He's the voice of rugby, but Nigel Yalden almost fell silent when faced with one of the biggest calls in his career.

Listeners in the hundreds of thousands will tune in to Yalden during the Rugby World Cup, which kicks off in Japan next week.

But the Radio Sport commentator almost had an audience of none at Twickenham four years ago.

As the 2015 World Cup final between the All Blacks and Wallabies approached, Yalden told his stunned understudy Elliott Smith - who had never been lead play-by-play caller for any level of match at that point - he might have to take over.

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The 47-year-old Yalden, from Hamilton, chats about the highs and lows of life behind the microphone, and goes back to where it all started for him.

What are some of your childhood sports memories?

I was Whanganui born and bred. Your prominent local sports people…(All Black) Bill Osborne obviously, Andrew Donald, Bruce Middleton, John Hainsworth (all rugby representatives). You could go down to Spriggens Park and see them play for Whanganui or their club.

There was also Richard Scott…I loved motorcycle racing and he was ex-Whanganui High School, like me. I remember him coming back and setting the lap record on the Cemetery Circuit, on a Honda RS500.

I loved watching (South African fast bowler) Allan Donald play, and (stocky Kiwi cricketer) Danny Morrison, because he had no right to be a fast bowler. And John Stockton, the NBA basketballer, who had a beautiful pass. He was the ultimate team man to me.

How did sports calling come calling?

It was something I always wanted to do but never took the right steps until I was a bit older. I was an assistant manager at The Warehouse, a bit frustrated…

I bought a microphone, sat at home one day when my wife was out, and did a dummy call to a Crusaders-Highlanders match that was on TV. It was a rare time I thought 'that doesn't sound too bad'. I'm normally a very hard judge on myself.

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I wrote a letter to (former NewstalkZB/Radio Sport GM) Bill Francis. He told me to go see a programme director in the Hamilton studio who said come in for an hour…it snowballed from there.

What was your first big break?
I got a call up to the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006 – Glen Larmer had just left. That was like "wow"…this is legit.

Your first All Black test commentary was…
The 14th of June, 2008. My 36th birthday. My wife was in Portugal, I was on my lonesome, working in Hamilton in the morning, driving to work at 4.30am to do my shows. Then I drove up for the New Zealand v England test at Eden Park.

Nervous?
Hell yeah. Excited, anxious, the whole thing. It's the All Blacks, the team everybody focuses on. You can't stuff this up. There was a massive amount of nerves.

Brad Meurant was doing the co-comments, and I had the legend sideline – PJ (Peter Montgomery). I felt a hell of a lot of ease because PJ was involved. He had a wonderful way of making you feel calm. He had a presence.

England had a wing called Topsy Ojo who got an intercept. I remember that because he was from Tottenham, and I support the Tottenham football team. I managed to get 'a flyer from Tottenham' reference in there. He torched them – one of the few decent things England did that night.

Your favourite commentary moment is…

I called Graham Ede winning a shooting gold at those 2006 Commonwealth Games. A shooting commentary on radio…I don't know if that was a first. That stands out. The odd person still comes up to me about that. It was just one of those things. "Does anyone want to have a crack at it?" I'd spent a few afternoons at the gun club with my grandparents. I said I know a little bit about it and jumped in.

Nigel Yalden interviews All Blacks coach Steve Hansen at the 2019 World Cup squad announcement. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Nigel Yalden interviews All Blacks coach Steve Hansen at the 2019 World Cup squad announcement. Photo / Jason Oxenham

What about the Eden Park atmosphere for the 2011 World Cup final?

It wasn't a great game of rugby, but the tension…people were hanging on really tight.

When Andy Ellis kicked that ball out, it was a combination of relief and an explosion of joy. Our commentary position got moved and we were right in the open. It was extraordinary...people were even slapping me on the back as if I had done something.

I turned around and saw the All Black coaches with smiles on their faces, and Steve Hansen blowing his fiancée' a kiss.

Your major cringe moment?

I've made plenty of mistakes, I know that. I called Julia Ratcliffe winning the shot put at the last Commonwealth Games when she won the hammer throw. I went back and listened again…I'm just disappointed for the athlete and angry with myself.

Has your voice ever given way?

Oh yeah…the 2015 Rugby World Cup final. My voice was going prior to that. It was the end of a hectic tournament and maybe I got a bit run down. If I get a chest infection I lose my voice.

Elliott Smith was there sideline and doing post-match stuff. I told him he needed to be ready to make his commentary debut. He was primed, like a coiled spring.

But I got another great piece of advice from Peter Montgomery…I gargled a bit of brandy. He did it at one of the America's Cups. I bought a hip flask and gargled for a few days. That stuff is why PJ is the master.

Do you review the tape?

I wouldn't go over a whole game but I'd listen to maybe a 20 to 30 minute period and if I'm not happy with it, maybe a bit longer.

Do you think up good lines before an event?

No…to do that would be to cheat yourself, the listeners, the athletes. Commentary is about calling what you see, painting that visual picture. The most important people are the athletes and the fans. I'm the least important person in that process. My job is to connect them.

Any World Cup predictions?

I'm really excited to see what Fiji can do, even though they are in a tough pool. I wouldn't be surprised if the All Blacks and South Africa meet in the final.

What about their opening Pool B encounter?

Look at the recent history – the last four games decided by one point, two points, two points and couldn't be decided at all. Two evenly matched teams and coaching staff as well. Rassie Erasmus has done an excellent job bringing that South African team together. It will be an absolute belter.