Key Points:

Trevor Mallard's on his best behaviour. He's just come out of six hours of solid meetings talking about the stadium with Auckland's finest. Their questioning was great but no, he can't call how the votes will go.

Now, he has checked into his hotel room, having barely paused for breath. He flops on the couch in the lobby then leans forward to give this interview his full attention. If he would rather be somewhere else, and he probably would, he is not about to show it.

He has been offered a beer but has opted for a latte after a gruelling day in a city which is kind of peeved with the Minister of Sport.

A latte? How Auckland. When the coffees arrive, I tell him I was going to offer him a Heineken on behalf of the Aucklanders who would perhaps like to shove it somewhere uncomfortable about his person.

"Oh, were you?" he says, good humouredly. "Yeah, people do now and again."

Four years ago during another Rugby World Cup fuss, Mallard was emotional because New Zealand had lost the co-hosting rights to Australia and suggested using the sponsor's bottle in unmentionable ways with certain international rugby figures.

"Yes, I think I've got to the point of being slightly polarising," he says about Auckland. But he didn't mean to be. Not really. It's just that he really, really wants us to choose the waterfront.

Offend he did, though, earlier in the week on radio when he suggested the fuss over putting a stadium on the waterfront indicated Aucklanders lacked imagination. "It shows a city that does not have a vision but it might be that's what Auckland wants," he said then.

Clearly, he's been told off. Later, he as good as admits it.

"I think that a number of my colleagues, especially after yesterday where I, you know ... "

"Where you what?"

"Where I think, um, you know, um, the ah, vision thing came out wrong, indicated that just I should be a bit careful."

He had said earlier that he was unlikely ever to be appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs "cause, you know, there's a certain, occasionally, a certain lack of diplomacy".

And not Minister for Auckland either, I pointed out. Yes, this had "about the same chance as Minister of Women's Affairs".

"I mean, there's stuff. I mean, clearly I don't always express myself as well as I should, and I know that, that's an issue. But otherwise you could just, you know, really sort of shut up and not say what you think and I don't want to go like that either."

He seems to accept that the vision comments were insulting. He tries to explain what he really meant.

"Yeah, no, I think what I was really saying was I hope you can share the vision that I have. That would have been a better way of putting it, wouldn't it? That's probably one of the issues with me, I'm not always, you know, I don't always ... " he trails off.

"You're blunt?"

"Yeah, straightforward. I mean, I come from Wainuiomata, sidesteps and fancy backsteps are not our forte. Although Tana, of course, Tana Umaga is from Wainui ... "

Rugby flows in the veins and the genes of this bloke from Wainui, although the genes are a no-go area. One of his children, Beth, is a Black Fern. He must be mighty proud, I was going to say, but Mallard, who is 52, shuts down any questioning about his family.

"Yeah, I don't talk much about my kids. There are some things that are a matter of record but I work quite hard to do a separation between my kids and politics, I think it's fair to them."

Neither will he talk about the injury which ended his own rugby career, in the parliamentary team. It was an MPs versus musicians match. Well, who did it? I asked.

Jordan Luck, he said. Luck is frontman for the Exponents, a New Zealand icon. Even Mallard's press secretary looked up, amused, on hearing this name. But Mallard clammed up on details.

"He probably didn't know that he hurt me so I think we'll just leave it." And that was that.

He has worked his way to the high ranks of the Labour Party, shooting his mouth off from time to time and surviving rebukes by the boss.

For example, this year he copped a telling-off for his comments about Don Brash's alleged affair with Diane Foreman. In Parliament, he called out to the Leader of the Opposition, "How's Diane?"

Brash apparently looked dumbfounded. When Brash began questions of his own about the handling of the "Taito Phillip Field affair" Mallard yelled, "Speaking of affairs ... " and was ordered by Speaker Margaret Wilson to "please contain himself".

There are some theories that this, like a lot said in the House, was carefully orchestrated. He says that when it comes to cock-up versus conspiracy theory, it's much more likely to be cock-up.

Sometimes Parliament is not a nice place to be. "I mean, every now and then after a brawl in Parliament you feel like you should go and have a shower. Yeah, you're not always comfortable."

He's been called a few names, including bully, but he says he doesn't think he's a bully, "I think I'm a gentle lamb." So why all the bully labels? Why the perception that he does Labour's dirty work in Parliament, such as making the Brash/Foreman comments?

He says he's not always the first to say something but probably the loudest, "and that might be the problem, I don't have a quiet voice".

Mallard seems a bit squirmy when questioned about being rebuked by Helen. They have full and frank conversations, he says. She tells you off "generally fairly directly, fairly quickly". She's a good boss, he says, he knows where he stands with her. And while in Cabinet there are some intense discussions, he says the good thing about Clark is that she deals with it and leaves it behind. He has tremendous admiration for her.

"She's a good person."

It was an inspiring leader that brought him into politics. He did not start life in a Labour family. His parents, he suspects, voted National. His dad was a sharebroker and his mum a homemaker who later worked in a bank.

The covered-over piercings in the ears of the Sports Minister and former Education Minister, who caused another stir by closing down rural schools, give away his more liberal leanings.

As a student, Mallard first went into accounting. Yes, he can add up, he says - a good skill for someone said to have a keen eye on the Finance Minister's post.

When he was at university during the 1972 general election, he saw Norm Kirk speak on the steps of the library. He was superb.

"His speech was essentially around issues and what he was saying was you don't have to agree with Labour on all of these issues but if you agree with us on most of them then how about supporting us, and more than that, how about becoming involved. He was just, I mean, for me, he was truly inspirational."

Mallard didn't like accounting and went into teaching. He didn't last long. He loved coaching sports and working with children, but doesn't think he was a very good teacher. He found himself getting a bit bored in the classroom and almost by accident became an MP.

He stood for Hamilton West, pretty much on the understanding that he would not win. He did. It was a pleasant surprise but six years later, in 1990, he found himself voted out.

Oh yeah, that hurts, he says, it's a pretty rough game. He has a photo in his office at Parliament taken the day after he lost, a constant reminder that time to be effective is limited and that things can change.

The stadium is about being effective. It's not a monument to Mallard, he says - "First of all, if it works really well I'm sure there'll be a pile of other people who will take credit for it."

But if it fails, he reckons he has made it clear it will be his responsibility. And frankly, he says, if it's a catastrophic failure he knows his political career could be over.

"If you want to know what I really want to be remembered for," he says, "it's the fact that poor kids are reading better in New Zealand now than they were five years ago and I think in another five years they'll be reading even better.

"That, to me, that's the stuff that really moves me. Not edifices."