The Rebirth of Matthew Johns

Filed in Other by on December 11, 2010

A nervous two minute intro, some pleasant introductions, a throw to a sketch and Matthew Johns was quickly off to the races, back into the groove that made him rugby league’s most popular pundit and personality. After being driven from television by a vicious pack of hypocritical lynch-mob with a taste for blood- Nine executives, Rebecca Wilson, Tracy Grimshaw, tabloid hacks and talkback radio hosts and their listeners among them- late last season, Johns is back with a new show on a new channel with new hopes and a new vision for the future of rugby league.

Rugby league officially returned to Seven and Matthew Johns returned to television last Thursday night with the first episode of The Matty Johns Show. It was an outstanding success. The show was always going to be well watched and so it came to pass with ratings as much as four times as high as The Footy Show even though the shows did not go head-to-head and The Matty Johns show the most watched program of the night in Sydney. For a first-up go, the show was very good and offered plenty of hope for everyone who wants to see Nine’s rugby league monopoly broken like a thug’s skull.

The show wasn’t perfect. The format was a bit too jumpy with too many segments and sketches that didn’t go long enough, like the director suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder and had just downed six cups of speed laced coffee. Stoners and those with epilepsy both would have struggled mightily. Shane Webcke was a nervous wreck, somewhat understandably, but disappointingly he went the buddy-buddy route of interviewing similar to nearly all those in league coverage on Nine. The quiz was over before it began. There was, unfortunately, very little substantive footy talk with no late mail, little discussion of any major issues and almost no meaningful discussion of the upcoming matches.

Having said all that, the positives were plentiful. Matthew Johns is a host with deep wells of charm who is a fine advertisement for rugby league and the type of man will win over casual observers of the sport. Some of his characters were brilliant. Steven the Man-Child was hysterical. Don Kirk wasn’t bad either. It is a shame we won’t see great French referee Percy Le Blanc anymore but that is life and Steven the Man-Child will soon see Percy quickly forgotten. Some of the guests were highly amusing with Nathan Hindmarsh always a highlight. The finale in the cab where he sent up his fall-out with brother Andrew showed Matty has lost none of the cheeky self-depreciating humour that has made him a crossover star. It was a fitting finale to a fine comeback.

The highlight of The Matty Johns Show was, however, Controversy Corner. This was the best five minutes of rugby league analysis of the year with the wonderful franchise of Controversy Corner, made famous by Rex Mossop over twenty years ago, held up by Paul Kent going after Willie Mason like a rabid dog after its next feed. Mason went on the show thinking he would get an easy time of it, playing the buffoon while getting his mug on television, just as he likes it. Kent didn’t allow that. The News Limited journalist is an old school street fighter and he didn’t let Mason get away with anything. Kent hammered him while Johns conducted the orchestra and Webcke tried to be his best mate. Kent worked him over about his falling out with both the Bulldogs and the Roosters. He demanded answers on why Steve Folkes and Brad Fittler no longer talked to him. He even rightly raised the issue of the shady surrounds of the Roosters-Cowboys season finale last year, a match heavily commented on in these pages. The insinuations of Kent’s tone and questions were evident to anybody who can put two and two together and come up with four. Mason was trouble and followers of rugby league wanted answers. They got none but that wasn’t for want of trying on Kent’s behalf. In the end Mason resorted to lying, saying he only played 20 minutes in the Roosters-Cowboys match and did nothing of note. He, in fact, played 38 minutes, dropped the footy twice, gave away a penalty and missed three tackles. Mason looked awkward and uncomfortable. Kent enjoyed the hammer and tonk.

Controversy Corner was the only serious footy segment and it should go longer. The biggest criticism of The Matty Johns Show is that there was very little serious football discussion, no doubt a result of the prime time timeslot. The Johns show can only survive so long on comedy and it needs to have a serious football element if it is to survive. While News Limited wants to declare The Matty Johns Show an infinitely better product than The Footy Show, the truth is there was very little difference in terms of content and direction. One point of differentiation was Controversy Corner and some serious discussion. Johns and company will need to go more rugby league heavy if they are to keep the diehards watching.

It was interesting to see The Daily Telegraph speak so positively about Johns and his show. On one level it isn’t surprising. News Limited hate The Footy Show and channel Nine with Phil Rothfield feuding with Peter Sterling and Paul Vautin for decades while Rebecca Wilson infamously survived only one episode on The Footy Show before leaving in tears. News Limited are certainly pushing for the next rights deal to go elsewhere while Rothfield, in particular, is trying to drive The Footy Show from television. On another level, however, the support of Rothfield and Rebecca Wilson and many others at News is sickening considering how they attempted to lynch Johns after the sex scandal broke. Rothfield took the high moral ground called for the head of Johns as soon as the story broke while Wilson, in one of her many torturous pieces, declared that “he must now be sacked” while exhorting some shameful narrow feminist agenda that would embarrass most women with its stupidity, narrow-mindedness and simplicity. Yet now they are getting on the Johns bandwagon…

There were also plenty of people watching who treated Johns poorly. David Gallop, who spoke out against Johns despite the fact he had no jurisdiction to do so, no doubt enjoys having a second channel cover rugby league even though Matthew reportedly is none to fond of The Boss these days. David Gyngell, boss of Nine, a station that has done nothing to grow the sport, would certainly have cast an eye over Johns’ new show, disappointed that his best rugby league television talent was now working primetime for a rival when Gyngell thought he could have it at both ends with the ratings bonanza of the Tracy Grimshaw interview and his inevitable return after serving his “punishment”. Brother Andrew definitely watched with perhaps only a small part but a part of him nonetheless secretly wishing he had stuck firmer with Matthew and told Nine to fuck a duck when they took the course of public humiliation for his sibling they did.

They all would have seen Matthew return to television as an outstanding on-air talent who will play a critical role in the next television deal rugby league negotiates. Perhaps even Johns doesn’t realise this but the success or failure of his show will dictate history. It will dictate how hard Seven will go to get the television rights. It will show the NRL how rugby league can thrive when promoted by more than one free-to-air station. It will show how poorly Nine has treated the game over the last two decades.

Matthew Johns has the future of rugby league at his fingertips. And, strangely, I feel safe. Few have his passion for the game and nearly nobody has his ability to win over such a wide variety of people. Seven is the chosen land for rugby league fans while Nine represents purgatory and Matt Johns is our Moses. Deep down Johns wants revenge and he will be doing his best to force the same humiliation on Nine that they forced on him. With his motives and his talent, the smart money is on Johns becoming a rollicking success at Seven, the man who took rugby league to a new and better home.

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