Mallett’s cautious TV comeback

    2018-07-14 21:19

    Comment: Rob Houwing - Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – It was almost as if nothing had happened … and perhaps that was SuperSport’s intention?

    Bells and whistles – yes, there wasn’t even so much as a “welcome back” – were delicately avoided as Nick Mallett, almost certainly the most keenly-followed of their television rugby pundits, returned to duty for Saturday’s two South African-hosted Super Rugby games.

    Almost two months on from the live walkout furore involving Springbok wing and co-analyst Ashwin Willemse, the successful former national coach was among a beefily-staffed panel for the studio presentation.

    There was no Naas Botha, who had earlier been restored to duty after being the other figure involved in “Ashwin-gate” back on May 19, and central figure Willemse also remains out of action – presumably until he has pursued his desired step of giving testimony to the Human Rights Commission.

    He had accused Mallett and Botha before sensationally leaving the studio of “patronising” him during presentations, and spoke of their roles as players “in the apartheid era”.

    Willemse also chose not to provide evidence to the independent review of the incident undertaken by SuperSport and under the charge of Advocate Vincent Maleka; he cleared the pair of racism.

    On Saturday, Mallett was joined on set by Motshidisi Mohono, who had also anchored the fateful presentation in May, with former Bok hooker Hanyani Shimange as his punditry partner at the main table, and a little-and-large combination of other luminary Test players Breyton Paulse and Victor Matfield as the joint-figures manning the touchscreen.

    When the broadcast began, an hour before the first match between the Lions and Bulls, Mohono went first to Paulse for sound-bites and all the others followed before Mallett, usually the most prolific talker, got his first opportunity.

    With a trademark, gruff clearing of his throat, Mallett simply launched straight into an appraisal of the regional situation in the competition, saying that the South African conference had been generally disappointing and that some New Zealand teams were going to be disappointed by their dubiously lowlier seedings in the knockout phase despite ending with more log points.

    Then, almost as quickly as Mallett’s call back to rugby arms, Mohono broke away to some repeat footage from SA tennis star Kevin Anderson’s rousing, epic semi-final triumph at Wimbledon on Friday.

    But Mallett, whose sporting passion extends well beyond rugby – he was a better cricketer than some may realise, for example – wasn’t about to be marginalised by the change of tack.

    “(Anderson’s marathon semi-final against John Isner) was like watching two heavyweight boxers right out on their feet in the 15th round,” he opined fittingly.

    Attention then swung back to the afternoon’s looming rugby, and it seemed as if there was a conscious effort to have the four experts all speak by turn, as Mohono questioned them one by one and then more or less repeated the sequence.

    There was comfortable bonhomie, however, which may have been a relief to SuperSport bosses, who had variously been made aware in correspondence by Mallett – brought to public light after the rumpus – that he and Willemse “irritate the hell out of each other” and the working environment is “unpleasant and tense”.

    He had also notified them in emails that he was “very happy to work with Breyton, Shimmy or Bobs (Gcobani Bobo) as, unlike with Ashwin, I respect their hard work and rugby opinions”.

    Mallett largely got his wish – whether by accident or design - for his comeback appearance, with Bobo the only absentee of that trio in studio as he was on pitch-side duties for the match at Emirates Airline Park.

    As the day wore on, the in-studio conversation gradually got less structured and formulaic, with Mallett – and the others – progressively more relaxed and unafraid to interrupt at times with earnest, spontaneous thoughts.

    Forthrightness traditionally being one of his major hallmarks, Mallett said after the Sharks had grafted their way to a late finals series ticket (in eighth spot, after downing the Jaguares on a wet Durban pitch) that they would need to significantly “up their intensity and passion” against formidable quarter-final foes the Crusaders in Christchurch “or it will be a 30-pointer” in favour of the defending champions next weekend.

    It certainly seemed much more like business as usual by the time the roughly five-hour broadcast stretch ended, all of the quartet joining Mohono either standing or seated in a tight bunch at the main desk – as if a show of unity – as the lights dimmed in the studio.

    The tantalising missing link, of course, remains how, or possibly even whether, Willemse will be allied to panellists on SS1 a little further up the road ...

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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