Thank God You're Here: articles

Shaun Micallef and Nicola Parry

Shaun Micallef has been in fine form on Thank God You're Here.

Up there, Micallef

Never mind the footy, Thank God You're Here is the best game on TV. Melinda Houston rates three of the show's key players.

In sports-mad Melbourne, we love a hard-fought competition. There's nothing quite like the thrill of seeing players at the top of their game battle it out, not just for the ultimate prize, but for those individual moments of fleeting glory, where the force is truly with them. As spectators we're in awe of their exquisite skills. And we feel their pain when that same magic fails them, when injury or simple inattention leaves them sidelined and breathless.

No wonder Thank God You're Here has become the most-watched spectator sport in the country.

These champion performers inhabit a strange alternative reality for us. On the one hand, almost god-like in their abilities. Yet simultaneously they feel like family as we enter into their triumphs, and their heartbreak. And while we all have our favourites, three players have dominated both the commentary and the attention - and affection - of punters this season, no matter where our loyalties lie.

Last year's top draft pick, Hamish Blake, is just such a one. With his baby face and silky skills, he's a naturally gifted player who can always be relied on to bring home the bacon, as it were, no matter how tough the competition or how tight the contest. He takes risks, pushing the boundaries of good taste without ever endangering the comp's PG rating. And he's a joy to watch, as much for his boyish enthusiasm as his undeniable talent. This is a player truly in it for the love of the game.

And after watching him come up through the minor leagues and local competitions, the coaching team know just how to bring out the best in him. They'll often work to his strengths, matching him up with older players and letting him run them ragged. His youth and exuberance, combined with his determination to control the play, make him an unbeatable adversary no matter what the opposition throw at him. And even played out of position (as he was last year, when the match committee decided to cast him as a grandpa rather than a schoolboy or a young buck) he still shone. This is a kid equal to any challenge.

In fact many are calling him the next Shaun Micallef - another player whom the public holds in enormous respect and affection. Micallef, of course, is a very different proposition on the field. But while he may lack Blake's boundless energy, he more than makes up for it in wisdom and experience.

A mature player, he's been through a few clubs over the years, not all of which have played him in the right position. But given the right setting, he's still capable of blowing the opposition away. And that's precisely what his current handlers have done. Anything that takes advantage of his natural assets - that silver hair, those funny accents - and he's unstoppable.

He also (like Blake) has a real instinct for the game, combined with all the benefits of maturity. He'll take advantage of the slightest opportunity - often, opportunities other players wouldn't even see - whether that's dragging the umpire onto the field as a diversion, or eating the props to buy time. And if an opportunity isn't there, he'll create one.

Indeed, it's as if he reinvents the game every time he takes to the pitch. If Blake runs the rest of the field ragged, Micallef leaves them scratching their heads in his wake, wondering WTF just happened. It makes him a dangerous opponent but an asset to any side. Anyone coming up against Micallef knows to expect the unexpected.

The other quality he shares with Blake is true leadership. They're on the front foot from the moment the siren sounds, going in hard, dominating play, forcing the rest of the team to play catch-up. It's a lesson for any up-and-comer.

And it's a lesson one of those youngsters - Fifi Box - is finally starting to take on board. Box has been a sleeper, one of those players in whom a good coach sees potential - even if no one else does. For her first couple of seasons, the commentators were bewildered. Why was she so often selected in the side? Why was she still even on the playing list? A chronic fumbler of the ball given to disastrous brain-fades, hers were often real car-crash performances, more notable for wince-making lapses than her occasional flashes of brilliance. Many were convinced she'd be dropped this season. But the selectors kept the faith and finally this week she's starting to show the character the experts believed was there, but that the ordinary punter has been unable to discern.

Thrust into a high-level meeting in which she's required to defend her job, she immediately goes on the attack. You can see the opposition struggling to maintain their momentum and stay with the game plan as she ducks and weaves, refusing to stick with the script. It's the kind of manoeuvre Blake and Micallef have made their own, and it really works for her.

Unfortunately she still doesn't quite have the skills or the energy to maintain the necessary controlled aggression and begins to fade badly in the final quarter. But it's the most promising performance we've seen from Box yet. And as we move towards the pointy end of the season - and beyond - she'll be one to watch.

By Melinda Houston
August 12, 2007
The Age