The first host of Australian rugby on the state of the game, foreign coaches and that 'turd' comment
Earlier this year, like many, I was shocked to see Nick McArdle depart Fox Sports. With his considered style, wit and knowledge he became part of my rugby furniture. The likeable South Australian had gone from being almost an accidental part of the rugby family to one of the more respected media personalities the Australian game has seen during his tenure at Fox Sports.
Whilst Australian Rugby has enjoyed some wonderful broadcasters over the years such as the ever-trivial Gordon Bray, the inexhaustible David Fordham and the masterful Greg Clarke, Nick McArdle became the first ‘host’ of Australian Rugby and I think the Australian game is poorer for his absence.
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Nick about his time in the game thus far and what he is up to now.
Q: So, Nick it has now been several months since your departure from Fox Sports and you have started a new venture called McArdle Media. How is that going and what is McArdle Media all about?
A: Firstly, I’d like to take the opportunity to thank those who sent messages of support when I departed Fox. It was very much appreciated. McArdle Media was starting to get momentum just as the pandemic hit but as you’d imagine things have slowed a little in the last couple of weeks. I’d been talking to companies about generating content for their websites to help them tell their story. There are also opportunities around content for sporting organisations. Hopefully, things return to normal sooner rather than later.
Q: Have you kept in touch with your former colleagues at Fox Sports Rugby?
A: I sure have. I was fortunate to work in an environment for more than a decade where my work colleagues became lifelong friends. When I left Channel 7 thirteen years ago, I made the mistake of not maintaining relationships to the extent I should have. I won’t make that mistake again. We were a tight group at Fox – whether it be production staff, play by play commentators in Clarkie or Swainy, or the experts, we’ll always be good friends. And as long as I’m mates with Clarkie I’ll always have someone to beat on the golf course.
Q: Being born and raised in AFL heartland South Australia, do you recall the first time you every saw the game of Rugby and what were your first impressions?
A: I remember it clearly. I was on a student exchange to South Africa in 1985 and I was taken to a Currie Cup game at Loftus. I remember Naas Botha was a star that day. I played a bit at school over there and reconnected with the game when I worked for B105 in Brisbane in the early 90’s. That’s where I first met Tim Horan and Sam Scott-Young. They used to come into the radio station to give a rugby report. I’ve reminded John Eales that I was at the press conference when he was announced as the newest member of the Park Royal Hotel’s trainee program. That must have been about 1990. It’s been good to see the young fella kick on.
Q: After that first encounter with our game did you ever envisage that you would become the first ‘host’ of Australian rugby?
A: None whatsoever. Even when my boss at Fox at the time, Soames Treffry, told me that’s what he wanted me to do I told him it was a dud decision. But thankfully he convinced me I was the right bloke. And I will be forever grateful to the Rugby Exec Producer at the time, Simon Gee, and the commentators. Greg Clark was always incredibly generous with support and advice. And I regard the expert commentators now as among my best mates. All incredibly loyal and generous human beings.
Q: Describe your journey from South Australian sports journalist to being one of the most respected rugby authorities in the Australian media.
A: Ha-ha. It’s something I’ve often wondered myself. Well, I’ve always loved sport so that’s a start and had visions of playing cricket for Australia or kicking 100 goals in the AFL. And to be perfectly honest I believe I could have achieved both of those things if it wasn’t for my lack of talent. I did my journalism degree at the University of South Australia before a stint on country TV at Port Pirie in SA.
Then, 6 years with the Austereo radio network in Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney then 11 years at Channel 7 in various on-air roles in the newsroom. I started at Fox in December 2006 in Fox Sports News initially before moving fulltime into rugby. That’s the fairly varied trek, but there’s been really one constant and that is preparation. I’ve probably over-prepared more often than not. But my theory has always been if you prepare well enough you will always know what you’re talking about. It doesn’t matter what it is.
Q: It is apparent that you have a genuine love of the game. Do you recall when rugby went from being a job, to being something that you loved? Was there a time, a match, a person what ‘flicked the switch’?
A: I decided very early on that to succeed I needed to immerse myself in it. To watch, to read, to listen as much as I could, but I have to admit the 2011 season was magical. To go to Suncorp and experience that atmosphere every time the Reds played was very special. But I’ve tried to explain to my still AFL-loyal father, it’s more than just about what happens on the field. It’s the rugby community I genuinely love and the values we share. And I love that rugby is a world-wide game. I still pinch myself that even I, having never really played the game seriously, can have friends all around the world because of rugby. It is very special.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 9, 2020
Q: You have been described by eminent Fairfax Media rugby scribe Georgina Robinson as someone with calm professionalism, a light touch and courteous but forensic interview style. However not having a foundation in rugby, how did you acquire the breadth and width of knowledge of the game, in a relatively short period of time, allowing you to be so forensic with your interviews?
A: Firstly, I probably drove the blokes I worked with completely mad with my questions. I tried to never pretend I knew. And in any technical aspects of the game I tried my best to always defer to the guys who’d played for, and in many cases, captained their country. And at matches I always tried to sit with the sideline expert, which was Kafe more often than not, and try to soak up his knowledge. And as mentioned, I’ve always read and watched as much as possible. I always figured that even if didn’t play I could always have a deep understanding of the issues, politics and news of the game.
Q: I take you back to Salta, half-time between Australia and Argentina in the 2018 Rugby Championship and the Wallabies are down 31-7 after playing abysmally. You turn to your colleagues George Gregan and Phil Kearns and question, “How do you polish that turd?” Arguably one of your most forensic comments on a match because it was so authentic, so Australian and so true. Did that comment have any adverse effect on your relationship with staff at Rugby Australia, the Wallabies playing and or coaching group?
A: That was one of the most stressful weeks of my life because, as many will know by now, I was stood down for the rest of the year over that comment. I, of course, would have preferred my in-built filter was working a little better that morning. It has often been suggested Michael Cheika had a hand in that disciplinary action. My information is that he didn’t. I have also since discussed the incident with Raelene Castle and she tells me she had no issue with comment and suggested it might well have been what many Australian rugby fans were thinking. I am happy to say it didn’t affect my relationship with RA in any way. It wasn’t exactly tasteful on a Sunday morning but I still believe it was a huge over-reaction.
Q: In your time, Rugby Australia has been run by Jon O’Neill, Bill Pulver and Raelene Castle. Was the organisation distinguishably different to deal with during each of those eras?
A: I don’t believe they’ve been terribly different. I have to say I probably didn’t have the relationship with the O’Neill administration that I’ve had with head office since. I had an excellent relationship with Bill and I’ve always got along well with Raelene. I think CEO of Australian Rugby is a very difficult job, perhaps now more than ever before. The sport was struggling in this country before the coronavirus hit. This pandemic has almost made the job impossible.
Q: Likewise, you have seen the Wallabies coached by Robbie Deans, Ewen McKenzie and Michael Cheika. Were the Wallabies distinguishably different to deal with during those eras? If so why?
A: I don’t think there’s been dramatic differences between the different regimes. I’ve always had very good relationships with the players and the team’s media managers. I’ve always got along with the coaches but have never wanted to get too close because at some stage you’re going to have to ask hard questions. There’s been a couple of blow-ups along the way. Some attempted bullying from time to time. I don’t mind blow-ups as long as there are no grudges held. I don’t think any of those three held grudges. As a footnote, I would have loved to have seen Ewen in the job for longer. The image of him walking alone down the hallway underneath Suncorp Stadium that night after he resigned is one of the saddest I’ve seen in sport.
Q: Who was your favourite Wallaby player during your time on Fox Sports Rugby and why?
A: That’s a hard call. I’ll start and I won’t know where to stop. James Horwill was always very good to me. Matt Toomua’s been excellent. Stephen Hoiles who I’ve become firm friends with. Ben Alexander is an absolute champion. Will Genia has been very generous to me. Drew Mitchell and Gits only because I’ll get grief if I don’t mention them. To be honest, I can’t think of any player I’ve ever had a problem with. Australia’s players are great ambassadors for the game. And don’t forget our women, the sevens girls are awesome and the Wallaroos. I just wish there was more rugby programming to showcase them all like we used to.
Five occasions that rugby players' lives took a tragic turn off the field.https://t.co/sXjW2O7BIP
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 8, 2020
Q: Who was your favourite foreign player?
A: We had Schalk Burger and Jannie Du Plessis on Rugby HQ a few times over the stretch and they were absolute champions. And then last year I had a fair bit to do with Schalk Britz – a nicer human being you will not meet. Great fella. And it’s probably an opportunity to mention the expert commentators from other countries. The chance to meet and get to know the likes of Andrew Mehrtens and Jeff Wilson, Joel Stransky, Scott Quinnell and Stuart Barnes. That privilege is never lost on me.
Q: And what about your favourite foreign coach?
A: Graham Henry has been a lot of fun over the years… more so after left the AB job I suspect. He’s put me in my place more than once. Pieter De Villiers was always good for a laugh, many times not even realising he’d said anything funny.
Q: Who are some of the ‘characters’ in the foreign media?
A: I’ve mentioned Scott Quinnell who once told us on air that he’d grown up in a house in Wales built by an ancient Roman road. He and his family used to wake up in the middle of the night and watch ghosts of Roman soldiers march past on their way to battle. It was fact to him. He couldn’t understand why we didn’t believe him. Great character. Mehrts is brilliant as we all know. Matthew Pierce, one of the South African commentators, is a great entertainer. I’ve got a soft spot for Stuart Barnes. All great fun.
Q: What was your favourite assignment with the Wallabies?
A: It was undoubtedly the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England. 7 weeks living in London and with Twickenham as basically the Wallabies’ home ground. It was unforgettable. And then to see Australia go through to the final was incredible. When the world descends on one location simply for rugby, it’s the best.
Q: Do you still support a Super Rugby team?
A: I do have a soft spot for the Reds. Queensland was where I first reconnected with rugby when I went to work in Brisbane a few years after my time in South Africa. But players and administrators and fans from the Brumbies and the Tahs and the Rebels and the Force have been so good to me over the last decade so each Super Rugby team is special to me in its own way.
Q: Do you have a favourite local club rugby side?
A: It’s one of the things I’m most disappointed about this year – the closing down of club rugby. I’m heavily involved as a committee member with Lindfield Juniors in Sydney and obviously that gives me a connection with Gordon. I also have strong connections with Sydney Uni. I was looking forward to getting to games this year, something I’ve been unable to do in the past.
Q: You are stuck in a lift for 8 hours – with which of your former Fox Sports colleagues would you like to be stuck with and why?
A: Tough choice. I can tell you who it wouldn’t be – John Eales in his time at Fox. It’s a little-known fact Ealesy is genuinely claustrophobic. And on the night of the Opening ceremony at the 2015 World Cup in England he was stuck in a lift at Twickenham for close to an hour. He arrived in studio with about 40 seconds to spare. I’d never seen the world’s most composed human look so shaken. He was a wreck. He said he was fine until a woman in the lift next door starting yelling “get me out of here. I’m claustrophobic. I think I’m going to die!!” That’s what sent him over the edge.
Q: Have you ever played a game of rugby?
A: I have. I was the number 8 for Florida Park High School during my student exchange in Johannesburg in 1985. I like to think it was the A’s but if truth be known it was probably the B’s or C’s. I loved it. I had no idea what was going on, but I loved it.
Q: In hindsight, did Rugby Australia handle the Israel Folau saga well?
A: Hindsight is a wonderful thing but if RA had that time over, I’m sure they would have paid more attention to detail around the social media clauses in Israel’s contract. It was an all-round sad time for the game. It was another flash-point of division in an era in which the game needs to come together.
Q: Australian Rugby is now in a precarious position with some calling for the resignation of CEO Raelene Castle. Much of this has to do with her not being able to secure TV rights for the game yet. Can you offer any insight into Rugby Australia’s dealings with Fox Sports on the issue of TV rights?
A: I wasn’t privy to what happened during that time. That was way above my pay grade. There is of course the argument Raelene Castle should have taken the offer. When you take into account exchange rate, and fewer local derbies without the Force – a bird in the hand and all that. At the same time there is an entirely valid argument RA owed the game to test the market and try to create a competitive environment. The situation now would suggest that wasn’t necessarily a great decision. Nobody could have predicted the world we’re in right now and the lack of potential suitors.
Q: Is Super Rugby in its current format still viable?
A: No, I don’t believe it is. No matter what happens with the broadcast in 2021, some brave decisions will have to be made. If it’s true that out of a crisis comes opportunity then now is a pivotal time for Australian Rugby. The biggest question for us right now is not who’s in charge, not who’s on the board and maybe not even who’s the broadcaster. What is the product you’re selling? What is the competition structure that’s going to ignite the passion for the game that we know is there – it just has to be brought out of hibernation.
Q: If you could restructure Australian Rugby what would you do and why?
A: I’m no visionary and there are greater minds than mine thinking about this stuff day in and day out but I believe the whole calendar must change. Let’s begin with club rugby flowing into a national club champions league into provincial. Rivalry and tribalism is key. The top two provincial sides from Australia play the top two sides from NZ. And then we play the Bledisloe or even maintain the Rugby Championship. That rivalry with South Africa is very important to NZ. It’s not perfect but let’s have a discussion about something totally new. A key is to rediscover the rivalry.
Q: Will we see Nick McArdle back involved in rugby anytime soon?
A: I’m passionate about staying involved and making a difference. I refuse to believe a game with so much history and influence can just fade away and I can’t believe it will be allowed to fade away. I’d like to think it can emerge from where we are right now with a fresh approach and I’d love to be a part of that.
OPEN MIC: Over to you Nick. If there is anything you wish to comment on?
I think we’ve covered everything except to say to those who love the game, stick with it. Remain passionate about it and defend it. I used to be accused of being overly positive because I worked for the broadcaster, but it was never about that. I believe those who genuinely love the game must be its defenders. Too many are too quick to talk it down. We can all be advocates for rugby and play our part in changing the conversation.
Like I said, the game is poorer for Nick McArdle’s absence.
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