January 26, 2005
Stephen Jones on life as a rugby hack

I only got one proper Christmas present this time around, but it was a cracker. My Kiwi friend Tim Sturm gave me a copy of Stephen Jones' book On My Knees, about the Rugby World Cup of 2003 – won by England – hurrah! This was an especially sporting choice by Tim, given what Jones has to say about the relative merits of England rugby and New Zealand rugby.

Jones' book is about the World Cup, yes, of course, but also about the process of covering the World Cup for a major newspaper, and in general of being an aging rugby reporter. (In the midst of the tournament he had to have an elaborate and scary operation on one of his eyes.)

Here is how Jones describes one particularly exhausting day at the coal-face of rugby reportage, fraught with both mental and moral worries, and physical exhaustion.

The late evening kick-offs meant that I would be still hacking away in the media centre well into the early hours, with people bustling around cursing malfunctioning modem connections, barking views on the game, vainly trying to discover from the locals if any restaurants stayed open till 4 a.m. England were beautifully embarked now. They would have to walk into some kind of catastrophe not to go through to the semi-finals, and, as near as dammit, Europe was guaranteed a finalist.

It was a matter of trying to shine up the last few words; check with London that they were captioning the pictures with the names of players who were actually in them; talk to the graphics department about our representation of the Greenwood try; have our Rugby Roundup man talk us through the other events of the day in the tournament; rewrite and retouch; making sure our preview material already filed referring to the next day's games still stood up. Then, dredge for nuggets from all our columnists - Lawrence Dallaglio, Jeremy Guscott, Malcolm O'Kelly and Chris Paterson all 'wrote' ghosted columns in some or all of our editions. Guscott is highly professional in his approach and Bob Dwyer, in my experience, easily the best match analyst in the media anywhere, worked for us throughout the tournament.

Sometimes, it falls into place. Sometimes, it is a long grind. At some time, when all the maelstrom of production of the first edition had subsided back in London, when the media centre bustle gave way to tired faces and a slow sense of relief, there would then be a check with the sports editor. Are we OK, have we covered the bases, have we missed a story that our rivals are running? No, as usual.

Just before I made that call, I took another. It was from a member of the Harlequins who told me that Will Greenwood, the try-scorer, was to leave for home the next day. Carol, his wife, had been admitted to hospital with complications early in her pregnancy. It was only just over a year ago that Will and Carol had lost Freddie, their son, who had been born 18 weeks premature.

It was a story. A profoundly upsetting one for the Greenwoods but in the sense that it was bound to come out soon (due to Greenwood not appearing in the team), still a story. I rang England's media people, who went deathly quiet. They refused to confirm the story.

'I know this is true, why are you denying it?'

Their answer was that Greenwood had already been booked to fly home from Perth the day after, at three in the afternoon, and the media announcement would be made at the same time, with him safely departed. I had a sinking feeling as I apprised the hierarchy back in London. I knew they would be keen to run it. Essentially, I did not want to. I expect to be pushed hard by my sports desk. I push hard back at them. I try to be reasonably sanguine, always, if something that appears in the paper gives offence to the subject, and they are safely back at Wapping, I am in the field along with that subject. It's just tough luck. They also knew that there were many ways that the story could emerge that night and be run in any competing Sunday paper; they knew that Greenwood himself, under contract to the News of the World, may well be announcing it himself in his weekly column and that I, who knew it, would look silly for not filing it.

The exigencies of newspapers were one thing. But this was something else. Will Greenwood was not hiding a pulled hamstring; he was not hiding a positive drugs test. He was hiding, for the moment, the news that his missus was under treatment so that a second youngster was not born prematurely; and even though it was way past midnight and he would be in bed, all packed, the idea that the story might cause him inconvenience, cause him to be waylaid by hacks when his mind was elsewhere, caused me a considerable amount of unease. We ran a story, factual and unadorned.

Less than two weeks later. Greenwood was back in Australia. Carol was in excellent order and sent him back to play his part in a shot on glory. On 3 February 2004, Archie Frederick Lewis Greenwood arrived safely.

The Sunday Times reporting squad, as unimpressive a bunch at that time of day as you could find, arrived back at our hotel around three, shattered, and hoovered up a beer. I was starving. I ordered a steak sandwich from room service. I was almost too tired to eat. As it arrived, the office rang. 'The editor wants a 1,000-word feature on France. He thinks they will be England's next big game.'

France? I hadn't even seen them play. I didn't feel that 3 a.m. Perth time was quite the slot to call their media officer demanding an interview. It was something of a struggle. I put the steak sandwich down. My contact lenses were sticking to my eyes, so I was not inclined to unravel all the leads, the modems and the chargers, and to power up the laptop. I made some notes, rang the copytaker and started dictating off the top of my head. I dozed off completely at one stage and was woken after a few seconds by a tinny 'Hello, hello' on the line.

There had been nothing light about the day.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:18 PM
Category: Media and journalism