The Roar
The Roar


HG Nelson: 'The Lions play best when they don't have the ball...'

The doyens of sports commentary - Roy and HG. (Image: Supplied)
21st June, 2013
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As the Lions tour kicks off tomorrow night, Australia’s alternate commentary champions Roy and H.G. will be there, calling every battered sav and head pushed through to China. H.G. Nelson talks to The Roar ahead of the call.

Geoff Lemon: H.G. Nelson, you and your colleague in union, Rampaging Roy Slaven, will be starting the Lions tour in Brisbane tomorrow night. How’s the feeling around getting started?

H.G. Nelson: I think – pumped, like a player. Ready to go. Look, I can’t wait. These things, as you well know, Geoff, only come around once every 12 years, and we only get a fortnight of it really, if you forget all the fluff that’s now in the Hoover – these trial games and warm-up games, they’re just a waste of time.

But we get tomorrow night, then next week and the following week, and it’s all over for another 12 years. If you blink you could miss it.

Do you think it’s too infrequent, every 12 years? Are they just teasing?

Well, I’m in two minds about this Geoff. I love the rarity: if it only came around once every hundred years, we’d all really wait for it and be excited.

You’ve got to remember with the Lions, they do go to other places as a concept. So once every 12 years, and they fit into the years where there’s not a World Cup, it’s hard to imagine us seeing them more often.

I was just trying to recall during the preparation whether there’s anything like this in the world of sport, where several nations combine to play another nation.

And can I factor in that both these sides are coached by New Zealanders, and it appears the referee’s a New Zealander as well! I mean, it’s a bizarre complex web to unravel.


Well the Kiwis are behind a lot of things in world sport, pulling the strings.

They are! They are, I don’t know whether to feel cheerful, or think that Australian and British and Irish sport is in the doldrums, that they can’t find a coach amongst their own ranks.

Why do you think it works to mash countries together and expect them to function? Cricket got a World XI together and it was a disaster, they got roundly flogged and never tried it again.

The crucial element goes back of course to this great divide we have in rugby between the northern hemisphere style and the southern hemisphere.

What you’ve got here – although I may be proved entirely wrong tomorrow night – is this clash of styles and clash of ethos about what rugby is about, and this is one of these things that makes it work.

The world cricket example was way too ambitious. They should have just picked a series of nations: say England, Ireland, where the game was originally invented, I think an Argentinian cricket team is now flourishing, maybe a couple of people from Canada – made it much more specific, then played.

What’s the feeling in the Wallaby camp as they head into tomorrow?

Buoyant! Yes, very buoyant. Look, I’d say they’re thinking that they’re going home Saturday night one up.


I’m not going to predict a score but quite easily, I would imagine. The great thing about this is that the Lions have been roaming the country, busting their arses, getting more injuries than points on the board almost, whereas the Wallabies have been sitting on the Gold Coast toasting marshmallows!

It’s just bizarre, we’ve got a team that’s at it a couple of times a week versus a team that’s never on the job. We’re going to find out a lot about preparation tomorrow night.

There’s only six of the starting XV from the Wallabies’ last outing – does that mean the last side was just rubbish?

Well we’ve been rebuilding for a long time now. That’s the Deans mantra, if I can unravel anything the bloke says: it’s that we’ve been rebuilding to this particular point.

And it’s taken a while, there’s been a lot of trial and error. Myself, I’m fairly hopeful that the Deans bus has arrived at the terminus, and when the players get off we’ll see an exciting and competitive Wallabies outfit, never mind that they might be a bit marshmallowed out.

We’ve got Israel Folau coming up for his international debut after half a season of Super Rugby. Issy good enough? Are you a Folau freak?

If we canvass the bloke’s history, obviously starting off in rugby league and then moving to the AFL and now in rugby union, I’m hoping he’s going to turn out for the Davis Cup squad next year.

My feeling is the bloke is someone to keep an eye on, though not necessarily for things you want him to do tomorrow night. I think this is a journey!


It’s a journey, and we don’t know where the journey’s going to end. We’re looking at something that’s a work in progress, and we just can’t say it’s stopping here.

I understand he’s not re-signed with the Waratahs, which makes me think the Davis Cup is a go, and who knows, the Olympics in 2016 I can see Folau skippering the side in the basketball.

Possibly rowing? He’s got the build.

That’s good, I hadn’t thought of that. I’d say rowing is on the Folau agenda, it’s a sport that he’d probably excel in.

I’m not sure how many single sculls, how much gear they have, but I wouldn’t put him in a team, I’d try to get him out on his own so he can train at his own pace.

Obviously coming from a different background in footballing codes, he’d need to be on his own for a fair while before he got into an eight.

Cross-code has been a theme the past couple of weeks – watching the Socceroos the other night we were told that Timmy Cahill had stepped up to the plate, that they were punching above their weight, they’d put in the hard yards and it had gone right down to the wire. Should they be looking to work Folau into that side for an extra dimension?

Look, I’d love that, but we’ve got to be honest here. I think he’s a bit too young. I mean, this grandpa generation we appear to be sending off to Brazil – I believe Mark Viduka’s got a game left in him, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Fos running off the bench as well. So no, and I’d go past him in Russia as well, but Qatar – watch out for Folau.


Bosnich, perhaps?

Bosnich, yes. The trouble is we’ve got Schwarzer there and – unless we’re thinking of giving Bosnich a roving commission out of goal, he can’t come back just at the moment.

But Mark will eventually retire, and I hope that the other Mark is working on his game for when the other Mark decides to hang up the boots.

He’s on the TV commentary and there’s a glint in his eye. It doesn’t look like he’s quite done.

But he’s an excellent commentator. I wouldn’t want to weaken a strength to strengthen a weakness, if you know what I mean.

What’s your take on the Lions? Are they everything their cricket scores against third-string Australian sides imply?

I think the Lions are going to be a real challenge for Australia. Having said that, obviously you’ve got a lot of Welsh people in there, and I’ve got to say I don’t get the Welsh idea, really.

They only appear to have produced Welsh rarebit as a contribution to civilisation, and a few singers: Harry Secombe of the Goons, for those who remember, and of course Tom Jones, the Manic Street Preachers and Stereophonics.


I think that’s about the total sum contribution to the world.

So… how do I put this? I think they’ve beaten nothin’, put it that way, and lost one. I think we’ve been cunning as sh*thouse rats, hiding away the Wallabies players.

I think it’s great that part-time carpenters and students and people who’ve never played the game before have been given a shot.

We’ll never hear of them again, but the Lions have had a run-around and scored lots of points. But tomorrow night, the big occasion, we’ll really see what they’re made of.

The key quote for me out of the Lions camp was from Mako Vunipola, who said that while he was starting on the bench he was going to: “come on and do my job, do the basics, and get my hands on the ball.” Is this left-field approach going to backfire on the Lions?

I don’t know how they’ve managed to get those quotes out of him. Must have been on some kind of truth serum. He thinks he’s going to get his hands on the ball? Is that what’s going on?

And do the basics.

I mean, that is incredible. I just hope Deans is aware of this, and that we can get some message through to our players, that Vunipola’s thinking of getting his hands on the ball! I mean, this is unheard of.


Warren Gatland would be spitting chips. He would have hit him with a telephone book. Y’know, “How dare you give away Plan A?” Going to get his hands on the ball. What a week.

Luckily I believe the Lions play best when they don’t have the ball. That’s what people don’t appreciate.

We’ve had the Socceroos do the ugly job the other night. We’ve got the Wallabies coming up and the Ashes of course in another couple of weeks. Is a green and gold tsunami going to wash through the sporting world?

Well, I like your confidence. I think the team to Rio, as I pointed out earlier, if they can get that blend of age into the team they’ll do very well.

When it comes to the Ashes I’m not so certain, though I love the idea that the Poms have had to be ball tampering to beat the South Africans.

We’re in a rare period, Geoff, when we’re living in hope. And we’re living in hope to be surprised by people we’ve never heard of, and a few tales of redemption along the way.

Roy of course has a long and storied history in rugby union, but is this the first time you’ve called the game together?

We had a program called The Cream – this was 2003 – which produced a show every night for the Rugby World Cup, and finished up calling the final, Australia v England – you remember that night, with Johnny Wilkinson’s boot doing us in – we called that on the Opera House steps.


It was a terrific night, and people stood there in the rain and watched me and Roy call the final, and the result was very disappointing to most of us.

A decent match, though.

It was an excellent game. Oh yes, I wasn’t meaning to denigrate the effort by the blokes who got their hands on the ball.

And the ones who didn’t.

That’s right! Their work without the ball was great.

So your call is available online to anyone who wants to hook in?

Yes, it’s on the Samsung Stadium app, it’s all free and works on any device, and you can turn down the television coverage and turn up ours. We’re on air half an hour before kick-off. We’re very excited about it.

Rugby is a game that lends itself to our sort of call in the same way as lots of sports: when you’re baffled by the rules. That’s when we come into our own.


Do you have an eye on the next Lions tour in 12 years?

Wow! That’s a question. Well, I’d hope other opportunities would present themselves along the way. We enjoyed working on the football World Cup, so we’d certainly think we’d have a crack at that next. But if we’re still around, I’m sure we’ll give it a go.