NZME journalist Chris Rattue reflects on his most memorable confrontations across his career.
I've been in this sports-writing game for more than three decades and one of the constants has been a running feud, on my part anyway, with New Zealand rugby.
I can't stand how rugby treats the media and public in this country. There are some great people inside the castle of course. But the moat is so impenetrable.
The rise of women's rugby has been a breath of fresh air. I've found players like Portia Woodman, Selica Winiata and Sarah Hirini - who I've done long interviews with - refreshingly accessible and open about their lives.
But on the men's side, and while there are some exceptions to the rule, not much has changed from my childhood days when certain broadcasters would mock the "no comment" style of the old NZRU.
But beyond this disdain for how the national sport is run, I also had lots of scraps with individual sports people back in the day.
The gap between the media and sport is now so wide that there is almost an unhealthy truce between the two these days. This has been exacerbated by the almost total collapse of New Zealand domestic sport as something viable for the media to cover.
Conflict. It used to be part and parcel of covering sport. And an editor suggested I should go down this memory lane and write a piece on some of those battles both big and small.
There are far too many to include here. Some, were just amusing. Others more significant.
I'll also check out a couple of current stars, over their problematic and confusing relationship with the media.
Sometimes a scrap might lead to a lifelong feud. Other times it is quickly forgotten. Sometimes it affects how you cover a sport or person.
Overall, I feel very lucky to have covered various sports when we were in almost daily contact with a range of Kiwi sports people and could easily ring the biggest stars direct. In bygone eras sports writers (although not me) made personal friendships with the big names. This carried some dangers, but also had many benefits.
The relationship between the players/athletes and media is now very impersonal, with an army of comms people seemingly trained to keep it that way. Social distancing has been going on between media and sport for a long time in this country.
A history of violence
There was certainly no media manager in sight in the only actual physical confrontation I experienced, involving the Kiwi league hooker Wayne Wallace of Canterbury.
After a representative game in Christchurch, and as players and others drank the night away, he discovered the person about to leave the pub was committing the significant crime of being an Auckland media person.
• Chris Rattue: Super Rugby sucks and a transtasman competition is the change we need
• Chris Rattue: A three-point plan to fix rugby in New Zealand
• Chris Rattue: The All Black rifts which led to Steve Hansen's silent treatment call
• Premium - Chris Rattue: New Zealand cricket coverage puts rugby to shame
And so he put me in a very serious headlock on the bar. Well, it was serious from my point of view.
My entire body was no match for a solitary Wallace forearm which looked about as big as the Southern Alps.
He didn't say much, move much, do anything much. I was stuck, for some time, until my Canterbury journo mate returned and negotiated a peace deal.
While this was not a typical interaction, it did reflect those times. One of my first assignments for the NZ Herald was covering the provincial softball championships in Invercargill.
The Auckland pitcher Simon Roskvist - who went onto become the Australian women's Olympic coach - unscrewed the legs on my motel bed in a sneak attack. I can still hear the laughter from another room as bed and this occupant crashed to the ground.
Because local sport was still a big deal back then, the media and top players mingled in far more informal ways.
While working for the short-lived Auckland Sun tabloid, I covered Counties rugby. My phone calls with players seemed to strike a hitch at one point. Apparently a couple of notorious clowns in the rep side had taken to impersonating me on the phone, conducting interviews with other players and broadcasting them over their club's speaker system.
While Wayne Wallace provided the only actual physical confrontation, a far more serious one almost took place, and once again in Christchurch during the 1990s.
It involved the precocious British league halfback Bobbie Goulding, who first played for Wigan at 16, and set a record when selected to tour New Zealand at the age of 18.
But his tour struck instant trouble when he was arrested for attacking two diners in an Auckland bar. I was supplying some early-tour stories for a British paper - maybe that's what set Bobbie off.
As the Kiwis and Brits enjoyed some post-test drinks at a club, Bobbie made his way towards me in a manner which suggested I might go the way of those Auckland diners.
He was decked out in the official team gear, one of his punishments for the Auckland incident for which - in hindsight - he should have been sent home. But his official appearance wasn't stopping him.
Goulding was within striking distance when two of the British players, the dual international Jonathan Davies and forward Mike Gregory, intervened to sit and calm Bobbie down.
Twenty years later, Goulding physically attacked a referee and an Aussie journo at a major league function in England. Bobbie, it is fair to say, had a few issues.
The worst character to deal with
Phone calls could be memorably short.
My one call to the great Kiwi league centre Kevin Iro at his Sydney home didn't last long. He wanted to know where I got his number from, and made it clear I wasn't on his Christmas card list. Slam. Call over.
Funnily enough, it was his brother and fellow Kiwi back Tony who had supplied the number, unaware presumably of any trouble.
They were remarkably different characters. There were a lot of good blokes to deal with among the players of that era, and Tony would have been near the top of any list. But from my perspective, Kevin was a sullen character and just about the worst to deal with. Just about.
Because the relationship with the high-profile Kiwi halfback Gary Freeman could not have been any worse.
I really admired the way Gary had become a star in Australia with Balmain, where he thrived behind great forwards like Steve Roach and Paul Sironen and helped turn the Tigers into a major force.
The Aussie competition was becoming huge news in New Zealand, and the chirpy Freeman was the face of these changing times for many Kiwi sports fans. There were hardly any Kiwis in the Aussie comp, and he was the superstar in the Kiwi side.
But over time, I came to the belief a certain self-centredness in Freeman wasn't doing the Kiwis much good on or off the field, and started writing things that way.
The nadir probably occurred in 1993 when the Kiwi team captained by Freeman banned me from the Mt Smart Stadium changing rooms after a thrilling draw with the powerful Kangaroos, who were saved by a last-gasp Laurie Daley field goal.
My crime: a match preview which doubted the Kiwis chances of success against the quality of Australian players stepping off the plane.
Manager Richard Bolton, a former Kiwi, delivered the "thou shall not pass" edict. One media mate suggested we show solidarity, which was certainly appreciated, while the rest stampeded past to get their quotes, an understandable response as well. After negotiating my way inside, a frosty reception awaited.
To a degree, this incident typifies how New Zealand sport still thinks it should be covered, in an allegedly "patriotic" way.
But patriotism is a subjective business. One person's patriotism might be another's poison. Freedom of speech and thought is a vital part of patriotism in my book.
Years later, I bumped into "Whiz" in the press box at a test in Australia and approached him with far too much bonhomie considering the history. He made it clear that nothing was forgiven.
"I've kept some of your stories as extra motivation in life," Freeman reckoned, or words to that effect.
Who could blame him? But that's the way it goes. I wouldn't take back one word.
Run-ins with Ridgey
One of the funnier incidents involved Matthew Ridge, the Kiwi captain at the 1995 World Cup in England.
Ridgey came hurtling our way in a hotel lobby, giving it to me in no uncertain terms over a story as a couple of bemused media friends stood back to watch the show.
"Fair enough," I told him, "except that story hasn't been published yet, and that's not what I wrote."
It turned out that one of the Kiwi backroom staff had been peering over my shoulder as I was typing, a first and last thankfully.
Ridge is a hard headed bloke who was a polarising figure but I was always a big fan, and admired his straight forward manner. He dared to be himself, and that strident character is exactly what enabled him to walk into the notoriously tough Sea Eagles dressing room and become an almost instant league legend.
We've had infrequent dealings over the years, but they've been good and respectful ones. He was such a great and competitive player.
And then there was the former New Zealand rugby sevens manager Tony Ward, who proved a far bigger man than myself after we had a bitter dispute.
After a less than satisfactory telephone conversation with Ward at the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games, where he accused me of doing poor homework, I wrote a scathing column on the attitude of the whole team at the Games.
It's confession time here, because I lacked enough evidence to write it so strongly.
Ward protested loudly, quite justifiably in retrospect, writing to the paper. But after a test match in Wellington, Ward approached, offered the olive branch, and suggested we both may have made mistakes and should bury any hatchet. I really admired him for that.
Communication is often not this good though.
The column that pissed off Ryan Nelsen
Ryan Nelsen, the great New Zealand football captain, was superb to deal with around the time of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, which I covered. He lived up to his media reputation as a true professional. He also came to the party in a Herald project I instigated.
But this good relationship took a serious dip when a Herald on Sunday column, in an effort to make a point, kicked off by claiming Nelsen couldn't play.
Nelsen is a very strong character. Digesting the column over brekkie, two thoughts came to mind.
1) This is not going to go down well with Ryan Nelsen.
2) This is not going to go down well with Ryan Nelsen.
In short order Phil Warbrick, the All Whites' 2010 World Cup manager who had formed a close relationship with Nelsen, called. Ryan Nelsen Inc was not amused.
Phil and I had been friends since the age of five, but there was no way of agreeing to his suggestion I write a column rejecting the "Nelsen can't play" notion.
Tit-for-tat media battles just weren't my thing, and the day other people tell you what to write is the day you are dead as a columnist even though I agreed entirely with Team Nelsen's position.
A couple of subsequent attempts to reach Ryan Nelsen have been met with a wall of silence. I could be wrong, but can only presume certain things. C'est la vie, even if this was a dispute that I really had nothing to do with.
Battling with NZ rugby royalty
Confrontations often happen remotely. After writing two columns criticising the Chiefs for retaining Ian Foster as coach, a fellow journo happened to ring the man who is now the All Black coach. Foster apparently accepted my right to write the first one, but two on the same subject amounted to an unjustified attack. Or something like that.
Ian Foster is a really likeable bloke. I'd interviewed him at length for a profile piece years earlier. It's hard to know where these relationships might go, but there's always a chance it might not end well.
Grant Fox, the All Black great and now a selector, has, I am told, contacted my bosses on a few occasions to complain about certain columns. I've heard from other friends around the country that he can't stand what I do.
Fox will always be one of my most admired players. He was a great All Black, but just as importantly he was central to turning Auckland into a powerhouse. It's kind of odd when a hero can't stand you, but that's just the way it goes.
It's not that the media doesn't understand that people have feelings. But it's not our job to let that dominate all the coverage.
Which brings me to Tony Kemp.
After writing an article which included pointing out Kemp's poor record as Warriors coach, he rang to demand I cease and desist, one reason being it could upset his eight-year-old (I think) kid. This is the first time I've mentioned the subject since. But hey, the kid will be a lot older now.
Who wants to upset a kid? But that's something for public figures to manage. Tony has had a media presence in recent years, so he might see it from our side a little more.
And then there is Graham Henry.
Shall I go there…well, he apparently didn't like a column I wrote about the state of Welsh rugby, and my claim their oft-touted rivalry with the All Blacks had become a fake.
I called Wales 'The Village Idiots of Rugby' and with absolute justification at the time.
Many of the great Welsh players of the 1970s and 80s were my idols. But Welsh rugby had fallen into embarrassing disarray.
What bugged me about Sir Graham's response was his failure to defend the media's right to an opinion. He said he would sort it out back in New Zealand, and some time after the All Blacks returned home he wrote a letter to the editor which was published.
My response to his response probably reflected my general feeling about rugby's general feeling towards the media's role, and I also felt he had often displayed a condescending attitude to the media typical of the New Zealand rugby hierarchy.
And yes, this definitely affected my coverage of his career. I had trouble giving him the credit he was probably due.
Which is one of the points about this piece.
Do all these stories have a relevance beyond mere yarn telling. To me yes, because they deal with some of the more personal things which shape and reflect media coverage.
Which brings me to a few current stars.
Today's best talent
Some - the cyclist George Bennett springs to mind - have a great reputation in the media for their willingness to talk. Bennett, a true critical thinker, is a particularly interesting bloke. I've found people like shot put star Jacko Gill to be engaging and interesting characters. Olympic silver medallist Nick Willis has had very analytical things to say. It's certainly not all bad.
But there is also a strange trend. Superstars like West Ham footballer Winston Reid, NBA giant Steven Adams, canoeing great Lisa Carrington and Olympic queen Valerie Adams are aloof.
I've been asked a number of times in recent years why Carrington doesn't get better coverage. The answer is simple. Most people couldn't give a stuff about canoeing. The only thing which could change that is Lisa Carrington. But despite being a publicly funded athlete, she seems to be a bit of a hermit. That isn't the media's fault.
You could easily contrast Carrington's profile and recognition with that of Ian Ferguson and Paul MacDonald - the Olympic canoe trailblazers - whose star power matched the All Blacks in their prime. They were simply far more accessible and interesting people.
A lot of character has gone out of our sport. Gone are the days when the charisma and star power of people like John Walker, John Adshead, Andy Haden, Graham Lowe, the wondrous Martin Crowe, Jonah Lomu, Richard Hadlee, Ridge and co. dominated the headlines. We've gone very PR and vanilla.
Every sports journo from the old days could give you endless yarns about their bust ups.
There were some pretty famous ones - my old mate Wynne Gray, the Herald's longtime head rugby writer, had a legendary ding-dong with the former All Black coach Laurie Mains. These things were seen as healthy, because it indicated influential media was retaining its independent voice.
The odd scrap between media and sports subject still occurs of course. For instance, the Eddie Osei-Nketia camp isn't too happy about the way NZME angled a story last year which suggested the sprint star may grow too big for athletics.
But those sorts of things used to be more of an everyday occurrence. Confrontations may not always be good, but they do suggest vitality in a relationship.
What we have now is a vacuum,
It feels to me that apart from the sound bites and manipulations, the New Zealand sports media and the people they cover exist largely in separate bubbles these days.
So this is a story with a serious back story.
But apart from that, a bit of a barney with a superstar, coach or official used to make great late night conversation among the journos. Those were the days.