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.