I probably only stated to get more comfortable about 15, 20 years ago. 

"The voice is just a natural voice. I was blessed by the man upstairs, I suppose, to be given a reasonable voice."

Warren was well on his way, but a major setback was looming.

THE FATEFUL PHOBIA

'Rabs' has a well-known fear of flying which cost him big time early in his TV career, when he was Channel Ten's chief rugby league commentator.

Also a wonderful swimming caller, Warren was expected to travel to Los Angeles for Ten's coverage of the 1984 Olympics. But he had other ideas.

"I pulled out of the Olympic Games that I was supposed to be the head presenter of in 1984 and it was probably the worst decision I've ever made in my life," Warren said.

"I can't dodge it: I still am scared. I'm frightened of flying.

"I went back to Los Angeles years later (2005), but the only reason I went was to go to Disneyland. And I must have been in Disneyland when I made the (Olympics) decision, I think.

"It didn't just cost me the Olympics, it cost me my job at Channel Ten in 1986. They said, 'Look, we don't see a great future for us, given that you're our lead sports commentator'.

"I'd done three Melbourne Cups for them and then I pulled out of the Olympics after that. They weren't necessarily all that impressed."

It was a costly decision. He was out of TV for several years, until a fellow commentary giant threw him a lifeline in the form of a State of Origin series.

"I went to Channel Nine in 1989. Darrell Eastlake actually said, 'How would you like to come and join me?'" Warren recalled.

"So, I went across to Channel Nine - I was out of work at the time - and I called with Darrell the 1989 series. I've done 93 Origins and I tend to think I'm coming up to 50 grand finals."

His comeback was officially sealed when Channel Nine sealed the broadcast rights to rugby league for the 1992 season onwards.

"I got a phone call from the late Ian Frykberg," Warren recalled.

"He said, 'How would you like to call rugby league again?' I said, 'I'd love to. How long have I got to make up my mind?' He said, 'About five seconds'.

"That's when I came on board at Channel Nine full-time, and I promised myself I wouldn't let flying get on top of me again. I've travelled the world many times, particularly for rugby league and more particularly for swimming. I've been to London a fair few times. I've been to Barcelona, I've been to Montreal.

"I realised I had to get used to it if I wanted to be a sports commentator and that's what I've always wanted to be. I'm probably the luckiest man in broadcasting, because I had a dream and it came true. But I lost my way there in the middle '80s and Channel Nine gave me a chance to put it back together again."

Warren is 18 months into a five-year exclusive contract with Nine. He will fly for Origin games, but otherwise avoids plane travel.

"When it's imperative, I get on the plane. People jokingly thought I was going to catch the train to Perth (for Origin II this year), but I flew," he said.

"I've been to Brisbane a couple of times doing Origin. It's not that I won't, because I've always got that nagging memory of missing the Los Angeles Olympics."

THE COMMENTARY BOX

The Mark Coyne miracle try in Origin I, 1994. The Newcastle Knights fairytale in 1997. The Billy Slater chip and chase try in Origin II, 2004.

Warren isn't in the habit of rating his own commentary, but those are a few special moments that frequently get raised from his career.

"Billy Slater - that was a wonderful try," Warren said.

"I fell in love with this game called rugby league and I have no trouble being passionate about it. That's where my excitement comes from, because I'm passionate.

"And I don't care who wins. People sometimes accuse me of being biased towards, say, NSW, but I prefer to think I'm not. I enjoy the game as a spectacle, as entertainment. I don't care who wins or who loses. If it's a good game, I'm having a good time."

Billy's epic chip and chase

And he's having a good time when the company is good, which it always has been over the years.

He enjoys a great friendship with legendary coach Phil Gould, with whom he's shared many days at the races, plus a Lionel Richie concert. 'Gus' was a crafty player before becoming an iconic coach and Warren remembers awarding him a man of the match prize during his radio commentary days; a transistor radio.

Since teaming up behind the microphones, their on-air blow-ups have become famous.

"There's a bit of theatrics in what we do on air, I don't mind admitting that. Particularly if a game is a little bit dead; I think sometimes a good old verbal stoush is good for commercial television," Warren said.

"When people talk to me about him, I'm happy to say, 'You don't really know the bloke and you don't realise how valuable he is to commercial television'. If somebody is prepared to say what they think all the time, they become polarising. But that's good for commercial television."

Warren admits to feeling a pang when Gould sat out play-by-play commentary duties for Origin II this year.

"I make no secret of the fact that he and Peter (Sterling) are the two best commentators that I've worked with until now," Warren said.

"That doesn't mean that the other young blokes coming through aren't going to be better than them. But losing a bloke like Phil beside me in a State of Origin … it was just an empty feeling, because he absolutely loves Origin. To him, it's probably the biggest event of the year. It probably even exceeds Christmas and Mothers' Day!

"He loves it and I have obviously grown used to doing Origin matches with him and Peter. They changed the roster this year; that's OK. That doesn't mean I can't say, 'Jeez, I'm going to miss him and him'.

"I love all of them. Peter Sterling's been with me since day one. An unbelievable commentator. Fatty, he's been there since day one.

"And now, the younger crop: Brad Fittler, Andrew Johns, Billy Slater, Johnathan Thurston, Wally Lewis, Darren Lockyer. It'd make a hell of a football side, wouldn't it? And he'd be the coach, of course, Phil. That'd be interesting, the bonding session."

Of this year's intake, Warren has enormous raps on Slater, while he reckons Fittler was made for TV.

"Andrew (Johns) is getting better. I think Brad understands the bottom line of television, which is entertainment. I find him to be a great entertainer," Warren said.

"I particularly note that Billy Slater is already embracing his new life and I'm sure he's going to be very good."

THE GREATEST

It's a mighty difficult question when you've spent 50-plus years in the game: who is the greatest player you've seen?

"Frank Hyde, who I was very good friends with, always said Johnny Raper was the best. My brother played with John Raper at Newtown; that's before he went to St George. I know Raper must have been good, but that's only because I've read about him or watched some video of him," Warren said.

"When I first came to Sydney, I thought Bobby Fulton was just the best thing I've ever seen. He won the '73 grand final pretty much on his own.

"Then I've seen Graeme Langlands do what he did and you sort of think, 'How are we going to replace these blokes?'

"But then comes a bloke like Slater, Lockyer, Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston, and Andrew Johns and Wally Lewis. Your memory goes back to the players you thought were irreplaceable and it reminds me all the time: none of us are indispensable.

"If you want an answer (on the best player), I'd probably say Wally Lewis, narrowly from Andrew Johns."

THE BOSS

Working in sport, his great love, Warren reckons he hasn't worked a day in his life.

He once made the mistake of saying something along those lines in front of legendary Channel Nine boss Kerry Packer.

"I once said, guest speaking, I'd be happy enough to do this job for nothing if I could," Warren recalled.

"And Kerry Packer was sitting at the front table. He said, 'Why don't you give me back my money and we'll start again?'

"There's many stories about Kerry that have been passed on to me and I love listening to them. The funny thing about him is, I used to be frightened of him in many ways. If he came on site, I'd make a beeline to the commentary box, so that I didn't have to confront him.

"For some reason, I thought he didn't like me. But then, John Cornell said to me one night, 'No, no, no – you're wrong. He likes you a lot!'

"But it was too late to like him (back), because he was gone."

From the Channel Ten days and the Packer era to the Channel Nine of today, Warren has been a constant in the game. In the lives of footy fans.

He is the voice of rugby league. He is a deserved inductee in the NRL Hall of Fame.

"I am rather humbled by it," he said. "Surprises do happen. And dreams do come true."

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