Aaron Smith's eyes are welling up with tears. "I came down here for an opportunity and found a home," Smith says, speaking about his beloved Highlanders. "Because they picked me out of nothing, I love them even more. They had been with me through thick and thin, and I love that about this team."
Smith – the All Black perfectionist and, as Tony Brown would say, the "greatest Highlander of all time" – became the Dunedin franchise's most capped player this season and is one of the most professional and fierce competitors in world rugby. On All Access, Sky Sport's new documentary series that offers a raw, behind-the-scenes look at the lives of Super Rugby stars for one week, we get to see the man behind the jersey.
The first episode of the series, which premiers on Sky Sports 1 at 9.30pm tonight, starts by painting a picture of Smith's sheer determination to be the best. Smith is up in the early hours of the morning doing passing drills, working on his reaction time on a special machine and planning out his training agenda in his notebook. The 32-year-old is reaching the twilight of his career, but he's showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, he's getting even better. "I just love that feeling of always trying to get better," he says. "I feel better now than I did in my late 20s."
The premise for All Access is simple: bring a camera crew along and follow some of Super Rugby Aotearoa's biggest stars for a week, and in doing so, showcasing a different side to the players we usually see on game-day or in post-match interviews. After Smith, the series will move on to profiling one player from the rest of the Kiwi Super Rugby franchises – Ngani Laumape, Anton Lienert-Brown, Richie Mo'unga and Tom Robinson – and will be a must-watch for many Kiwi rugby fans.
The first episode sets the tone for the series' observational style and director Paora Ratahi's vision is refreshing. Ratahi uses the camera to drill into the sides of rugby we don't often get to see. The interviews are intimate, zooming right in on the player's face to capture every bit of emotion. The footage of team talks and meetings are similar to the kind of scenes we're used to seeing in other popular sports documentaries like Amazon Prime's 'All or Nothing'. Smith is no longer just an elite athlete, he's a dad, husband, and based on the 23 or so minutes of the episode, a man that has matured into one of the most important players and leaders in New Zealand rugby.
These kinds of personal portraits of professional athletes are becoming increasingly rare in sport's public relations era, especially in rugby. These days, fans have a direct line into the lives of athletes via social media. The more tech savvy and adventurous athletes have even delved into content creation themselves, whether it's dancing on TikTok, hosting a podcast or creating their own vlogs. Smith himself is active on Twitter and regularly does Q&As with fans. Players and teams have taken full advantage of social media, but it has also brought about a moment when important news is being stamped out.
All Access, like the many other sports documentaries that have been released over the last few years, feels different than those carefully curated social media posts. It is further proof that access, beyond the one-sided point of view provided by players and sporting organisations themselves, produces the kind of stories that is usually the most compelling and revealing.
Sky's ability to gain this kind of access is unique due to its close working relationship NZ Rugby since their new broadcasting deal that saw NZR become a shareholder in the TV company – and it seems to be making the most of it, continuing its track record of producing timely and well-made documentaries about New Zealand sport. But that kind of access, to players and teams, is becoming a hotly debated topic in sports media.
Smith's episode of All Access covers the weekend that the Highlanders lost to the Hurricanes. On that same night, several of Smith's Highlanders teammates were found to have breached team standards after police were called to a party at a player's house. This, of course, wasn't captured by the cameras and Smith wasn't involved in the incident. But the whole debacle did spark another debate, spearheaded by All Blacks loose forward Ardie Savea, about the value of sports media.
Shortly after reports emerged detailing the actions of the partying Highlanders, Savea spoke out in an ill-conceived tweet about sports journalism itself. "You go deliberately and try get stories out of neighbours to even further rubbish players," he tweeted last month. "Yes players got stood down this weekend for team protocols. But it should stop there. All this investigating trying to make them look like there criminals is just stupid."
Savea wasn't against news, the ones that could help further his own career, he was against "negative", investigative journalism. And it is the kind of view that has played a role in New Zealand sport's slow fall into one-sided access journalism – which not only hurts the public, the sport and its fans, but also the players themselves.
Sport isn't always about great players doing great things. Sometimes, athletes miss the mark. As sporting organisations opt for selective access when it comes to its teams and players, transparency and accountability in service of the public interest will be even more difficult.
Like the virtual monopoly to sports rights held by Sky – helped by sporting bodies like NZ Rugby – in the 2000s, a myopic view of sports media and journalism will eventually turn the public away, like those affected by the Highlanders players' party that Friday night who Savea seemed to suggest didn't deserve a voice in the media.
All Access will probably be appointment viewing for many New Zealand rugby fans. For the rest of the story, hopefully we'll still have the news.
All Access premiers on Monday 10 May on Sky Sport 1 at 9.30pm