Beauden Barrett scores a try in the last World Cup Final. Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

NZ’s biggest question for 2019: Who will commentate the rugby world cup?

The swoop by Spark to secure rights to screen the rugby world cup in Japan means a decision to make about the combo in the commentary box. So who are the runners and riders to call Beaudy’s World Cup winning drop goal, asks Jamie Wall 

While it probably won’t be remembered as a particularly memorable match, last weekend’s 66-3 slaughter of Italy did bring the curtain down on the All Blacks’ 2018 season. I watched it from high up in Rome’s cavernous Stadio Olimpico, in an atmosphere heavy in cigar smoke and surrounded by the New Zealand commentary team.

Behind me were the duo of Grant Nisbett and Justin Marshall from Sky Sports – familiar voices to those with an even cursory interest in footy. But I couldn’t help but wonder who might be occupying those seats in a year’s time.

It may not have fully sunk in among Kiwis that there is going to be a change in the way the Rugby World Cup will be presented – and most of the talk around Spark’s acquisition of the World Cup broadcasting rights has centred on just exactly how they are going to send it down the fibre. The doomsayers have already predicted that a lack of time to test the broadband system will risk a catastrophic failure like the one seen in Australia during the brief Optus run of Football World Cup matches.

But let’s just presume they do get it right, that the All Blacks sweep through pool play and knockout games, then Aotearoa finds itself watching the All Blacks attempt a third consecutive final victory. There may well be a fresh set of vocal chords thundering out either another triumphant victory for the All Blacks, or (God forbid) talking us through the first failed campaign in 12 long years.

The last two have been called by Nisbett on Sky TV, but it’s also worth mentioning that Tony Johnson also did a call of the 2015 win at Twickenham as part of the RWC generic commentary feed. But now that Spark have the reins, who are they going to give the mic to for the biggest gig in NZ sports commentary?

Nisbo and Marshy – the incumbents

There is a slim chance these two might leap over to Spark to call the tournament. Nisbett has been the main voice of Sky’s commentary for over 20 years, and 81-test veteran Marshall has established himself as the main colour man. But Sky retains rights to the rest of the All Blacks’ games, as well as Super Rugby and the rest, so it would be a bold waka-jump.

Scotty Stevenson – the people’s champion

Sumo may well be the way forward for a new broadcaster, given his commitment to embracing the new diversity of rugby while retaining an old school appreciation of the game’s grassroots and provincial heritage. Stevenson, a Spinoff contributor, is also the only commentator lately to call one of the the rarest feats in a New Zealand rugby union fixture: a match-winning drop goal. Given Beauden Barrett’s sudden penchant for the droppie, this sort of experience could come in rather handy at the business end of the World Cup.

Keith Quinn and/or Murray Mexted – the blasts from the past.

The venerable Quinn was TVNZ’s caller back when they had delayed rights to All Black tests – and TVNZ has the same arrangement with Spark this time around. Quinn was responsible for the most iconic piece of All Black commentary ever when Jonah Lomu scored the first of his four tries against England in 1995. Mexted hasn’t been seen on Sky TV for years, after a Marshall-like love/hate relationship with fans.

John McBeth and Andrew Saville – the last non-Sky guys

Both TVNZ stalwarts got a weird late call up during this year’s Commonwealth Games Sevens finals day, the last time any form of rugby was on the state broadcaster’s programming. They sounded like they’d just been tossed the assignment five minutes before kickoff, which was another blight on TVNZ’s much-criticised Games coverage.

Rikki Swannell and Ruby Tui – the new breed

A female voice has yet to be heard as the main caller in an All Blacks test, so why not make history on the biggest stage of all? Swannell has been commentating Mitre 10 Cup this season, while Tui can bring the perspective of a current world champion.

Ron Snowden – the purists’ choice

OK, he’s a cricket and racing guy but Snowden has a voice so smooth that people make otherwise meaningless calls to their TAB phone accounts just to hear it.

Guy Williams – he needs the cash

A long shot, yes, but he did use what was left of his Jono & Ben Show money to finance a last-minute trip to Japan recently and patch up a long-running feud with namesake Sonny Bill. So the level of commitment needed is there.


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