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Voice of rugby has Boy’s Own job

Submitted by on Saturday, 8 November 2008No Comment
Voice of rugby has Boy’s Own job

Familiar to all lovers of the game, Hugh Bladen has been a television commentator since 1976 and in his playing days was a top-class flyhalf who represented Transvaal and the Junior Springboks.

At King Edward School you were Head Boy, Victor Ludorum, captain of rugby and vice captain of cricket; apparently your son decided to leave the school because of the pressure of trying to live up to your success. Is that true?

What happened is that my son, Antony was at King Edwards Preparatory School. He wanted to be a border, so we made him one and he hated it. Anyway, while playing cricket he spent all his time fielding, so he decided to give it up and play tennis. He went to the cricket master who said, ‘You can’t give up cricket – a Bladen at this school always plays cricket.’ That sowed the seed and we eventually sent him to Sandown High, where he was as happy as the proverbial pig. And just as successful there, as I was at KES.

You then went onto play rugby for Transvaal (1965-1971), Junior Springboks (1965) and Gazelles (1969). What were the last two?

The Junior Springboks were supposedly the best team in South Africa made up of non-Springboks, while the Gazelles were also the best non-Springboks, but under 24.

According to the press at the time, you were one of the best fly-halves Transvaal ever had, but then you injured your knee – how did that happen?

It was in a club game. It was one of those freak accidents, where a guy caught my ankle, went one way and I went the other. Those club games were unbelievably tough. I was playing for Wanderers and my first game was against West Rand in Krugersdorp. Mickey Gerber was our captain and they had blokes like, ‘Spanner’ Martins and ‘Reguitarm’ (‘Straight-arm’) Van Tonder. Those were the days before replacements were allowed. Well twenty minutes into the second half, we only had 11 players on the field. No it was tough rugby. But later I was playing touch rugby and would you believe, no-one was near me, but I went to sidestep and my knee popped out and I didn’t play for three years.

Did you then come right?

It was never the same. Every time I kicked the ball my knee jumped out. After that I never played to 100% of my ability and I never kicked a ball properly again. For a time I tried playing at centre and got back into the Transvaal side. I played about three or four games at centre, but then they chose me as fly half again. I talked the captain into letting the fullback kick-off, while I stood amongst the forwards, because I was scared to kick off – that’s how bad it was.

Tell me about running races outside the Tolman Towers Hotel with Syd Nomis.

I often trained with Syd, he was then playing wing for South Africa and I could comfortably stay with him when we sprinted. So Syd knew I was quite fast. Anyway we were having a few beers in the pub at the Tolman Towers Hotel, when some guy, who had had a few pots, said, ‘Nomis I bet I can take you in a race’. So Syd says, ‘I’ve got a bit of a hamstring, but my mate Bladen here, will take you’. So at 4 o’ clock in the afternoon, we ended up outside to have this race. As it turned out I don’t know why this guy possibly thought he could run. But as we were racing down the street in our stockinged feet, and by now there were a lot of people getting out of work and watching us; this guy, well behind me, started shouting, ‘Stop thief!’ Silly bugger…

To move ahead to the time you fell over the balcony of a hotel in Durban and nearly killed yourself; what happened there?

We were down in Durban for the Toyota Championships and decided to stay in the Edward Hotel, so we didn’t have too far to drive – I was going up the north coast to Sinkwazi the next day. Well after the games we had a cocktail party, as one does at rugby; we then went to a private party at the Elangeni hotel, and later back to the Edward Hotel. My roommate, Ralph Hesketh-Maree ordered toasted sandwiches as blotting paper before we went to bed, but I fell asleep before they came or I wasn’t hungry. I don’t remember anything, but I can only assume that during the early hours of the next morning, I must have had to relieve myself, was disoriented, went the wrong way and toppled over the outside balcony. I fell 25 metres onto a concrete ledge below.

What part of you hit the concrete first?

I landed on my feet. My ankles went through my heels. I was lucky – if I had landed on my head I would have been killed instantly – I also broke all my ribs and cracked my pelvis. The other thing is that it was the 1st of April, so when my roommate, Ralph got a call from downstairs saying I was in an ambulance on the way to Addington Hospital; he thought it was an April fool’s joke – until he saw I wasn’t in my bed. I was in theatre for five hours and then two days after my admission to hospital, I developed acute renal failure; my lungs collapsed so they put me on a ventilator; they removed my pancreas and they had to give me a tracheotomy – so talk about a mess. For the next twelve days, I was fighting for my life.

Then I believe Louis Luyt flew you to Johannesburg?

He was incredible. SAA wouldn’t or couldn’t accommodate me in the aisle of one of their aircraft, so Louis arranged for his private jet to fly to Durban with Dr Copans on board, as well as a driver to take my car back to Johannesburg. The jet was completely at my disposal. They flew me back in a hammock. Then I was in the Rosebank Clinic for months and months and months. Eventually I went home in a wheelchair and then had to learn to walk again. It was a most difficult time. It took me about a year to get it all back together. Fortunately my wife Bronwyn is a very strong character and she pushed me.

There was the odd light-hearted moment?

I suppose you can call it that. When the guy who discovered me on the balcony saw me – he said, ‘How are you?’ I was lying in a pool of blood, but apparently I looked up and said, ‘I’m fine thank you, and how are you?’ He later phoned my brother Richard and asked if we had been strictly brought up. Also much later, I attended a Chris Burger memorial Fund dinner in a wheelchair. I was being pushed by Syd Nomis and I had takkies on with my dinner suit, when a youngster came up to me and said, ‘I hope you realise by now, that fly-halves can’t fly’.

The papers put out some pretty extreme reports at the time?

You can’t believe what the papers tried to dig out. One reporter asked Bronwyn what our financial position was like and had I tried to commit suicide. Another suggested there were other women in the room. Astonishing how the fact I had had a catastrophic disaster and nearly killed myself, wasn’t sufficient – they wanted more.

Turning to your commentating; through it, you have done an enormous amount of travelling, which country have you most enjoyed working in?

You know, when I was a youngster, I was brought up by my mother. My parents were divorced and I never knew my father. He was actually murdered when I was about thirteen; I never knew why or what happened, as I didn’t discuss it with my mother, but she brought me up. When I was about sixteen I went to a party and later she asked me how it was. I said, ‘It wasn’t particularly great.’ And she said, ‘If you go somewhere and don’t have a good time – it’s only your fault’. So I have a good time where-ever I go. Mind you Argentina was fun. I had played against them in 1965 – when we got there in 1993, from the president of their rugby federation down to the coach, they’d all played against me, so I was treated like royalty; some, I suppose, stand out more than others.

Your wife Bronwyn must be long suffering, putting up with all your travelling?

We started going out when we were sixteen. So she has put up with nonstop sport since we met. I also travelled quite extensively in my business and then of course there have been the rugby tours. I think she has always just accepted it. But her toughest time was after my fall. She had to live through the trauma of not knowing if I was going to survive or not and she was, and has been, amazing.

Since you started in 1976, how has commentating changed for you?

Well now you have cameramen, directors, producers and secretaries, where in the early days we just went as commentators. But it is a, ‘Boy’s Own’ job – it’s been fantastic. Though you have to remember we are there to do a job of work. We have to be at our post just about every day. We go to press conferences, we do interviews and we go to practises, that sort of thing. There’s also a lot of, ‘Hurry up and wait’. But overall I love it.

How do you deal with the pronunciation of names, especially for some of the more obscure teams?

I commit it to paper – I write it down. When we were at the Rugby World Cup in Australia in 2003, Kobus (Wiese) and I did all the pool games. A classic was where we had to call the game between Samoa and Georgia. Fortunately I got hold of their press liaison officer and with his help, wrote all the names down phonetically. However I always do a lot of preparation – for example for the Currie Cup final I sat and prepared for about 5 hours. Look at this notebook – I use these secretarial note pads – this one is from the 2003 World Cup and you can see all the names and my notes.

Do you do post mortems after you have called a match to see if you are repeating certain phrases, or making incorrect calls?

I do listen to the highlights; but I actually hate listening to myself commentate.

How do you deal with people who also hate to listen to you commentate?

I think I’ve come to realise you can’t please all of the people all of the time. The other thing is that when they watch their team, people tend to watch with one eye. If the guy is a Bulls supporter and The Sharks are hammering The Bulls, and I’m reporting that The Sharks are hammering The Bulls, quite often he is not going to like what I am saying. Suddenly I’m biased. Funnily enough I get quite a lot of Afrikaans speaking supporters who say they listen to me, which is nice. And I try to be aware of flippancy, because that can hurt or irritate people. I once got into a lot of trouble when I was commentating and James Dalton tried to trip a player and I laughingly said, ‘He must have learnt that at Jeppe’.  Dave Quail, the Headmaster of Jeppe, phoned me up on the Monday morning saying, ‘I must have had about twenty five calls about your remark…’ So you have to be very careful. But I can only commentate as best I can and if people don’t like it, there’s not much I can do about it.

What about gaffes on air?

Just still on the flippancy – once I was commentating with Andy Capostagno and I said, seriously, that Balie Swart had a bit of concussion and recently had a brain scan. Well Andy chipped in, ‘And they found one…’ The phone nearly rang off the hook, such was the uproar. But my biggest gaffe was when I started calling what was happening on the big screen in the stadium, while what was being transmitted on TV was completely different. On the big screen they were replaying a backline movement, but on TV, the scene going out was a shot of medics helping an injured player. Suddenly I had my director shouting in my ear, ‘Don’t commentate on that screen – shut up! Shut up!’

You’ve been on numerous committees and boards; in fact you were chairman of The Wanderers Club, you were a Transvaal and SA Barbarians selector (1989-1991); you served for 14 years on Transvaal/Golden Lions Executive etc., etc. Where did you find time to do it all?

Give a busy man a job. . .

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