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In Conversation - Melodie Robinson

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In Conversation with Melodie Robinson

As the 2019 season warms up and we get back into the Shortball we have a small RugbyPass podcast, In Conversation, where we take our time to chat to a few of the people who make up New Zealand’s national game.

Today Scotty Stevenson talks to commentator, sports journalist and former Black Fern Melodie Robinson.

Robinson played 18 test for the Black Ferns from 1996 to 2002, winning two World Cups. Now she is one of New Zealand’s most respected journalists and commentators.

She spoke to Scotty about the influence of Otago rugby, the development of women’s rugby and what he’s like as a colleague.

Download the episode here or listen in the player below.  Subscribe on iTunes here so you never miss an episode.

What a great pleasure to welcome to the podcast today, Ms Melodie Robinson.

Mel, let me just outline your myriad successes as an athlete. Two rugby world cups, represented the Black Ferns in 18 tests between 1996 and 2002. Also represented New Zealand women’s sevens in Hong Kong and Japan. You then went on to become a journalist working in parliament, then you moved through to Sky TV where you served that organisation for, if I’m not mistaken, 15 years as a presenter, commentator, reporter, and latterly, as a communications executive. You’ve also graduated from the University of Auckland with a postgraduate degree, an MBA. So in other words you’re flash.

Well all of what you’ve just said is the reason I’ve just taken off six weeks doing absolutely nothing. It’s called burnout [laughs].

I think you also just need a break. You’re also the mother of two wonderful boys and partner to a very successful golf coach and former New Zealand golfer Marcus Wheelhouse, so you lead a busy life, Mel. And full disclosure here we were also colleagues for 12 years at Sky Sport and we had an awful lot of fun, you and I.

Yeah we did. You sat next to me and I’m not sure if many people who listen to your podcast know because obviously this is audio, but your resting bitch face is very familiar to me but I know that you’re smiling on the inside, as you always told me.

I do have a problem with resting bitch face. I’m also terrible at late night wrestling ‘cause you’ve managed to pin me a couple of times while we’ve been on the road and get a three count. You’re a strong woman. I’m going to take you back today, Mel, because I want to get a sense of how far you have come. Talk to me about your first involvement with rugby.

It’s a funny thing because I think for a lot of Kiwis, we’re similar in that we grow up watching rugby. For me it was the 1987 World Cup that was really significant. I think I was 11 years old and that was my quality time with my dad. At the same time I fell in love with rugby and David Kirk, who in my late twenties I realised he only came up to my chin and also he was very straight down the middle, a very serious man, so we never would’ve worked out anyway. But when I watched that World Cup I just thought to myself “oh my god I want to be an All Black”. And when you’re a young, innocent tomboy chick growing up in New Zealand you don’t actually realise that there’s actually social boundaries around certain things, particularly back when I was young. Girls were not All Blacks.

I guess that’s where my passion for the game started. It wasn’t until I got to Otago Uni that I actually got the opportunity as an 18 year old to play.

Talk to me about that opportunity. You headed down to Otago for university. You were born in the Canterbury region, grew up in Little River which is a wonderful place. But who introduced you to the game in Otago?

We were at this place called Unicol. We had Taine Randell there, there were two other M?ori blokes and me, we were the only brown people in the place of 250 university students. So that was pretty interesting. On the wall there was a notice that said “Trial: girl rugby players wanted. Come down to Logan Park on Saturday at midday.” I was seriously beside myself so my friend Nikki Fogden and I went down – and I’d never played rugby before so you can imagine during the trial how ugly it was – I got the ball plenty of times but sort of made maybe one metre across the field and it was a nightmare. But I loved it. Who ever tells you how fantastic it is to physically dominate somebody on the sports field in a sport like rugby? I fell in love with it and it all just went from there.

People like Suye Garden-Bachop, she was one of my early coaches and a significant force for getting funding for the Otago Rugby Union and getting us a tour of the North Island. That was when Darryl Suasua started to become the coach and he noticed some of us fit, skinny chicks from down south. I was a flanker, I wasn’t really the build for a back in those days. He ended up selecting a few of us like myself and Annaleah Rush and Farah Palmer into the Black Ferns and that’s when our international careers started, which was very cool. Although not many people thought girls should be playing rugby back then.

This was 1996 and women’s rugby hadn’t actually been around for a long time. In fact there had been a World Cup prior to that but it hadn’t even been sanctioned by World Rugby or the International Rugby Board as it was known then. There was still plenty of work to do. Did you feel then that you were spearheading something when you played for the Black Ferns?

We didn’t know until the 1998 Rugby World Cup because you’re young and you’re innocent and you’re just doing what you love. We had some fantastic people like Suasua, George Skudder, and Rob Fisher who were big advocates and actually saw that there was real potential and how fantastic our New Zealand women could be at the game. Rob Fisher was obviously at the New Zealand Rugby Union and they got us some funding and we ended up at that 1998 World Cup. it wasn’t until we got there that we started absolutely smashing people off the field and we started getting all these faxes through and we were like “wow, this is amazing”. Not just our families, it was schoolkids, people from the media, we were getting interviews and the final was live on TV1. It wasn’t until that point that we thought wow, people are actually recognising us for all the hard work that we did. That was awesome.

I want to fastforward if we can, 20 odd years, and now we have a Black Ferns team that is very much in the public eye. Their profile has grown enormously. The Black Ferns Sevens obviously have become household names. Do you guys take some credit for the way that you approached the game and the barriers that you were able to break down? Because there’s a part of me that looks at the generation of players you played with, like Victoria Highway, Rochelle Martin, Anna Richards, Emma Jensen, Casey Robinson, and many many more. Do you feel like the barriers you were able to break down have paved the way for what our women now are experiencing in the game?

100%. I think that back when Darryl Suasua took over, he changed how women played rugby and had an impact on how other international teams played. He selected crossover athletes from other sports and he taught them rugby. That was the first step and that’s what they’re still doing today and why New Zealand Sevens team are so good because they found those athletes from other sports as well as the rugby girls who came through. It was years of acting professionally, showing that the women played quality rugby, and it a couple of decades before New Zealand Rugby got onboard with that in truly invested in it. But it was because of that huge success rate, commitment, love and passion, and also incredible behaviour off the field, particularly people like Farah Palmer. She showed leadership skills that are pretty rare, to be honest. Look, we know, we don’t need the accolades though it was nice to have that Black Ferns capping last year, the first one they’ve ever had. That was a special moment.

Talk to us about that night because those listening to the podcast who don’t know the tradition that the All Blacks instituted some years ago where players who hadn’t previously received their cap are invited to ceremonies and are presented with their test caps. As you said, no Black Ferns had ever actually, physically been presented with a test cap. To have all those Ferns together in one room in a glittery evening by all accounts, what was that like for those of you who had forged this road?

It was one of the most joyful evenings I think I’ve ever been a part of. You don’t get to see many of these players, they’re all across the country. But you have spilt blood and forged friendships and bonds with people over playing test match rugby with them. So it was like we had seen each other only yesterday even though it might have been 15 years. It was amazing and they all got glammed up and they were very excited. They only capped the ‘98 World Cup team and then I think the first 20 so there’s more to come. But the most brilliant part was Chairman Brent Impy, who I respect, he was up there and he was reading through the names. There’s some tricky Polynesian and M?ori names in there and one of the ladies got fed up and when she got her name called out she grabbed the mic off him, and he’s sitting there looking very sweaty. Then the last Black Fern off the rank was me. I’m waiting to get my cap and thinking “am I last?” and Brent Impy goes “and finally, Melodie Robinson. Congratulations Fern number 69.” and he just about choked. Everyone in the room laughed and I thought “yes! I’ve finally made it, number 69”.

Only you could be proud of this fact, I love that about you.

I reckon Farah Palmer or somebody set me up with that.

The fun you had spread a core that you guys had and I’ve had the pleasure, through you particularly, Mel, to meet so many of your former teammates. There’s a sense of collective pride in just having been a part of the game, you guys feel as special about representing your country as any male does with the All Blacks I’m sure.

It’s always irked me when someone says to me “it was only women’s rugby, it’s not the same as men’s.” Because it doesn’t matter that back when I was playing there were fewer top athletes, that squad of 32 that went to the ‘98 World Cup and 2002 was as good as full-time professionals. It’s just that there were less of us back then. Remember that book, Legacy, that was written about the All Blacks culture and they were trying to give the essence of the business? Well I read that recently and a lot of that we were doing back then. Actually we used the history of the All Blacks jersey as a foundation of what motivated us and what gave us values. So yes we thought that we were exactly like the All Blacks even though we didn’t have the massive crowds or money, it didn’t matter. You were in a black jersey.

Parlaying your rugby career into a broadcasting career with Sky and when you first arrived on the scene…just maybe elucidate us on how tough you found some of those moments. Because you were, for a long time, the only female presence in a very male environment.

Look, I won’t lie, it was tough. I’m kind of thankful that I was a super tomboy. I let a lot of stuff ride over the top because my theory was if I keep it really professional, don’t sweat the small stuff, I will have longevity in my career. But in today’s society, if some of that stuff had happened now, mate, it’s different. I would’ve called it out. When I started I got put on the sideline of, I think it was around 2003 Super Rugby, and there wasn’t a process to train you. You were just thrown into the deep end, it’s much better now. I didn’t realise it at the time, I was only told last year by the senior producer who was running the cutter, that when they told everybody in the rugby meeting that they were going to use me for some games, there was a lot of discussion. And most of it was “what are you doing? This is the wrong move.” Interestingly, they had to tell the SANZAAR partners and Super Sport was like no way, we don’t want a woman on our coverage. Then I know someone from NZ Rugby – I won’t say who it was – said “why have you got her?” So a lot of opposition. Then one of my workmates just didn’t really like me. I look back at it and realise I had quite a different philosophy on life. I was a tomboy, I liked to get out and socialise, I didn’t think you had to behave a certain way because I thought being yourself and authentic- obviously you’ve got to worry about context, and being young I didn’t realise that and it really irked this person and he made my life pretty terrible.

All my friends in broadcasting would tell me what was going on but even though they were trying to help me over six months it got so bad that I couldn’t sleep. I had to go to my boss and I asked him what to do and he was incredibly supportive and it worked out. We had a really good professional relationship, that person and I, but it was tough because I was a young girl and I was by myself. So thank god for people like Kevin Cameron, Andrew McVeagh who was actually a producer at the time, Brendan But, and Andrew Pfeiff who actually believed in me.

So yes, I lasted, but not many girls got much of a shot over that first decade that I was there. I would see women come in and guys who were my mates would say “what the hell does she really know about sports?” It was conscience bias against them, to be honest. Even though they might have other great attributes – they could make people relax in interviews, they could do brilliant things – because they weren’t ex-All Blacks or Black Ferns or really knew the logistical history of the game, they were instantly blocked and would usually get dumped after a year without much explanation. That was always playing on my mind.

You also got the chance to commentate rugby. You can do all the reporting in the world and no one will really notice but when you put your voice on a rugby commentary, that’s when people will really let you know what they think of you. You were the first woman in the world to do this, to commentate professional rugby. We’ve now gone on to the next generation with Rikki Swannell who was the first woman to commentate Super Rugby. At the time were you nervous about how you approached the game and – I guess what I’m trying to say is – were you more nervous than perhaps a bloke would’ve been, given what was at stake?

I was definitely nervous. Shitting my pants. That very first commentary I did I made one mistake, it was the quick throw-in law, and the next day on RadioSport I got absolutely slammed. Interestingly Martin Devlin was the host, and he stood up for me. Which was quite nice because I’ve heard him say some pretty interesting things about female broadcasters lately. It was hard. The more you got criticised the more overly conscious you got about preparing and being safe and I reckon it took me a decade before I really became a skilled broadcaster who could be my authentic self as well as confident in my rugby analysis. Which is crazy. That was all because of that intense criticism I got. I’d won two rugby World Cups, I’d trained as a journalist, I was as qualified as anybody else to be there but it was hard. But guess what? I’m so thankful I did stick it out because it has meant it’s much easier for women coming in now so isn’t it great.

It is, it’s fantastic. While we’re on the subject, recently you went away across to the Women in Sport symposium with ESPN and had a great time there. You went a step further and when you returned to New Zealand you decided “I’m going to talk about it, I’m going to do something about it”. Trying to even up the broadcast and media coverage of women’s sport. So you created, with the help of some very dear friends, the Wonderful Group. Explain to us what it’s about.

It’s pretty simple. It’s more diverse, more empowered women in sport media. One of our aims is of course to make sure that women’s coverage of sport improves. It wasn’t just me either. I was the founder but I’ve had the Rikki Swannells, Jenny Wylie from New Zealand Netball is also on our board, the Olympic Committee are fully engaged as well. So it was a big group of us and it was just the right time and moment. We set it up and the first thing I did was go around to the big media companies and say, “you’ve got one female sports reporter and 44 men. Why? Why is coverage only specifically data based or analytical or news information? Why can’t you vary it?” Some of the research I saw at ESPN, it was with just under 3000 of their audience and it showed that the female audience get enough of the data but they want more of the drama, they want the stories, they want the male athletes to be humanised, they want less statistics, more explanation, and they want female stories to inspire them or motivate them. Interestingly the traditional male sports audience agrees. So why wouldn’t you look to include your whole entire audience? That was the message I gave and TVNZ, Sky TV, Mediaworks, NZME, stuff.co.nz have come on board and they agree with me. So they’ve become our partners and we do mentoring programmes, we do sessions with people like Dr. Lester Levy from leadership. The other thing we want to do is not just bring more broadcasters in or more coverage of women’s sport, we want more females in the editorial decisions when it comes to sport broadcast as well. There’s about two: there’s Suzanne McFadden at Newsroom and I would argue that Cate Slater is probably one at TVNZ. So two females contributing to sports broadcast decisions or editorial decisions is not many.

It’s a crazy imbalance. Are you seeing results through the programme?

Yeah it’s been amazing. The number of female sports journalists last year that received awards at the journalism awards evening, the ones that went through the mentoring programme – I think we had 22 – we’ve had over 30 female faces over 12 months on the Sky Sport platform. Sky has been really good at getting diversity on screen in terms of more female reporters, and obviously Rikki coming in there too. So it’s really positive. I’m not down in the dumps about it I’m just saying hey, for the women in the group, we’re going to get ourselves to a better level so we can actually have the skills, the mindset, the leadership, everything we need to be ready to put our names in the hat when the jobs do come up.

One of the charges still levelled about women’s sport and particularly women’s rugby – I’ll focus on that because that’s your background and it’s certainly the sport that I’ve covered most over the last decade – is that it’s just not commercially viable so why invest in something that’s not going to give you a return. It’s a convenient argument for me, but I guess there is some truth to it. If I could play devil’s advocate, at the moment what do you see is the return on investment in the women’s game? Financially, first of all, and then second to that, how do you start to grow the revenue produced by women’s rugby in what is a very commercial environment?

My thought on this – and others might not agree with me – is I feel that often when commercial sponsors or broadcasters look at women’s sport, they use a traditional business model approach. And that’s all about what profit, what revenue can we bring in? When it comes to broadcasters it’s all about the audience, or in particular viewers hours if you’re talking about Sky Sport. So when you get to women’s sports or smaller sports, the viewer hours are not going to be able to compete with the likes of the All Blacks or cricket or the Silver Ferns test matches. So for me the argument is this is a growth opportunity so you have to actually look at it in a different way and you have to invest in it to get the revenue and the profit down the line. I think a great example is when John Fellett set up, with New Zealand Netball, that brand new ANZ Championship way back when. He had the vision and foresight to know that this was going to be something significant. And for women’s netball players being paid and having a broadcaster, having the faith to put in a new competition like that, more of that needs to happen.

For this new professional competition, it will probably be coming in 2020 under New Zealand Rugby Union. Maybe they need to look at it in a completely different way than they look at the All Blacks. It’s a different style of rugby. It’s as entertaining. You can see the number of women players is growing, they’re a growth area in New Zealand rugby and in fact the world. It’s women who are leading the growth. Sponsors are starting to get really interested in them. My MBA research paper was actually on that and I found that yes, New Zealand big corporates do want to sponsor women’s sport but it’s the way they present their sponsorship props that has to change. They’ve got to include data, they’ve got to line with strategy, and they’ve got to bring their stories into the companies.

I think that we’re on the cusp if you look at women’s sport, particularly women’s rugby, as a growth opportunity as opposed to “how many people are watching it now?” Then you’ll have a really good business case.

Finally, I want you to go through your vast database of players you’ve played with, teammates you’ve had, and maybe tell us who was the toughest and who was the craziest?

Well most people would say that I might have been the craziest back in the day [laughs]. I did actually get warned once by Darryl that if I dropped my pants in a bar again I’d be dropped from the Black Ferns. So he took me to the Hong Kong Sevens with the New Zealand team and I had all of my team around me getting very merry, including Annaleah Rush who fell down the seats where everybody was and I looked around and he was at the other side of the stadium with the binoculars trained on me to make sure that I didn’t get up to any mischief. So probably I was up there. I’ve matured, I’ve grown much more conservative.

Ooooh yes you have.

Yes of course. I want to put a big ups to Anna Richards. Someone who played two decades for New Zealand, she was the brains trust of that team. She was one of the best tacklers you’ll ever see, which first fives are not necessarily known for being great defenders. She really brought others along with her. She gave her IP. She would train other first fives who were with the team and she was very generous with her knowledge. To me, she’s still one of the greatest icons of the game. It kills me that at the moment she is out of work. She is a professional rugby coach, she can’t get a break. I think it’s just crazy. I would also love her to be recognised more by the New Zealand Rugby Union and taken to things because her and Farah Palmer were the two that probably had the biggest significant effect on the women’s game over the last couple of decades.

Mel, 1996 you started your Black Ferns career. It’s 2019 and still not a single woman head coach in our provincial game for women. Still some way to go, isn’t there?

There is. But we always have a positive outlook that things will change and I think they are.

Thanks to people like you, Mel, they are.

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In Conversation with Melodie Robinson