Woke bloke Scotty Stevenson is the new voice of the Rugby World Cup. Greg Bruce meets him as he prepares to take the mic in a new era
New Zealand's first televised rugby test match was played at Carisbrook on September 8, 1962 but was recorded and screened the next day because the New Zealand Rugby Union didn't want television cutting its lunch, ticket sales-wise.
The one-minute clip available online tells us much about the state of rugby at the time. A 30m-long pond/swamp runs through the middle of the field, the kicking is appalling, the handling not much better, one of the All Blacks backs appears unable to pass off his left hand, forwards lumber around and fall into rucks, the skill level would embarrass a middlingly successful modern high school first XV and there's the worst drop-goal attempt in television history.
The commentator, Charles Martin, whose legacy has not endured, gives a reasonable performance: informative and excitable ("If Australia had been awarded a penalty there, they'd have been thrilled to bits!"), confused where necessary ("The referee has, um, awarded a scrum back I think - I'm not sure yet.")
It was another 10 years before the New Zealand Rugby Union allowed an All Blacks game to be televised live in this country. The commentator for that game was Bill McCarthy, who had a short career before Keith Quinn cemented himself as the incumbent, a position he retained largely unchallenged for 20 years.
Through the early years of televised rugby, Quinn was the voice of the game and of the All Blacks, his voice rising to become both symbol and harbinger of the excitement and ecstasy of the test match experience. Had it not been for the emergence of pay-television, he would probably would have gone on forever, rendered unsackable by his historic "Lomu! Oh! Oh! Oh!" during the 1995 World Cup semifinal. But Sky came in with its masses of cash, took the rugby rights from TVNZ and made Grant Nisbett arguably the nation's most famous disembodied voice. For more than 20 years now, Nisbo's deep and avuncular calm has helped assuage the anxieties of a nation.
Historically, then, opportunities to become the voice of the All Blacks have come around once in a generation. Now, with Spark Sport having taken the World Cup and looking likely to challenge Sky for the rights to All Blacks rugby beyond 2020, such an opportunity has arisen. Spark has given that opportunity to Scotty Stevenson.
He is like nothing we've seen before, in an All Blacks commentary box, at least: erudite, sartorially gifted, a talented writer, a noted funnyman and our first woke All Blacks commentator, which is to say, he occasionally expresses concern and care about issues and injustice beyond the playing field. This is not standard operating procedure in the heavily and deliberately depoliticised world of All Blacks rugby, in which national pride, short sentences and on camera cliche are the guiding principles.
An example: After Wallabies player Kurtley Beale sent horrific texts to a female employee of the Australian Rugby Union in 2014, Stevenson wrote a column ripping into rugby's tendency to defend the bad behaviour of its players: "So no, let's not talk about misogyny at all. Let's condemn the abused and defend the abuser. Let's just pretend there is no issue at all and if we can't do that then at least let's just pretend we have bigger issues, like concussions. They can lead to serious problems, unlike harassment, bullying and sexual objectification, which ain't nothing."
Another example: A Twitter thread he wrote earlier this year, smashing world rugby for its attitude to women: "Just when you think women's rugby is getting some due credit, this bag of crap: THREAD WARNING."
He described the shambles of a tournament then taking place in San Diego, featuring New Zealand and the four other top women's teams who were playing on a field barely fit for a training run, unable to chase the ball out of play for fear of rattlesnakes, in front of fans who'd been asked to bring their own seats, using changing sheds comprised of a tent and a portable toilet.
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He wrote: "Goes without saying (but let's just keep saying it anyway) that this would never, ever, ever, ever happen for the men. And before you assume anything, None of teams have complained. As usual, they've just rolled up their sleeves and got on with it. Well, screw that. I'll complain for them. (Consider this thread a complaint)."
His advocacy for women's rugby is nothing new and was recognised a few years ago when he was invited to present the jerseys to the Black Ferns before a test match in Wellington. Of the occasion, he says: "To be able to stand before those wāhine and have the haka performed for you - I don't get emotional much in rugby, but boy it was dusty in that hotel room that day. It was a great thrill, very humbling to be there. Not as humbling as it was for them, who weren't allowed to actually train on Westpac Stadium in case they ruined the turf for the men. But that's another story.
"They have to fight for things. I wish they didn't but they do. And it's important that we fight for them because it's not good enough to feel lucky that you're getting paid a bit of money and representing your country."
He is the first television commentator, at All Blacks level at least, to pronounce "Wairarapa" correctly, to pronounce "Māori" correctly, to consistently say players' names the way their mothers would. On June 10, 2017, someone wrote on Twitter:
"If there is a word that can possibly be pronounced with a strong Māori twang, [Stevenson] will find it." He replied: "Like Māori words? Well yeah, that's called pronunciation." A few months later, also on Twitter, he wrote: "There is no sound argument against kids learning te reo Māori in school. None, nil, zero, KORE."
In a middle-aged Pākehā kind of way, he is the commentary equivalent of Ihumātao wristband-wearing, Israel Folau-criticising, mental health-advocating All Black halfback TJ Perenara, whose name he will correctly pronounce at the World Cup, as he has throughout his career.
"I think we should all feel a freedom to think deeply about issues," Stevenson says. "Ultimately, when I'm on television or commentating a game of rugby, my responsibility is to the game, the broadcaster and the fans, so I don't think that's the platform for me to proselytise on anything. But then you can make the changes you hope to make in life in a million small ways. You don't need a big platform to do it."
"Just giving a s***. Letting people who are affected by things know that you're thinking of them or offering to help in any small way. The grand gesture is wonderful but the tiny acts of kindness sometimes have more impact."
He explicitly cares about the little guy, the snubbed, the forgotten, the overlooked. It's no accident that every time he gets a chance he mentions his first TV commentary was Wairarapa Bush playing in Masterton.
He loves players like Buller's Marty Banks, nickname "Battler", who he has championed for years and who against the odds made the Highlanders' Super Rugby squad then kicked the winning drop goal in the 2015 final, who became a friend, and who he often refers to in articles and tweets as "Marty f***in' Banks".
"How can you not have a man-crush on Tasman's Marty Banks?" he wrote on The Spinoff in 2015. "How can a Screech-lookalike from Reefton who cut his teeth in Siberian Rugby and made his name playing for Buller be leading the ITM Cup golden boot race again? Because Banks is here to give every battler hope, that's how."
Stevenson says now: "I love players who are written off by people. I love them and I love backing them and maybe that's just who I am. I think invariably you find those guys that are written off because people don't think they're good enough to be All Blacks are the guys their team would walk over broken glass for."
In a 2013 article in the Herald, he picked out several such players from domestic rugby and wrote an article about them that is fairly obviously also about himself: "Each of these players embodies something more. An ethos, perhaps, or maybe a defining characteristic that we see in ourselves or, more likely, would like to see in ourselves - an exuberance, an earnestness, a passion, a hunger, a spirit ... a personality."
He thinks we should, as a country, be less focused on All Blacks selection as the overriding measure of a player's worth. We could enjoy the game more if we weren't so preoccupied with the national side. There is beauty, he says, at every level. He tells the story of Buller's Luke Brownlee, a dairy farmer who missed his first game for the province because he'd torn a calf muscle chasing a cow around a paddock, then played 180 consecutive games without injury.
"I'm just a small-town kid," Stevenson says. "I like small-town heroes."
He grew up in Ruakaka, south of Whāngārei and on weekends would go with his dad to Whāngārei's Okara Park to watch North Auckland games. His last two years at school were as a boarder at Auckland Grammar, where he was in the top stream. He studied for a Bachelor of Communications at AUT, didn't graduate, spent some time working in advertising and behind a bar. He was working in radio when he was offered a reporting job at Sky. He was funny and likeable and not nearly as well-groomed as now and he rose quickly. Commentator Ken Laban recommended management give him a crack at commentary. That was 10 years ago.
To prepare for a game, he writes out all the players' names, the way they will stand on the field - fullback at the top, front rowers down the bottom - on a sheet of A4 paper, with notes below each in a different coloured pen. He keeps team sheets and notes from every game he's ever commentated. "I don't know why I keep them," he says. "One day I might need to remind myself I got the chance to do this job."
His knowledge of the game, its most intricate tactical workings, its players and leading figures, in this country at least, is deep and intricate and probably unsurpassed in the commentary world. A quick rummage through his last 3000 tweets is enough to see how seriously he thinks, talks and cares about rugby.
At Sky, where he was employed until late last year, he worked closely with Grant Nisbett, whose position as voice of the nation he may soon usurp, and who he admires for his "wonderful voice and economy of words." Aged 10, watching the first Rugby World Cup final, he thought he would one day like to be Keith Quinn, the commentator that day, who he admires for his "passion and depth of research." But he is like neither Quinn nor Nisbett. He is a new type of commentator for a new era.
In 2016, he gave a speech at the Association of Boys' Schools of New Zealand Conference. In it, he said: "Teach them history, if only so that they will not be doomed to repeat the mistakes of my generation and yours and the generations that precede us all. So that they can understand how to shape a new world, one that is better than what they currently have. So that they will understand that protest and activism and political organisation are the engines of equity and equality, the fibre in the diet of a healthy democracy."
He says he has no plans for a legacy. He says, "I'm not that important," which may be true if you think of him solely as someone whose job is to describe a game of rugby.
He has produced elegantly written prose for a wide variety of high-profile print outlets - including this one - and in that prose he has frequently expressed real human feeling - that least rugby of things. He has edited a national magazine (Sky Sport: The Magazine) and has won a national award for his feature writing.
He is almost certainly the first top-level commentator in this country to successfully put together an outfit comprising double denim, skinny ankle jeans, brown brogue boots, a wool blazer and statement glasses. He is the first top-level commentator, in modern times at least, to wear a dress shirt with the top button raffishly undone.
"It's a taste business," he says and he knows he won't be to everyone's taste, as Nisbo isn't, as Quinny wasn't. It's a polarising business. You can't be all things to all people, especially in New Zealand rugby, where you're speaking to the property moguls of Mt Eden (where he lives), the rugged sheep wranglers of the southern high country, the strugglers of the provincial towns and urban ghettos, the educated, the uneducated, the woke, the bigoted and the players' mums.
His commentary style, he says is, "Me but more excited." He says there is an element of performance to what he does and he likes to have fun because sport should be fun but it must be done in a way that doesn't detract from the rugby. Respect, respect, respect: these are his favourite words. Respect for the players, for the game and most of all for the mothers. A player's mother once hit him in the nuts for criticising her son on TV and now he always keeps the mothers in mind, because he says they're the only ones who watch every game.
He has written six books, mostly rugby biographies. His seventh, on Kieran Read, will be published just after the World Cup final. It's likely he's the only New Zealand commentator who thinks about a game of rugby in the same way a writer might think about a novel or a screenplay. He aims to identify or impose a story arc, plot line, characterisations, one or more protagonists and a climactic moment.
"I like writing," he says. "I like the process, I like the creativity in the same way I like commentating."
Those two things are wildly different though - one is solitary with an excess of time to think, the other is frantic, surrounded by noise and action and characterised by a lack of time to consider one's reaction.
"Still storytelling," he says. "It's just connecting the dots."
The way to tell the story of his own life is obvious - small-town battler makes metaphorical big leagues - but that's only true if the story ends with him at the World Cup, commentating his first All Blacks matches, which it doesn't. That is only the first act and it's possible that what's still to come will be much more important than talking about the All Blacks on television.