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Rediscovering the game

Journalists will tell you there are a thousand different ways to extract a story from an AFL star. But while footy scribes from around the country tried each of them during the 2013 season, Chris Jones and Richard Hughes found a new approach.

Rather than trying to mine stories out of players, the duo from Channel Seven’s Saturday night team instead allowed players to tell their own stories – the ones they wanted to share.

The results were spectacular. At this year’s Be the Influence AFL Players’ MVP Awards, Jones and Hughes accepted the Grant Hattam Trophy on behalf of Channel Seven for an episode featuring Greater Western Sydney Giant Jeremy Cameron in its 2013 #DISCOVERED series.

The Grant Hattam Trophy is given for excellence in football journalism each season, but to some degree the football element was taken out of the equation for this year’s winners.

The #DISCOVERED series – which aired during Seven’s pre-match broadcast each Saturday night – strictly explored the lives of players away from the football field.

Jones, one of the creators of #DISCOVERED, describes the series as an attempt to “colour in the characters that play football and talk about everything other than kicks, marks and handballs.”

It was an idea that sat well with Hughes, a film-maker who brought an artistic vision to the program.

“Sport seems quite analytical in ways, so the opportunity to bring my handle, which is a more artistic, creative, kind of film-style and punch that with sport is a cool challenge,” Hughes says.

His unique style as a director has meant the series looks unlike anything else you’ll see during a footy broadcast. He’s thankful for the freedom his employers have given him.

“Basically it’s just free reign, which is the beauty of it. There are no creative barriers,” he says.

“With the success of the first couple [of episodes] it was kind of established that we were on to something good, and it was left in our backyard.”

“With the success of the first couple [of episodes] it was kind of established that we were on to something good, and it was left in our backyard.”

With Hughes’s creativity at the helm, each story has been different. Jones believes the unpredictability of the series has proven to be one of its greatest strengths.

“We tried to have a real cross-section of people. The beauty of #DISCOVERED is you don’t know what you’re going to be watching from one week to the next,” he says.

“We’ve done everyone from Gary Ablett and ‘Buddy’ Franklin through to beautiful stories on Bachar Houli and Ahmed Saad for Multicultural Round. We took some indigenous players to the base of Uluru to do a clinic. We’ve met players who have had a different path to football like Sam Dwyer and other players who are a bit misunderstood like Eddie Betts and Dan Connors.”

It was a specific piece about Jeremy Cameron’s hometown of Dartmoor that saw Jones and Hughes awarded the Grant Hattam Trophy. They agree the success of that particular story can largely be attributed to the access Cameron allowed them.

“As part of the broadcast policy, you only get 20-30 minutes with players,” Jones explains.

“But often, when they’ve found out they’re doing a #DISCOVERED [players are far more generous with their time]. Jeremy Cameron, for instance, gave us a couple of days at home with him in Dartmoor.”

Hughes suggests filming players in environments in which they’re comfortable has a big effect on the way their stories come across.

“We did Jeremy Cameron in his hometown and Travis Cloke in his lounge room,” he says.

“We brought [Cloke] down to a level where he was totally comfortable to talk about his father and stuff that he didn’t usually talk about, which was cool.”

“I think the real secret has been producers – like Mitch Finlayson and Jodie Fullerton –who have gone out on their shoots with Rich, and really been able to make the players feel comfortable,” Jones says.

“They just want to find out more about their personalities, rather than trying to get a football story. That’s been huge to securing the tone of the pieces.”

“If you have a club legend like BT [Brian Taylor] asking Travis Cloke questions, it’s going to change the attitude of the whole interview,” Hughes adds.

In a strange sort of way, it seems to help that Hughes isn’t the world’s most avid footy fan.

“I’ve come from a creative-centric family and yeah, I loved footy, but from working here – it’s my fifth year [at Channel Seven] – it’s gone down and down because I’ve been involved in it so much,” he reflects.

“This is probably the one year where I haven’t watched footy at all. I don’t watch footy, I haven’t enjoyed it as much. But I think that’s why I really enjoy #DISCOVERED, because we don’t talk about it.”

While Jones is “the complete opposite” and feels “privileged to spend time with people who are idolised and shape people’s moods from one week to the next,” he also understands the importance of approaching the players with a grounded perspective.

He believes talking to the players “on their level, rather than talking up to them” helps them feel comfortable sharing their stories.

“Maybe they’re refreshed to feel that ‘oh, he doesn’t want my autograph or a photo’,” suggests Hughes.

“We spend a lot of time researching who they are, not what they do,” Jones says.

“What are their interests away from football? What sort of person are they? Are they bubbly? Are they quiet? What makes them tick, away from footy?”

At times, players are reluctant to deal with media requests. The fact players have voted #DISCOVERED the winner of the Grant Hattam Trophy tells Jones the series has been a big success.

“For us to win an award that’s voted by the players is significant, because we really wanted to create a piece that players want to be involved in and wanted to watch. That was really our greatest mission statement at the start,” Jones says.

The pair couldn’t be more humbled to win the award.

“It is an absolutely massive honour to win an award named after Grant Hattam. The Hattams are obviously a wonderful family.”

There is a possibility of Hughes and Jones teaming up with Ladder – the AFL Players’ Association’s official charity – to create a series similar to #DISCOVERED next year.

“It is very much in its infancy and nothing is ticked off, but through Game Day we have been a huge supporter of Ladder and we certainly want to continue that association, because it’s a great association.”

Before exploring that project, the duo has some unfinished business to attend to.

“We’ve got some ideas around doing a #DISCOVERED for the Grand Final,” Jones says.

Hughes hints Carlton Coach Mick Malthouse may be involved.

It may be the last #DISCOVERED for the year, but based on the success of the series, Jones and Hughes will continue to tell the game’s untold stories for some time yet.