Each year our best rugby league experts come together for NITV's broadcast of the Koori Knockout Carnival. We spoke to three of NITV's commentators to find out what drives these insiders.
By
Julie Nimmo

26 Sep 2019 - 12:15 PM  UPDATED 26 Sep 2019 - 12:15 PM

As each day brings us closer to the Koori Knockout kick-off, it'd be safe to say hearts are fluttering and stomachs would surely be churning with excitement. Everyone involved from the players to the organisers, the clubs and all their supporters would be feeling the pressure, scheduled to explode (good ways) this weekend.

Excitement is also rising inside NITV headquarters and amongst the commentators booked to call this exceptional, heartland football carnival. 

The NITV commentary team includes; Brad Cooke, Djuro Sen, Dean Widders along with Over the Black Dot panel members, Bo de la Cruz and Jodan Perry, with exclusive interviews and news. Beau Champion will provide expert commentary.  The Knockout will also celebrate the best in women’s rugby league, with legendary Australian player and former Australian of the Year nominee, Katrina Fanning taking over the commentary for the women’s finals over the weekend, along with NRL player and journalist Tanisha Stanton providing online coverage on Friday and Saturday.

Everyone preparing for the competition knows, this is not for the faint-hearted. Our commentators are dedicated to getting everything absolutely right. This commitment is a show of respect for the fact that every match-up is played as hard and fast as humanly possible.

As the fans know, in this 'do or die' competition, there are no second chances to succeed. A loss is the end of the road while a win means moving one step closer to grand final glory.

When the stakes are this high, what does it mean for our commentators?

Brad Cooke

Brad Cooke has been NITV's lead Koori Knockout commentator since 2008. His natural joy for the game has taken him to ABC Grandstand where he called NRL for three years. 

Brad puts his longevity down to one thing, "I have so much respect for every single person who puts on a jersey and runs out there, whether you're 1 to 25 on each team."

And it's his connection to our community that is his strongest guide, how best to call the game.

"Every time a person puts a foot on the field, I am trying to mention their name so their family hear their name mentioned. I'm not just calling the action, I'm trying to make sure every person gets mentioned so mob can be proud their young person played." 

Family comes first, and Brad knows the joy of hearing your family name called out. He and his brothers played the game for many years, representing La Perouse.

"I was quite lucky, I played in a few Knockout’s in the 90’s, back when I was a boy. I played in an U19 exhibition game. I was the captain and we played against Moree.

"La Perouse had players support from other regions, especially some guys from Redfern; Anthony Mundine, Wes Patton, Robbie Simpson. It was an incredible team, we even had Latrell Mitchell’s dad Matty Mitchell play for us.

"For me I found I was in a position where I could lead a team and win a Knockout, hold a trophy, hold the shield up. How could you not fall in love, with such a huge crowd at Henson Park at Marrickville and I was captain of a winning team, for my community. It was crazy, I immediately fell in love."

But there are challenges to the job, specifically getting players names right. "Historically I used to get team lists 5 minutes before kick off. I'd have to look at 50 names on a sheet, 25 names on each page. They’ll be handwritten in running writing and you didn’t even know what they were.

"Funniest moment, I remember I called a game in Bathurst. It was freezing cold, and I had ripped my pants, split them top to bottom climbing up the scaffold. I had to yell out to Mark Ella, 'hey can you drive me back to hotel so I can change my pants'. Shame-job.

"So, it was minus 2C with that cold air blowing through in a scaffold, while I am trying to call a game. And I remember I hadn’t double checked one or two of the names, and of course it was a name where I put a Polynesian spin on the pronunciation instead of saying it as it looked. Well, I got it wrong.

"Unbeknown to me I am calling it and one of the female relatives of that player is sitting directly underneath me and she can hear everything I am saying. So at the top of her voice she screams out, “hey you idiot – his name is Terare, not Terrarrie”. 

Brad had a long, shy laugh at this awkward moment, recalling how he had to mute his microphone for what he said next “hey sorry Aunt, no-one told me.” It was a lesson Brad says he'll never forget.

"Funny thing is, I actually know one of the Terare's from Redfern, and I said to him "Oh brother, I never knew how to say your last name and I got it wrong and one of the aunties [at the Knockout] ripped me." His friend reassured him “aw you’re alright brother, you’re alright”.

Brad reflects "I love it, I do. It’s why I helped develop with my little brother Mitchell The KO App, with live scoring to support the carnival, but also cheekily he says "so people would stop asking me questions!"

 

Dean Widders

Born in Armidale NSW, this proud Anaiwan man played his first game of football at 6 and his first Knockout at 15.

"Up in Armidale, it’s everything to us, the Knockout."

Dean also won three Koori Knockouts with his hometown Narwan Eels in the 2000s, and he played and coached the Redfern All Blacks to a record equaling 3 grand final wins in a row, plus 2 Koori Knockouts in a row from 2015-2017. 

What makes the Koori Knockout special for Dean?

"At 15, my first year I played alongside my Dad, Jake Widders. The opportunity to play for Narwan Eels alongside my dad and my uncles and all the people I looked up to, it was an amazing thing. You felt that confident, that safe and protected with your Dad on the field next to you. You were looked after.

"I felt I had the best coach right alongside me, running and helping and teaching me."

From that moment on Dean never stopped playing footy. At 17, he moved to Sydney to play with Sydney Roosters, debuting in 2000 and playing 13 NRL matches. In 2002 he signed on with Parramatta Eels, in 2005 he was part of the Parramatta side which won the minor premiership, before finishing with the club at the end of 2006.

The following two years Dean played with South Sydney Rabbitohs.  From 2009 to 2011 Dean played in England, for the Castelford Tigers in the Super League, which is the top-level professional rugby league club competition in the Northern Hemisphere.

In November 2018, Dean participated in the Legends of League tournament for Parramatta. 

But this year will be radically different as Dean won't be on field anymore. His dream to play one last time for his hometown side, the Narwan Eels has been crushed. Dean says "the football gods have decided enough is enough." 

Until a few weeks ago everything had been on track with a solid training regime for the 2019 Knockout, until the sickening moment when Dean realised something was drastically wrong.

"My knee buckled and just gave way on me. I had scans come back and confirm I need an operation. I’m pretty devastated to be missing out."

The disappointment cuts deep for this champion of the game.

"This was going to be my last year playing and I wanted to go out with a bang. To go out representing Armidale and Narwan and teach all the young boys what I got taught as a young boy, about representing the mob and the community and upholding that Narwan spirit. That’s what I was looking forward to, showcasing that one last time."

Dean remembers another very special Knockout moment was in 2015 when he played for Redfern All-Blacks. They beat the Newcastle All-Blacks in the grand final. But the win was bittersweet, "that was all my family you know.

"My Dad was coach and all my step brothers and cousins were all playing in the NAB team. When we won, the first thing I did was not to celebrate but to check on the NAB boys because it meant that much to all the family.

"One of us was going to win and one of us was going to lose but we just had to go hard in the game. And afterwards it was like…I was proud of what we had achieved, but I was concerned too about the boys, that they were suffering a loss." As much as he loves football, for Dean family always comes first.

And its the catch-up with family and friends at the Knockout that Dean looks forward to every year. 

"It's good because everyone wants a yarn, all my mobs there you know. And I get to catch up with e/one in the one place, and I really look forward to that, talking about football. But once the games start we’re all into the footy."

This year Dean will be sitting on sidelines, trying to stop himself from having a run but he has promised, he'll bust out some old skool moves at the After Party. So lookout for this legend and give him all the love he deserves.

 

Beau Champion

Beau joins the Knockout commentary team after a long and successful career playing at the elite level of NRL for 10 years, and holding a spot with Indigenous All-Stars for 2 years. Although his professional commitments kept him off the Knockout field, his love for the carnival goes way back in time. 

"I love Koori Knockout. I’ve been going to the Knockout since I was 3 years old. When I was a young kid I got to experience my dad, Darren Champion winning a Knockout for La Perouse in 1991.

"I remember being at the game at Guildford, I remember it was really hot." The heat of that day radiates through this photo taken after his dad's team reached the pinnacle of success. 

Beau say "the main reason to go isn’t so much about the Football. Obviously the football is great." The main pull for is the chance to see family, "as I am based in Sydney and a lot of my family are up the mid-north coast, it’s a good opportunity to connect, to see a lot of my friends and family who are Indigenous as well."

"I think the reason why KKO is so unique is because we all gather at one place at one time. In the end it is about football but it’s also a celebration of our culture. To watch some great footy and reconnect with family and friends."

This year the carnival will be held at Tuggerah, at the NSW Central Coast Regional Sporting and Recreation Complex.  

If you cant be at the football field, you can catch all the action from the 49th NSW Koori Knockout live on Friday 4 October and Saturday 5 October on NITV's Facebook page. Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter using #KooriKnockout

The main games on Sunday 6 October from 9am-5pm and Monday 7 October from 9am-5.30pm will be broadcast live on NITV and SBS. 

Replays will be available via SBS On Demand after broadcast.