As a rugby league broadcaster who interviews players and coaches, every now and then I get lucky and get an insight that just stops me in my tracks and makes my love for the game explode.
On Saturday night, Canberra Raiders fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad gave me one of those moments.
And it was superb.
As a rugby league sideline eye and journalist, I want to get as close to the game as I can. To feel and experience its essence, drama, triumph, tragedy and emotion as much as a person who isn’t directly involved can.
But my role isn’t glamorous at all. You see, I’m not an ex player. Nor have I managed to rise to the heights the likes of Andrew Voss, Andrew Moore, Ray Warren, Ray Hadley or Warren Smith have.
And I never will.
Even after two decades of involvement with ABC Grandstand I don’t catch planes to matches or stay in hotels. I don’t get invited to the Dally M Award nights, the season launch or any of the club events.
If I’m involved in a game outside of Canberra it usually involves a 12-hour round trip that includes seven hours in a car, an appalling diet of lukewarm party pies, and often getting drenched by rain to boot.
Riding the sideline, keeping the games statistics and writing my thoughts in article form is as far as I’ll go in the rugby league media. But that is more than ok with me because it has enabled me to get what I really wanted: the closest view of the game possible.
Basically I’m a fan that gets closer than most others can or do.
I’m not just talking the vantage point I get from my plastic chair perched near the edge of the playing field. I’m also referring to the tunnel, the press conferences and the dressing rooms.
I get to see behind the scenes, to be right in the middle of the pre-game build-up, to talk to the players and officials, to smell the Dencorub, to ask questions and to hear and see things most others can’t.
But don’t call me a groupie. I’m more than that. Just like the ‘Band Aids’ in the classic movie from 2000, Almost Famous, it’s not just about getting close to the star players, it’s about trying suck the essence out of the game that I love so much.
“Can you believe these new girls? None of them use birth control and they eat all the steak! They don’t even know what it is to be a fan. You know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.”
That emotion translates really well for many in regard to their love of rugby league. You feel a deep love for your side. When they play well your emotions skyrocket. When they lose you can be inconsolable.
But you want to be there. You need to be there.
And just like I want to know the actual meaning behind the songs I love, I want to know – and go searching for – the actual stories and emotions of the people who play the game I love.
For four decades I’ve been avidly following the game. In that time I’ve seen a lot, heard a lot and learned a lot about the game.
I’ve witnessed players in both physical and emotional agony in the sheds after severe injury. I’ve watched them bounce against the walls, trying to stay upright after being concussed.
I watched them jolt and bleed while having their heads stitched up. I’ve seen them cry when they realise injury has ended their seasons, and sometimes their careers.
I’ve watched team mates fight acrimoniously and seen opponents almost come to blows in the tunnel. I’ve seen teams joyous in victory and others devastated in defeat.
I’ve been there for the horrible final press conferences of coaches just before they were sacked.
I’ve been scowled at so brutally by a senior NRL official whose competence and qualifications I openly challenged that the club CEO I was talking with at the time asked me just what I’d done to him to deserve it, assuming I’d run over his dog.
I was right next to Andrew Johns on the field pre game at GIO Stadium as he vaguely reminisced to Freddy Fittler about a big score he’d racked up against the Raiders there. While Johns was unsure of the details, I knew the year of the match (2006), the precise score (70-32) and that it was the highest scoring game in Australian rugby league history.
My first proper connection with the game came through the officials. They were the first ones to talk to me and know who I was. It seems that many listened to the ABC coverage.
Then some players began to give me some time. David Shillington and Daly Cherry-Evans were two that I found both friendly and intelligent. Jamie Lyon and Ryan James are another two who had some time for me. Of course, being based in Canberra, there are a number of Raiders players and officials I’m friendly with.
However, that stuff is behind the scenes. When you run out onto the field at the end of play to get interviews with players you are in a race with a number of other broadcasters.
While you’ve got a few targets in mind, your first concern is to simply grab a player as soon as possible. The very first on field interview I ever attempted was with Cooper Cronk after his side had just suffered a rare home ground flogging.
He told me – with clear non-verbal communication – to piss off.
It wasn’t great for my confidence.
Once you actually do manage to grab a player the next challenge arises: what the hell are you going to ask them? Obvious things are to comment on the result: their own performance, as well as that of their team, opponents and the officials; any injuries that occurred; the next match; their finals chances, as well as specific incidents during the game.
This leads to the next issue: the quality of the response you actually get from the player. These can vary a fair bit and are influenced by a number of factors such as the player’s mood, opinion of the media, level of personal insight, grasp of language, as well as what sort of human they are.
You often get the angry player after his side has lost. They don’t give you that much in reality but their frank and harsh assessment of their own side’s performance doesn’t make for dreadful radio.
They’ll say things like they’re “filthy” on their performance; that it wasn’t good enough; that they can’t repeat that sort of performance if they have any pride in the jumper.
Then you can get those that really don’t give you anything.
Shaun Fensom is a great bloke but being interviewed isn’t his thing. I’d ask him a question and he’d string together a couple of clichés and look at me desperately like “please say that was ok and let me go…”
In Round 5 2014 I made a post-game bee-line for Jamie Soward. He’d had a good game. His kicking and organisation had controlled the fixture and clearly got the Panthers the win.
As positive as I was, as hard as I tried to get him to reflect in any depth at all about the match and his performance, Soward would not give me anything at all. After a number of questions, with his responses becoming progressively more dismissive, I decided to try for another target.
At that point Soward decided he wanted to give a shout out to some of his friends.
One of the officials messaged me later about just how rude they thought Soward had been to me.
In Round 11 this year Jason Taumalolo was at his steam-rolling best against the Raiders. As a glorified fan what I really wanted to know was if smashing through would-be opposition tacklers was his favourite thing in life. I was hoping for a response like Conan the Barbarian gave when asked what was best in life.
While the gold toothed behemoth was not in any way rude, he just responded with some broad statements about the game instead.
It was a bit disappointing.
However, sometimes you do get that bit more.
Craig Bellamy once took me into the Storm change room for my post-game interview and gave me insights that were wonderful. Ivan Cleary always gives me frank and thoughtful responses and Des Hasler has also been great.
But it’s the players – the gladiators themselves – that you really want to get the deep dirt from.
After his 250th game I followed Paul Gallen around the sideline as he greeted the Sharkies fans and he gave me such a frank interview. He actually answered my questions. He told me what he really thought, how he actually felt.
He didn’t sugar coat anything. “Was there any point you might have left the Sharks?” “Absolutely. There were a few times.”
It was magnificent.
Similarly, Gavin Cooper and Michael Morgan have both been just superb in interviews with me. When I asked Cooper about Origin selection he made it clear that he yearned for it, that it was so very important to him.
When I asked Michael Morgan if he really believed that he could lead the Cowboys to the 2017 finals in the absence of Jonathan Thurston he said “yes” without equivocation. It was so refreshing hearing that honesty, that passion.
The fan in me just grew a deeper love of all three of those players than ever before because they chose to share with me – and the audience too – their actual feelings.
They were telling me the meaning of their songs. And this groupie freaking loved it.
So we come to last Saturday night. With 60 seconds before the ABC Grandstand broadcast was going to switch away to the next game I managed to grab the Raiders fullback, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad.
In the short time he’s been at the club he has impressed everyone with not just how well he plays but what a superb human he is. In the match against the Wests Tigers he’d copped numerous heavy knocks through putting his body on the line. It played no small part in his side’s victory.
At least four times he’d been down after impacts but somehow gotten up. I asked if he was feeling those incidents.
“I’m already sore,” he replied.
“Is there any part of your body that isn’t injured at this stage?” I continued.
“My heart” was his reply…
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad: "I'm sore aleady."@GorskiOPork "Is there any part of your body that isn't injured at this stage?"
— ABC Grandstand (@abcgrandstand) July 20, 2019
Every twelve hour day. Every cold party pie. Every sideline soaking. Every rotten interview.
In that moment I couldn’t remember anything bad.
This fan knew exactly why he adored rugby league.
Not only is it great theatre and compelling drama, it is also full of people who have songs as superb as that of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad.