Heroics & Heartbreak: Uncompromising Honesty

Heroics and Heartbreak is a brave and astute observation of all things All Blacks, and maybe a book that the higher-ups should care to read.

I have to admit, I didn’t read Brothers in Black, the first book Jamie Wall wrote.

But over a coffee in September 2019, Wall tells me he is working on another book, basically an “inside look” into life on the road with the All Blacks as told by the perspective of a journalist covering them.

Ok, sold, and I immediately politely requested a signed copy upon release.

I wanted to get my hands on this, not just because I know Jamie, I’ve worked alongside him and I’m a fan of his work, but I also knew that with his writing ability and uncompromising search for transparency, this would be a book that tackled some of the issues all of us on the rugby journalism scene had talked about in one way or another.

And that’s exactly what Wall delivers with Heroics and Heartbreak, a book about New Zealand’s top brand and what it’s like work with them every day. News flash, it’s not always great.

On the back of Heroics and Heartbreak, you read the following question: What happened to the All Blacks at the 2019 Rugby World Cup?

Wall, now one of New Zealand’s best journalists and a two-time rugby author, might not capture the complete answer to that question, but his year-long tale does indeed tell a fascinating story.

The real strength of what Wall has put together in this, a 368-page diary, is a great insight into life as a journalist covering the All Blacks. At its most basic level, this is the story, twined together well with astute observations that range from experiences that were clearly both a mixture of enjoyable and downright frustrating for Wall.

As a sports journalist myself, and having worked with the All Blacks on a handful of occasions, some of the points that Wall makes didn’t surprise me in the slightest. Frankly, as a participant in this industry, I found that side of Heroics and Heart Break to be far more interesting. But Wall isn’t just a journalist, he’s a damn good storyteller and something of a budding historian.

What you get with Heroics and Heart Break isn’t just a book targeted at readers with an interest in the media industry, either.

My assumption is that Wall really wanted to paint the picture of a team (perhaps even a sport) that is wildly complex, conservative and in dire need of a new approach.

Perhaps the selling point of the story is in Chapter 43, The State of the Union, when Wall discusses his observations when attending a Mitre 10 Cup game between Auckland and Canterbury where he finds empty stands, little to no media coverage and a generally lifeless atmosphere at a game that was once one of the big days on the New Zealand Rugby calendar.

Not unheard of, but brave for a journalist with many connections at NZ Rugby to come out and talk about that.

Also brave was pulling no punches in his description of “the worst crowd ever” that attended the 16-all draw between the All Blacks and Springboks in Wellington, the native home city for Wall, or his reaction to the Steve Hansen meltdown post RWC 2019 semifinal.

That’s the real strength of this book, the bravery in which it was written. As the All Blacks megabrand heads into a new era, it may take brave thinking similar brave thinking in order to address what are becoming problems that the union can no longer avoid.

MY RATING: 7/10

Climbed Over At All Blacks (Diaries Of A Disabled Journalist)

The Diaries of a Disabled Journalist, Edition One.

It’s Friday, June 10th 2016 and I’m about to get climbed over at my first ever All Blacks press conference. 

Eden Park’s glorious grandstands are completely empty. It feels like a ghost town as I roll across the hallowed turf in my wheelchair. We come out of the west side tunnel and negotiate our way to the middle of the field. It’s just me, an NZ Rugby official and a couple of overseas journalists, presumably here covering the Welsh tour.

Wow, I think to myself, I’m actually on the field at Eden Park.

It starts to rain so I retreat under the stands and it’s not until I’m parked that I discover I’m actually in the players’ tunnel. This time tomorrow, All Blacks players, television crews and security will be everywhere and I won’t be allowed anywhere near this close to the action. I decide to make the most of it and take a nervous look around.

Unlike tomorrow, there is nothing here right now, it feels just as lifeless as it did out on the field. A few cables line the green matted floor, to each side of the tunnel there are two long corridors which lead to the respective dressing rooms where the All Blacks and Wales rugby players will preside.

Wales are already here, but only just a couple of their kickers and an assistant coach. I say to hell with the rain and head back down the tunnel and out onto the field. Dan Biggar, the Welsh first five, is taking practice shots at goal so I park next to the sideline and take a few photos and one poorly shot iPhone video of his routine.

Then it’s time for the first interview of the day, with the Welsh assistant coach.

It’s about 11.00 am, I’ve been up since 6.00 am and in work mode since around 9.00 am. The 90-minute drive up the Waikato expressway from Hamilton is spent writing my first story of the day on my portable table, lodged between the front of my wheelchair and locks which hold me in place.

Today’s first story is a preview piece focusing on how Wales will go against the All Blacks. By the time I get to Eden Park, all that needs to be added is quotes from the impending interview, and as expected, the little that the Welsh assistant coach actually says doesn’t derail the tone of the story and force a total rewrite.

From there, the few of us journos who bothered to show up are then directed into an underground holding room back on the west side of the ground. Inside it’s cold, empty and certainly no sign of food or hot drink. This doesn’t go down well considering it’s the middle of winter and very cold.

I take the nearest available desk and begin scrolling Google Images for a decent photo of the Welsh assistant coach we just spoke to.

Unlike my counterparts, I don’t work for a mainstream media organisation so I don’t get the benefit of accessing the library of professional photos that were just taken from the practice session we just saw. I find the most recent and best-looking image I can find, add the quotes into the WordPress article draft and hit “submit for review” where I hope an editor in the US or Europe finds it quickly.

That hope is disappointed, the story doesn’t get published until later that afternoon, well after my mainstream media peers have already had theirs go live. Oh well, I think to myself, their work is probably going to get more views anyway and this is really an opportunity to practice my craft.

It’s now around 12.30 pm and we now have to wait for the big event of the day, the All Blacks captains run where we get to interview the new skipper, Kieran Read.

The term “holding room” to describe where the media contingent was placed is indeed accurate, and after nearly two hours of work and the occasional stop for chatter, we all begin making jokes about being animals locked in an enclosure until feeding time.

The feed we seek, of course, is that big interview with the new All Blacks captain and we all have a list of questions we all desperately hope to fire at him.

Another hour goes by, and finally, we are let out of the enclosure. The All Blacks are on the field, training intensely. Most of us have our eyes locked on that, but a turn to your left and you notice that the stand is scattered with members of the public who’ve been given the opportunity to come along and watch the final practice before the match. This scattering features kids, parents and a whole lot of sponsors. A Japanese group is lucky enough to have even closer seats to the action, they’re down on the field with us and currently huddled around Sam Whitelock as he practices some scrum work.

Julian Savea, the powerful All Black winger who has so often been compared to the likes of Jonah Lomu, runs over to retrieve a ball that lands close to me. Bloody hell, I think to myself, he’s a bloody big unit but his intensity in the face is about as confronting as his physical stature. He doesn’t take his eye off the ball for a single second as his ranging arm comes down and scoops the ball up. I smile and nod at him, but he doesn’t notice. Just looking at those eyes you can tell, even at training, he’s in the zone.

I see little of the training on field because the media contingent, now sizeably bigger than before, has set up shop with their cameras and I don’t have a hope of wedging my wheelchair into the line. Balls are flying everywhere, the kids in the stands are yelling and cameras are flashing. It’s an absolute hive of activity.

“Hey Joe,” I say, “can you please let me know when Kieran is coming over so I can get in position?” I ask quietly to the media manager. He smiles, “sure mate I will let you know”.

Joe, being the man responsible for setting up the media conference and the guy who brings the All Black captain over to us journalists, doesn’t let me know. Out of sheer luck, I spot Kieran walking over and race toward where he’s headed. I park at the front of the media pack, directly behind all the microphones that are already set up.

Kieran walks over, smiles at me and says hello, then the interview begins.

One journalist literally climbs over the side of my wheelchair in an attempt to get closer to Kieran. “Excuse me mate”, he says as he manoeuvres himself over me. He stands directly in front me after that and all chances of getting a decent photo and video are gone.

A second journalist does the exact same thing a minute, and then a third. It’s more than a little belittling, but I’m so caught up in the moment that it didn’t actually register how disrespectful and downright discriminatory that was.

I have it on good authority from NZ Rugby that up until that point they’d never had someone in a wheelchair as part of the media pack before. It is just as much of a learning opportunity for them, and as much as something like that would enrage a lot of disabled people, I take it on the chin and make the best of the interview with Kieran that I can.

In fact, I even manage to ask a question of the man tasked with arguably the toughest job in New Zealand sport. It made the early rise, the ordeal of sitting in the holding room and the frustration of being climbed over, all worth it.

After that, I’m back in the van and we are heading back down the expressway to home. But work is far from over. My laptop is open and I am doing two things at once as we hurtle out of Mt Eden and greater Auckland.

Firstly, I plug in the recorder and begin listening back to what Kieran had to say, typing quotes into a word document. After I’ve picked four quotes, I begin writing the story. At the same time, I’m on Twitter posting photos and quotes from Kieran onto my timeline, looking at what other media outlets are doing just in case I’ve missed any crucial details, and I’m also texting a New Zealand-based editor to see how quickly he can get the story online.

By the time we hit Mercer, a small town south of Auckland, the story is done and ready for editorial.

Two stories, check, but a third is yet to come. I need to turn both these stories, the Welsh angle and the All Blacks angle, into a column that needs to be online tomorrow morning. We get back to Hamilton just before 7.00 pm, I quickly go to the bathroom and then eat, before opening up another word document and typing that crucial third story.

I finish writing at 10.00 pm. Sleep isn’t just easy, it’s automatic.

Super Rugby 2019: Chiefs Squad Analysis

Like they have in seasons prior, the Chiefs will field a squad that features a mix of proven performers and unknown young talent ahead of the 2019 Investec Super Rugby campaign.

That unknown talent has a proven track record to defy all expectations in Chiefs country. Don’t believe this pundit? Look no further than last season. Several players with little pedigree went on to become top-level performers and influenced the games that the Chiefs managed to win.

In 2019, the Chiefs keep their members of the core leadership group (Retallick, Cane, McKenzie, Harris, etc). As expected, they welcome some exciting new talent also, such as rising Sevens star Etene Nanai-Seturo and All Blacks wider squad prop Reuben O’Niell.

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Japanese international Ataata Moekiola joins the ranks, and a surprise selection for experienced Super Rugby utility back Jack Debreczeni provides cover in several positions. Debreczeni will be known to New Zealand rugby fans after stints for Northland in the Mitre 10 Cup, and regular selections for the Melbourne Rebels in previous Super Rugby seasons.

Colin Cooper Needs Consistency from Chiefs in 2019

For head coach Colin Cooper, embarking on his new coaching role with the Chiefs wasn’t a daunting experience, but a relishing one. Cooper frequently spoke about being more comfortable at this later point in his coaching career compared to his previous Super Rugby role at the Hurricanes. Added to that, Cooper’s successful time coaching the Maori All Blacks saw the proud Taranaki man arrive in Chiefs country feeling at ease and with little to prove.

Cooper’s first year at the helm was a reasonably successful one all told, but a high number of injuries to key players along the way was an unwelcome reality for a squad that was already depleted of some big names from the year prior. The likes of Aaron Cruden, James Lowe, and Tawera Kerr-Barlow (just to name a few) were gone, leaving some serious pressure on younger players in the backline to fill that void. The likes of Sean Wainui and Soloman Aliamalo stood into their respective roles and stood out in particular.

Injuries to Sam Cane and Brodie Rettallick hampered the forward pack throughout 2018, but it saw players like Mitch Karpik, Michael Allardice, and in particular, big props Karl Tu’inukuafe and Angus Ta’avao really shine when their moment came. Through these brave and forced selections, Cooper showed a keen eye to spot a mixture talent on different ends of the age spectrum, but all of which, with little experience at Super Rugby level.

Individual Stories of Intrigue in Selections for 2019

When you look at this Chiefs squad for 2019 on paper, it reads a lot as you’d expect, with a few exceptions.

Some of the new selections were scouted early on, including new midfielder Bailyn Sullivan. During his time with the Mooloos, Sullivan was reported to have been entering conversations with Chiefs coaches from as early as the opening weeks of the Mitre 10 Cup campaign with the Mooloos.

But for some of the more experienced and well-known names in the squad, like Brad Weber, the 2019 season presents the opportunity for one last shot at higher honors.

When The Real Michael Pulman spoke with Weber recently, the 27-year old said he was still gunning for a spot in the All Blacks ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The one time All Black has consistently missed International selection in recent seasons despite performing on the park across both Super and Mitre 10 Cup rugby. In 2018, Weber was overlooked in favor of fellow Chiefs halfback Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, and Weber himself, whilst happy for Tahuriorangi’s success, was left frustrated when he didn’t receive any communication from All Black coaches with guidance as to where he needed to improve his game.

Likewise with players like Shaun Stevenson, proven at Super Rugby level but seen to be “not quite ready” for the black jersey. 2019 presents players like Weber and Stevenson, amongst many others, with an unlikely yet still very achievable bolt into Steve Hansen’s All Blacks ahead of the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Super Rugby 2019: Chiefs Squad Analysis

So where to in terms of Super Rugby honors for this franchise?

In 2018, the Chiefs managed to make the playoffs but rued several basic mistakes on a terrible night in Wellington where they would lose to the Hurricanes by just a single point, but in a match where the scoreline really humbled the visitors.

Really, the performance that night was a fitting example of Chiefs season that was never able to maintain any real consistency, and one that also failed to secure results in the matches that really mattered.

The Chiefs have always had the ability to win the title since their back-to-back run in 2012/13, but a mixture of injuries and a lack of continuity of winning results have hampered those efforts significantly. At times, one could argue that there have also been some off-field dramas that haven’t helped the cause.

Furthermore, the Chiefs seem to be a side more prone to mass injuries if recent examples are anything to go by. Those injuries have left everyone involved with this franchise frustrated in recent seasons, so for Cooper and his fellow assistant coaches, the goal will just be to get through the November/December/January period with little concern in this area.

The 2019 version of this Chiefs squad doesn’t scream title-winning favorites by any stretch, but it certainly provides the depth, proven experience, and world-class talent to be a serious contender once again.

The Full Chiefs Squad For 2019:

Props
Kane Hames (Tasman)
Aidan Ross (Bay of Plenty)
Reuben O’Neill (Taranaki)
Nepo Laulala (Counties Manukau)
Atu Moli (Waikato)
Sosefo Kautai (Waikato)
Angus Ta’avao (Taranaki)
Hookers
Nathan Harris (Bay of Plenty)
Liam Polwart (Bay of Plenty)
Samisoni Taukei’aho (Waikato)
Locks
Brodie Retallick (Hawke’s Bay)
Tyler Ardron (Bay of Plenty)
Laghlan McWhannell (Waikato)
Michael Allardice (Hawke’s Bay)
Fin Hoeata (Taranaki)
Loose forwards
Mitchell Brown (Taranaki)
Taleni Seu (Auckland)
Sam Cane (Bay of Plenty)
Mitchell Karpik (Bay of Plenty)
Lachlan Boshier (Taranaki)
Luke Jacobson (Waikato)
Pita Gus Sowakula (Taranaki)
Halfbacks
Brad Weber (Hawke’s Bay)
Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (Taranaki)
Jonathan Taumateine (Counties Manukau)
First five-eighths
Damian McKenzie (Waikato)
Tiaan Falcon (Hawke’s Bay)
Jack Debreczeni (Northland)
Midfielders
Alex Nankivell (Tasman)
Anton Lienert-Brown (Waikato)
Tumua Manu (Auckland)
Bailyn Sullivan (Waikato)
Outside backs
Solomon Alaimalo (Tasman)
Sean Wainui (Taranaki)
Ataata Moeakiola (Japan)
Etene Nanai-Seturo (Counties Manukau)
Shaun Stevenson (North Harbour)
Marty McKenzie (Taranaki)

“Photo credit”

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Reporting on rugby from a wheelchair

As one of the rare wheelchair-bound members of New Zealand’s rugby media pack, it’s been an interesting experience thus far and on a few examples I’ve had to “drive my way in” to get those all-important quotes on record.

The key is that I be up front and honest about the disability and access requirements right from the start. Not to my fellow reporters, but to the media managers.

I do this when I inquire about an interview possibility, attend a game, and especially filling out application forms for accreditation. Questions like “is the venue wheelchair accessible?” and “will my support worker be able to attend with me?” are some of the ones I ask.

Ahead of my first year covering Super Rugby as part of the accredited media, I had the conversation with a media manager about all this. They told me to fill out two application forms, but the prior conversation had been important just to establish why I needed a support worker with me in the media room at all times. The reason for someone being there isn’t just so they “can get into the game for free” as one person put it, but it’s because I actually need someone (who is paid by me) to help me with getting things in and out of my bag, et cetera.

In general, other reporters have always been greatly welcoming and inclusive toward me.

I’ve had some people jokingly say that I “played the wheelchair card” to get media access with rugby teams. Me stating my access issues, or the need for a support worker to attend with me, is just a necessity so that I can perform to my very best ability.

Most media rooms I’ve seen are accessible to wheelchairs, but there have been examples of venues that can’t stake the same claim.

One such example of this is Rotorua International Stadium. The Chiefs had shifted one of their home games to this venue in 2015. I signalled my interest to work at the game, but after a few inquiries I learnt that the media room was not wheelchair accessible. I thought that would be that and I’d be working on my laptop from home. Then I got a phone call, and it was the Chiefs media manager who told me that they were going to setup a table for me on the field.

“On the field!”, I thought. So there I was, field side with my laptop setup for the Chiefs match in 2015. I’ll never forget seeing Augustine Pulu dive over the try line right in front of me that night, not the only moment that I almost forgot I was there to work as a journalist, not a fan.

It gets a little bit different when it comes to covering International rugby though.

First time in a media scrum with All Blacks captain Kieran Read; I was pushed to the back, ironically after starting out near the front after the media manager had given me earlier warning of the interviews beginning. Reporters pushed their way past me, microphones and cameras all but blurred my vision of the All Black skipper. Thankfully, one reporter noticed my difficulty and kindly said he would send through his audio so that I could get on with writing my story.

The restrictions about bringing a support worker in are also slightly trickier. As I eluded to earlier, it’s very important that I have the conversation with the media managers involved beforehand.

Looking outside of the reporting work; I certainly think that a lot can be done to improve the match experience for disabled patrons. Not just physically disabled, but also those who are visually impaired. I know a man who is partially sighted and he struggles getting to and from his seat. He pays hundreds of dollars a year paying a yearly membership – and while he enjoys the games themselves – the experience before and after is often less than pleasant. It would also help if the accessible seating for wheelchair users at games was situated in a way that vision of the field wouldn’t be impaired when others in the crowd stand up as a try is scored.

Cautions issued to Chiefs players after stripper incident

New Zealand Rugby has dismissed claims that Chiefs players sexually assaulted a stripper at a post-season function.

This finding from an official investigation comes as no surprise to anyone.

Formal cautions have been issued to all Chiefs players. The woman at the heart of this story, a stripper, has said that she is disappointed but not surprised by the conclusion of the investigation.  Continue reading Cautions issued to Chiefs players after stripper incident

The Bugged Meeting Room

On Saturday morning it was reported that the All Blacks had discovered they’d been bugged. But the real story started well before then.

As it stands right now – the matter has been referred on to NSW Police.

It’s clear that this had been done well before the media ran the story, but the media likely knew of the situation well before Saturday when the story broke.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said that information wasn’t passed onto police until Steve Tew, NZ Rugby CEO, had arrived in Sydney.

Since then there has been a whole lot of speculation as to who planted the device, and what the motive behind it was. We may never know the answer to this. The most likely scenario was that the device was planted on behalf of a sports betting agency. Continue reading The Bugged Meeting Room

Steve Hansen faces difficult selection for No.10 starter against Wallabies

When the All Blacks squad for the opening Bledisloe Cup test against Australia is announced on Thursday morning, all eyes will be on who starts at first five eighth.

Will it be the red hot Beauden Barrett, or the traditional work horse Aaron Cruden who gets the nod to start against the Wallabies?

No one can question that Barrett is in career-best form heading into Saturday’s match. Fresh off a Super Rugby title win two weeks ago, more than a handful of people say that this is the time for Barrett to be given the start in a blockbuster match. Continue reading Steve Hansen faces difficult selection for No.10 starter against Wallabies

Off field issues see Zac Guildford dropped again

Time could be up for troubled rugby player Zac Guildford.

Guilford’s career appears to be nearing an end after the troubled winger was surprisingly left out of Tasman’s Mitre 10 Cup side. The reason for Tasman’s decision is down to Guilford’s continued problems off the field, problems that haven’t stopped since returning from Sydney.

In the last year, Guilford has parted ways with two prominent rugby clubs due to his issues off the field. After leaving French club Clermont, Guildford parted ways with the NSW Waratahs prior to the end of this years Super Rugby season. Continue reading Off field issues see Zac Guildford dropped again

High Prices Not Stopping Sell Outs To All Blacks Games

New Zealand Rugby is set to continue rolling out the ‘SOLD OUT’ signs for the remainder of the All Blacks home matches in 2016, despite ongoing discussions about high ticket prices.

The Steinlager Series against Wales officially sold out today, and the NZRU say that more than 110,000 fans will have seen the All Blacks up close once the three-match series ends in late June.

“We’re really pleased that so many fans have taken the chance to see the team take on Wales in the Steinlager Series”, said Steve Tew, New Zealand Rugby Chief Executive.   Continue reading High Prices Not Stopping Sell Outs To All Blacks Games

Wales complete final training session

Wales had their final team practice today ahead of what promises to be a massive challenge against the All Blacks on Saturday night.

Skills coach Neil Jenkins has backed the ability of first five Dan Biggar and backs the 26-year old to get the job done against his opposite Aaron Cruden.

The Welsh have been in New Zealand for two weeks since their loss to England in London. After enjoying some good weather, rain settled  into Eden Park today and is forecast for tomorrow, but Jenkins has no issue, saying that conditions are beginning to feel a little more like home.

But no matter the conditions, Jenkins says the passion and excitement of the Welsh will bode well in a match where they clearly come in as favorites. “We’ve had a good week and the boys are excited to get out on Eden Park tomorrow”, Jenkins said before pointing to an accurate performance being the key to beating the All Blacks.

“You’ve got to be accurate in your kicking and you’ve got to make your tackles one on one”, Jenkins said.

The First Test begins tomorrow at 7.30pm NZST.