I come to praise Fatty, not to bury him

Tim Gore Columnist

By , Tim Gore is a Roar Expert

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    Since the news broke that Paul ‘Fatty’ Vautin has got the flick from Channel Nine’s Footy Show in 2018, there have been a lot of people wishing him good riddance. Celebrating his downfall even.

    It’s true that – just like Bart Simpson’s “I didn’t do it” fame – the mass audience Vautin charmed so well with his head wobble and catch phrases like “turn it up” and “I’ll get back to you shortly” have long since cooled on him.

    However, while the end of his long reign is probably overdue, let’s not forget what an ornament to rugby league and the game’s media Vautin has been.

    Those who simply wish to engage in our national sport of maligning tall poppies and celebrating when they fall need to bear in mind that his achievements are many and very impressive.

    In 1979, he was brought to Manly from Brisbane Wests. He went on to play 204 games for his beloved Sea Eagles, including the 1982 and 1983 grand final losses to Parramatta and – of course – captaining them to the 1987 premiership.

    He played 22 games for Queensland between 1982 and 1990, even captaining them on one occasion. You didn’t get into that side unless you were very good indeed. You also didn’t play 13 Test matches for Australia during that period – like Vautin did – unless you were extremely good. He captained his country three times back in an era where the Kiwis and Britons were formidable foes.

    The last of his 259 first grade games was played for the Roosters, against the year’s eventual premiers Penrith, on August 25, 1991, at the Sydney Football Stadium. His side lost 42-8. Much of that season he’d languished in reserves but his coach, former Maroons teammate Mark Murray, let him finish properly in first grade, as Vautin deserved.

    The question now is whether Vautin’s end on The Footy Show is what is deserved? You’ll likely be hard pressed to find too many who didn’t think he was past his use-by date.

    Having worked in television for the best part of a decade, I can tell you it isn’t a nice industry. American author Hunter S. Thompson described it well as, “a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”

    In the four years I spent with the Nine Network, fear was certainly a frequent companion. Yet it was this very industry that Vautin obviously had his eye on even before his playing days were over.

    In 1988, Vautin started his forays into the media. It is now legendary that he dropped the F-bomb to a national audience while in co-commentary with the ABC’s David Morrow before that year’s grand final. He then had a few stints with Channel Seven.

    However, in 1992 he became part of the Channel Nine commentary team. And he was good.

    He hit the rugby league media scene like a breath of fresh air. He had a big smile, he was funny, and only recently out of the game. He had a great rapport with Ray Warren and Peter Sterling. He was a world away from Rex Mossop – and that was a good thing.

    He became very popular.

    He was the face of Tooheys’ ‘World’s biggest barbeque’ promotion in 1993 and of course he took that screamer of a catch in the Alan Border Testimonial match.

    Fatty was on the crest of a wave. Unlike the I Didn’t Do It Kid, his schtick didn’t look like growing old anytime soon.

    In fact, it was just beginning.

    In the early 1990s, WIN TV in Canberra broadcast a Thursday night rugby league panel show hosted by local sports anchor Phil Small and joined by Raiders halfback Ricky Stuart. For an hour, they picked over the last week’s games and previewed coming matches.

    While it wasn’t exactly champagne television, it certainly had a following. Then, at the beginning of 1994, the show was pulled.

    I was working at the local Channel Ten affiliate at the time and we naively thought we could poach the show. We brought in a young Laurie Daley to discuss him being part of it and he even did a few screen tests (I must say, judging by what I saw that day, whoever subsequently trained Laurie up to talk publicly as well as he does now is a freaking magician).

    However, Nine of course owned the rights and had no intention of letting a rival network do such a thing. They were working on their own show and shortly afterwards it was launched.

    And it was huge. It was funny, had all the guests, had a live audience, and it rated. At the forefront of The Footy Show was Paul Vautin. He took to it like a duck to water.

    Most of us watched every week without fail. Nine had the league audience captured and we were happy. Vautin was their jewel in the crown. There was a saying at Channel Nine that you’d never go broke appealing to the lowest common denominator. The Footy Show adhered solidly to that theory.

    Paul Vautin and Peter Sterling

    AAP Image/Dean Lewins

    Then 1995 happened.

    When the Super League war broke out on April 1, I had no idea what it was all about. What I did know was that my team – the Canberra Raiders – were on the Super League side and therefore so was I.

    Rugby league was riding the wave of unprecedented popularity that had been earned off the back of the inception of State of Origin, the Jim Comans-led judiciary cracking down on thuggery, the introduction of the ten-metre rule, and the ever increasing professionalism and athleticism of the players – all of which combined had made the game into a great spectacle.

    However, the Super League war broke that massive audience into three groups: those on the ARL’s side, those on the Super League side, and those who just stopped watching the horrid farce the game quickly became.

    In the end, the whole thing was really only about two very rich men arguing over the broadcast rights so they could make more money. We who stayed committed to our clubs were used as willing pawns, cheering our teams while proclaiming right was on our side. What blind, stupid lemmings we all were.

    This was a fight fought both in the court of law and in the court of public opinion.

    Vautin was nothing if not loyal. He was employed by Channel Nine and they sided with the ARL. No one fought harder for their case.

    The Super League side rolled out an opposition show to Vautin’s Footy Show called The Hard Yards. Both shows became little more than propaganda.

    However, as with most fights, we saw the ugliness of partisan anger and we saw it in Vautin as well. Unlike his head wobble, it wasn’t funny or endearing.

    It was war and Fatty was fighting hard – just like he had on the football field – but in this battle he was fighting me and mine. He was telling me that I was a traitor, that I was wrong. Sitting on the other side of the divide, he began to personify the enemy.

    Deep inside, I’ve never lost that feeling.

    When it was decreed that none of the players who had signed with Super League would be considered for the 1995 Origin series, I was appalled. When the Vautin-coached Queensland won the series 3-0 as rank underdogs I wasn’t cheering for him. I wasn’t cheering for anyone.

    There were many like me too. In fact, I only stayed with league because I loved my team.

    While badly wounded, rugby league recovered from this fiasco and Vautin and The Footy Show continued on with great popularity.

    I occasionally watched after that and actually saw the episode in 2005 where – as a daredevil dude in a sumo suit – Vautin fell off the back of a ute and hit his head, injuring himself badly.

    It was a real turning point for Vautin. Since then he has mostly just been on The Footy Show and used for the big-game broadcasts like Origin games.

    This dislocation from the actual league games was bad for Vautin. Just as The Footy Show started being run by the light entertainment division of the Nine Network, rather than the sports division, Vautin became removed from the thing that made him relevant and popular in the first instance – the game of rugby league.

    Now, after 24 years, which is an incredible feat in the cutthroat world of television – he’s the longest running host of a TV show in Australian history in fact – it appears Vautin’s journey on The Footy Show is over.

    Just as he effectively took the show off a Canberra WIN News sports anchor, he now is being replaced by a former Canberra WIN News sports anchor, in Erin Molan. It sort of wraps it up neatly, I guess.

    Ironically the show is said to be refocusing on the actual football and getting rid of the person most qualified to talk on that subject.

    It has been suggested that he will now see out the remaining year of his contract doing match commentary, the way he started his career.

    Every dog has his day and Fatty sure had his.

    But while his time may have come, let’s not forget what a big part Vautin has played in the world of rugby league – as an elite player, good commentator and A-grade clown. He has been really good value.

    Good onya Fatty and thanks.

    Tim Gore
    Tim Gore

    Tim has been an NRL statistician for ABC Radio Grandstand since 1999, primarily as part of their Canberra coverage. Tim has loved rugby league since Sterlo was a kid with lots of hair but was cursed with having no personal sporting ability whatsoever. He couldn't take a hit in footy, was a third division soccer player making up numbers, plays off 41 in golf and is possibly the world's worst cricketer ever. He has always been good at arguing the point though and he has a great memory of what happened. Follow Tim on Twitter.

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