“All of us were disappointed that had to happen,” says Baird, “and it had to happen to ensure the safety of all, not just the ninjas, but also the crew and everyone working on the show.
“It was a very difficult decision, but we had to do it.”
But he assures fans: “It is still ninjas competing under the auspices of Australian Ninja Warrior, and there are some pretty exciting things that happen in it.”
Another curveball was a sudden forced change in personnel, with Ninja‘s much-loved sideline eye Freddie Flintoff forced to fly back to England.
“It got to a point where we realised that for his safety, for his family, and for his peace of mind, we had to make that decision,” Baird says. “A difficult decision, but when it did occur, it wasn’t a surprise to us — we’d spent days and days discussing it.”
Cometh the hour, cometh the man: the exit of Freddie meant the entry of football legend Shane Crawford, an ex-sportsman in the Flintoff mould, whose transition to TV star always felt like a natural progression.
After being put on standby in anticipation of the Englishman’s potential departure, Crawford was initially called up not for Freddie, but for Ninja co-host Rebecca Maddern, who was awaiting results of a COVID-19 test. It was not the job he’d been expecting to do, but in classic Crawford fashion, he threw himself into it with gusto, following the philosophy that has clearly served him well: “don’t overthink things”.
“Obviously it’s a huge show, and you film right through the night, so I just jumped in and thought ‘OK, just have fun and just go with it’ … obviously I would’ve liked a fair bit of preparation going into it.”
Then Maddern returned, but Freddie winged back to the Motherland, and Crawford stepped straight into the job, which calls not just for commentary, but for talking to the competitors and offering congratulations or commiserations.
It’s a role Crawford might’ve been made for, and restrictions imposed by lockdown may have even enhanced the experience for him.
“I love the interaction with the ninjas, because unfortunately, they had no one there – they were just by themselves and no one in the grandstands. So I felt like not only am I commentating from the side, but I’ve become their supporter, their coach and their friend. It was a great way to experience a big show like that.”
It was an eye-opener for the one-time Brownlow medallist, who came to the show as a long-time fan. “I always loved watching the show: I suppose on TV you think ‘ah, we could all have a crack at that, surely we could get down that far’. But when you actually see it up close and live, it’s like, wow. It’s not like going down the local park and climbing across the monkey bars.”
It’s a big wrap for the ninjas, from a man whose own feats of physical strength, speed and endurance made him a superstar. And, not surprisingly for an ex-footballer, there were times when the old competitive urge kicked in.
“Every time we’d have a moment’s break, I’m like ‘Ohh I’d love to have a crack at that’. I did have a go at the warped wall – we were told not to, but I did the wrong thing. I wasn’t going to stop until I finally got there, but I probably had way too many attempts.”
However, a career pivot into ninja-hood isn’t on the cards. “I would love to have a go, but if you want to do anything and do it well, you’ve gotta be prepared, and I know if I tried something like that without being prepared, I’m going to be extremely disappointed. Preparation is key with everything in life, or realistically you’re not going to go far – so pull your head in.”
This emphasises a key part of Ninja Warrior‘s appeal: it’s not just a big show, it’s a sport.
“These guys and girls train so hard,” says Crawford. “The strength, the balance, the flexibility and agility … it requires a whole range of fitness. It’s definitely a sport.”
As such, there’s little doubt that Ninja fans will remain just as keen to catch the new season, even without the crowds. Like footy teams battling it out in locked-down arenas, on Australian Ninja Warrior, the game’s the thing.
WHAT Australian Ninja Warrior (series return)
WHEN Nine, Sunday, 7pm