The idea was to meet Scotty "Sumo" Stevenson, the Sky TV rugby commentator, at the Pullman Hotel where, after I interviewed him, he'd be interviewing the captain of the England rugby team. I didn't want to meet him at a cafe, I said, because we'd be constantly interrupted by people wanting his autograph. I was joking, but only partly — because when you are a rugby commentator on the telly in New Zealand you have an interesting relationship not only with the rugby-watching and rugby-playing and rugby-minding community. There is the love/hate relationship with the audience, of course. But also there's an idea (held perhaps only by me given his complete bafflement) that rugby commentators have to walk a fine line between doing their job and having access to the players and so being matey, but not too matey, while actually being mates with some of the players.
This is far too complicated, according to the guy who does the job. "I don't think too hard about it." He was looking at me as though I was from another planet, which I suppose I was.
"It's getting confusing. It's getting really confusing!"
He said: "I don't mind a drink with Stevie Donald, who's a hell of a good man, and Richard Kahui and Mils Muliaina ... " They are friends, then. "I think so, yeah." I was being a bit thick. I wondered how you can write about or commentate on players who are also friends. "How do I put this? I think it pays to get along with people and I don't go out of my way to bag people in any way ... I think there's an understanding that you've got a job to do, which is to call things as you see them. But also, my approach to the game is that I'd much rather talk about the guy that broke the tackle than the guy who missed the tackle, for instance."
Besides, he loves rugby, obviously, and the players and respects them. He said once, or more likely, more than once: "They're a wonderful bunch of guys." They can't all be wonderful guys, I said, but they are — on his planet. He even likes Ali Williams and misses him. "He was a hard case ... A colourful personality." Having interviewed Ali Williams, I said, a little sourly, that he certainly thought he was a colourful personality. "That's all right. What's wrong with being a bit cocky? Everyone has that opinion of him as though that's a curse." Was he a bit cocky? "No, I don't think I'm cocky. " Not that there's anything wrong with that. "There's nothing wrong with being cocky, and do I want to be good at what I do? Absolutely."
But what does he do, exactly? I wasn't sure whether he was a journalist. It was getting really confusing because he wasn't sure either. "I don't know if I am." I wondered what he'd say he was but there was no use asking him. "I don't know. I work in telly." He also edits the Sky Sport magazine, and writes for it, and writes columns for newspapers, including this one, and calls games for the telly and does interviews for the telly. "I think I'd call myself ... I don't know. If you're writing a magazine story you call yourself a writer. If I was on TV, I might call myself a presenter. If I was commentating a game, I'd call myself a commentator. I don't really know. I find labels pretty meaningless really."
So perhaps what he is is a workaholic. He says he's not — the proof being that he's not on Twitter all the time — but he does work hard and he's ambitious. "I don't think ambition's a dirty word. To be very good at what I do, that's my ambition." How's he going on that? "Oh, chipping away." He's 37 and has wanted to be a sports commentator since he was a 10-year-old kid watching Keith Quinn on the telly. I thought all rugby-mad boys wanted to be All Blacks when they grow up but he knew early on that he wasn't going to be an All Black. He has always loved sport and playing sport and he's never been any good at it.
Well, his nickname is Sumo so presumably he was a right fatty as a boy. He said I was hurting his feelings but it's not my fault everyone (except his mother, his wife and, you hope, his two young sons) calls him Sumo. He says he was a chubby kid who did surf life-saving. "So I was the fat kid in Speedos." It was probably too much information. I said I was disappointed that he is now not enormously fat and he said, drolly: "I'm not."
He is funny on the telly, and quite blokey, which you'd expect — he's the rugby guy. He said: "I'm not very blokey." He's quite funny off the telly.
He complained that I was over-emphasising his blokey-ness so I had better say that he is a fan of the man hug, within limits.
Would he give an All Black a man hug? "Ha, ha. It depends on the situation, Michele. There might be a time when we can just give a man a hug." He has a very nice man bag which he says everyone ribs him about and which he claims to leave at home when he goes "to the Heartland".
I had, I thought, come up with a very good question. Who would he rather have dinner with: Graham Henry, Steve Hansen or John Kirwan? "What a question! Are they cooking, or am I cooking? That's the question." I couldn't imagine Steve Hansen cooking, but I might be quite wrong. "I don't know how he goes on the cooking. Sir John would obviously cook an Italian feast. I would have thought Ted would cook fish that he'd caught. And Shag? I don't know about Shag." Shag is Hansen, which everyone in the rugby world knows. Shag and Sumo, what a dinner that would be. "Why do you hate nicknames so much?" he said. I don't know that I feel all that strongly about nicknames, but they are undeniably blokey. He said everyone has nicknames and that I must have had a nickname as a kid (certainly not) and we had a ridiculous argument about how I must have had a nickname because, in his world, everyone does. "Well, you're a Smithy or a Jonesey." Dan Carter is Dezzy, at which I may have rolled my eyes. He said: "I don't make these things up! And what's wrong with being blokey, by the way?" He, by the way, doesn't mind a bit being called Sumo. "There are worse nicknames. Let's be honest."
Apart from the nicknames, he wouldn't tell me anything about the All Blacks which might count as gossip. He adheres, of course, to the rugby rule that what goes on on tour, stays on tour. He would never report that X was having a fling, say, even if X was married and had, say, sold his wedding to a women's mag. It's nobody's business, he said, and most certainly not his business. The real difference between what he does and being a journalist might be that getting told things that you'll never report is "part of what makes the job so attractive". He said, witheringly: "I'm not the entertainer reporter."
We'd have been better off in a cafe. The hotel lobby was packed with rugby-heads, of both sexes, and he knew them all, of course. There was a man hug and conversations: "What do you think, mate? Everyone's here today", about "chipping away" and "good honest rugby" and about how some ref was tough on the Fijians — "What can you do mate?" It was a bit blokey, I thought. I wasn't sure about the man-hugging. I couldn't imagine Keith Quinn, or Steve Hansen, man-hugging but then I don't know anything about rugby. It's confusing.
He said: "I can never figure it out these days. I don't know when the Palagi handshake is appropriate, or the bro shake, or the sort of hug and chest pump. The risk is always a handshake faux pas."
The modern-day dilemmas of being a rugby commentator. Which hand shake to employ. Which bag to take the Heartland. How not to get off-side with the mothers.
He said: "You've got to remember that, more than players, there's one group of people who watch every game and that's players' mums. So you don't want to get in trouble with mums. I think that's a good rule to live your life by."
He said: "I once got hit in the nuts with an umbrella by a player's mum. Which was quite funny, actually." It doesn't sound quite funny, actually. "No, it was just a tap. They're great moments." He had said in his commentary that her son, Tim Mikkelson, had "grown toes where his fingers used to be". She sends him a card every year (I neglected to ask whether it was on the anniversary of the umbrella blow.) "It's bloody nice, actually. She's a good lady. A bloody good lady."
People are bloody good sorts or a hell of a good sort. His mum is "a hell of a hard doer." Ask how he is and he'll invariably be: "Not too shabby."
But what did I think of him? He said: "What have you got written down there in preparation? I said, lying: Fat. Blokey. Quite hairy. He is quite hairy — he thanked me for pointing this out — and has had a beard since he left school because he hates shaving and says he is too lazy to be bothered.
Anyway, he said: "That's all you came up with? That's probably quite a good description!" If it was all I came up with, it would be his own fault. He likes to pretend he's "just a simple man". On some levels he is: "I don't need much to keep me happy, to be honest with you. I've got a beautiful, smart wife [Claire Silvester, who produces TV One's Q + A] and I've got two cute kids and I've got a job I love. What else do you need? Cook a feed. Don't mind really what I eat, don't mind really what I drink."
He said: "I'm just a sports guy." He reads mostly sports books but he reads the brainy, dead, sports writers: William Faulkner's early pieces for Sports Illustrated, Gay Talese, the LA Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jim Murray. He was, I managed to drag out of him, in the A stream in his last two years at Auckland Grammar.
He said: "I probably don't come across as a serious person, but I do take the job seriously. It's my job." And it's his job to come across as a simple bloke.
I'm not saying he's acting, he isn't. But there's a sort of script that goes along with being just a sports guy and he takes that absolutely seriously. He's not too shabby at it either.