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Rikki Swannell: 'Everybody is always going to have an opinion on a commentator'

By Rikki Swannell
Rikki Swannell commentating for World Rugby.

I kind of fell into commentary. I trained as a broadcast journalist and worked in sports radio for years with a station who had a lot of live sport. Sky NZ picked me up initially to do netball and then tennis, and then I branched into other sports until I reached rugby.


I’d done pitch side on Super Rugby and a couple of All Blacks Tests for radio but I never set out to become a commentator, and it’s now my main job! For many years I juggled a job as a sports editor, reporter and news reader in radio with TV work at Sky on the weekends, before deciding to start freelancing at the end of 2016. World Rugby got in touch a year later.

I think back to the early days in radio, I was aware I was the only woman in the room but too young to realise what that meant or perhaps what was going on around me. I’d wanted to be a sports journalist all my life, so it was a case of get your head down and figure it out later.

I have experienced some uncomfortable environments, but never at the hands of players or coaches in any sport. Going into cricket commentary was very challenging and probably not well handled by some of the decision makers, which put me and a lot of other women in awkward and difficult positions. I asked to be taken off cricket. it wasn’t naturally my game to call anyway but at the time I was also about to cover the Winter Olympics, Commonwealth Games and start on Super Rugby so I felt over-exposed and I just didn’t need it. You can’t be that good at all of them.

From my very first day, the sevens crew at World Rugby have been amazing to me. The guys have always treated me as their equal and I’ve never been seen by them as ‘token’ which I think was certainly the view in some quarters in New Zealand.

Everybody is always going to have an opinion on a commentator, it happens to the guys as much as it happens to women, but criticism of me always comes back to gender. If I stuff up someone’s name, I’ve just stuffed it up, but for some people, especially early, I’d made a mistake because I was just a stupid woman who shouldn’t be there in the first place, whereas a guy can stuff that up and not have something levelled at them in that way.

Because I’ve been around media for so long in New Zealand, I wasn’t intimidated by going into male dominated commentary environments – I’ve worked with so many people in this industry over the years and I was confident in my ability as a broadcaster – but it was the external factors, the social media side that I needed to push away from.


There will always be people who don’t see this as the space for women but social media gives them a cloak of bravery that they think they can say anything to anyone. Refs, players and coaches cop horrific abuse that no one should have to deal with, and it’s a sad indictment that I consider myself lucky not to have received anything “that bad”.

Now that the Rugby World Cup 2023 squads are starting to be announced I can finally get out of the holding pattern I’ve been in. I basically do a background sheet on every team, just a whole lot of bullet points around some of the basics so I don’t have to go scratching around at the last minute. I always fall down the rabbit hole when I’m preparing and I get a lot of grief about the neatness of my hand-writing and the way things need to be laid out perfectly, but I like to be quite regimented in my prep – it gives me confidence that I’ve done the work even though I only use about a quarter of it!

Prep for game day is different. My team sheets are laid out in formation with hand-written info alongside and I like facts as opposed to heaps of stats, what a player’s story is. I have a real mixture of teams I’ll be calling in France, including three All Blacks games, which I’ve never done before. They’re the team I’m least worried about though – it’s New Zealand, everyone knows everyone so I don’t have to think too hard about identifying Beauden Barrett on the field, whereas I’m going to be seeing some of the players from Namibia and Chile for first time on the pitch. You need to look for distinguishing features such a pink boots or headgear.

I’m lucky being a New Zealander as I’m used to Maori or Pasifika names, and although Fijian names are a little more challenging and I have to think them through, it’s slightly easier for me. However, I don’t speak Spanish or French so that’s harder with those teams….and sometimes an English sounding name is said completely differently to what you think!


What I love about women’s rugby is it feels like I’m contributing to something a bit bigger. Trying to grow the profile of the women, getting people excited about it and finding out what we know about these amazing women.

The same goes for sevens. Everyone knows the All Blacks players and it’s a career highlight to cover them this World Cup, but I love the camaraderie in the women’s game and the welcome, the way people treat you. Not to say that the men’s game isn’t, but it’s slightly different and has that accessible grass roots element because it’s been such a battle with them for so long to get recognition. I feel like I contribute to that a little bit more than the men’s game.

I also feel within women’s and sevens rugby that there’s this untapped well of stories and people and personalities, and everyone loves a story! Finding out about all the teams and players and their background stories is such a highlight and something the game thrives off.

Swannell was speaking to RugbyPass’ Lucy Lomax


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