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Sports reporting and commentating

by Keith Quinn

The ways sports have been reported to fans and supporters has reflected the changing history of the media – and changing technology. Early newspapers carried reports of local sports games, but coverage of international sports events often appeared months later. Radio broadcasts of sport began in the 1920s, and television coverage in the 1960s.

Newspapers to 1930

19th-century sports coverage

Newspapers were published in New Zealand from 1840, and by the 1850s all the main centres had their own papers. From the beginning race meetings and cricket games were reported, and coverage increased in the 1860s as more organised sports clubs were set up. The spread of the railway network in the 1870s and 1880s led to more inter-provincial games of rugby and cricket, and there were often long, but anonymous, reports. Journalists were expected to report on everything, including sport – it was said of a newspaper reporter in 1877, ‘Music he must be well up in, as well as in the drama, oil paintings, cricket, football, boating, athletic sports, pigeon flying, ratcatching, and horse-racing.’1

A moral sport

Cricket was reported in moral as much as sporting terms. The Southern Cross began a report on an Auckland match in 1861, ‘We are glad to observe a growing tendency in favour of this truly manly and healthful recreation. Than cricket there is perhaps no amusement so well calculated to become generally useful to the well-being of a community: the exercise is not confined to any set or series of muscular movements, but brings into play all the varied powers of the body … rendering important aid to the mental faculties.’2

Overseas sport

Overseas sport such as English county or Australian cricket was often included, with excerpts culled from foreign newspapers, normally months after the games described. In 1888–89 coverage of the Native team’s international rugby tour was very spasmodic, and depended on the whims of British correspondents or excerpts from English papers. After the tour a book was written to record the team’s feats.

The opening of international telegraph communication allowed faster transmission of results. As interest mounted new techniques were required. Beginning with the 1905 All Black tour, cables were sent to newspaper offices in the main centres. Interested New Zealanders would gather to see the results written up on boards outside the offices. Children were often sent to cycle in from the outer suburbs of a town to see the scores or results published. Then they would ride homewards telling petrol-pump attendants or shop owners (for a few coins) what had happened. Full reports of the matches were drawn from several British writers who accompanied the team and regularly filed stories back to New Zealand papers. Once again tour books, one by team manager George Dixon and another a collection of newspaper reports from the Daily Mail, filled out the picture.

Flying the flag

For the All Blacks–Wales match in 1905 the Post Office agreed that once the telegraphed result had arrived, a New Zealand ensign flag would be flown if the All Blacks had won, a Union Jack if Wales had done so, and a white flag with a red centre in the event of a draw.


The arrival of the telephone allowed a further advance. In 1921 in Christchurch a reporter, Tom Fleming, made a breakthrough call from Lancaster Park to his office with his story on the South Africa–Canterbury fixture.

The first New Zealand reporter to travel 'on tour' with the All Blacks was the Wellingtonian Arthur Carman. He took time off work and followed the 1924–25 'Invincibles' team, reporting back to the New Zealand Sportsman for £1 a match ($93 in 2012 terms). However, for the 1928 All Black tour of South Africa, fans at home had to rely on fairly brief Press Association reports in all newspapers, and there was widespread criticism of the lack of detail. Three years later ‘Budge’ Hintz accompanied the New Zealand cricket tour to England.

    • West Coast Times, 14 December 1877, p. 3. Back
    • Daily Southern Cross, 1 March 1861, p. 4. Back

Newspaper reporting, 1930s to 2000s

In many ways the golden years for newspaper sports reporting were from the 1930s to the mid-1970s. In that time New Zealand produced many fine sports writers and columnists. These journalists were offered regular big spaces in newspapers and magazines, and provided an excellent service across all sports. The early years pre-dated the emergence of clear international radio signals – and television, of course.

Official tour reporting

During these years some All Black rugby tours included what was called official reporting. These ‘official’ writers had almost the same status as full members of the touring party. They travelled with the team, stayed in the same hotels, ate with the players and wrote 'official' releases about the team's activities and performances.

Originally these were just newspaper reporters, but with the emergence of radio and then television, the number of official reporters increased. The role was abandoned in 1978.

Changes in reporting

Around the time that official reporting was abandoned came wider live television coverage. As a result writers were obliged to change their style of reporting. Radio and television were getting the message home first with their more regular live commentaries and results. By the time a match report had been published, sometimes 24 hours had gone by and the home audience had already seen coverage of the game.

While some reporters welcomed being able to write background stories with more freedom, the players lamented what they saw as a change to more sensationalist, personality-focused coverage.

‘Big hit’ reporting

By the 2000s coverage of all sports in New Zealand had changed markedly. Sports bodies had to cope with newspaper, magazine, television, internet and blog reporting (and other social media). Major New Zealand teams in sports such as rugby, rugby league, netball, cricket, football, major yachting or Olympic and Commonwealth Games teams serviced reporters with large press conferences, their own controlled press releases or 'big hit' reporting. The latter is a free-for-all press conference, where all the players involved in an upcoming event are brought to one location, and the assembled reporters have a chance to interview whom they like. However, these conferences are strictly controlled by media officers from the sport involved. They can decide who attends from the media, and can decline requests if the team does not want a particular player interviewed. Senior reporters disliked these controlled media scrums, but they became the norm.

Impact of the internet

The rise of internet communication in the 2000s facilitated instant communication of results. Cricket matches were broadcast through ball-by-ball internet commentary, and sports news around the world was instantly available on phones and computers. This heightened the need for reporters to be reflective columnists rather than strict reporters. Many internet sports sites provided for the exchange of views between journalists and fans.

Sports writers

T. P. McLean

Since the 1930s there have been many fine New Zealand sports reporters and writers. One name stands out. Terence Power ('T. P.') McLean was knighted for his services to sports journalism in 1996 – the only New Zealand sports writer thus honoured. McLean also received the International Rugby Board (IRB) Chairman's Award in 2001. Prizes at the annual New Zealand Sports Journalists Association awards dinners are called 'TP's in his memory.

Never stopped chasing

T. P. McLean always said that a journalist had to be curious, accurate and ‘have a good pair of legs … Get out and chase stories. Don’t sit around waiting for them to come to you.’1 Only days before his death in 2004, aged 90, he submitted a piece to the New Zealand Herald. It was rejected, but he was still trying to 'get the story.'

McLean was prolific in his written outpourings for over 70 years. He wrote 21 books on sports, mostly rugby, and contributed hugely on all sports at one time or another. He filed millions of elegant and discerning words for the New Zealand Herald. Another important writer who worked with McLean at the Herald was the cricket correspondent Don Cameron.

Dick Brittenden and Alex Veysey

Along with McLean, two other sports reporters of the post-war decades constituted a famous troika. In Wellington Alex Veysey ranged between rugby and cricket and penned the most popular New Zealand sports book up to that time, a biography of Colin Meads. In Christchurch the pre-eminent writer was Dick Brittenden, who modelled his style on the great English cricket writer Neville Cardus. Don Cameron noted that both men wrote with humour and wit, but ‘there were echoes of Beethoven when Brittenden was in his best form … [Veysey] spread a mood of blues or jazz among his words.’2 Brittenden was part of a fine team at the Press which also included John Brooks, Ray Cairns, Kevin Tutty, John Coffey, Kevin McMenamin, Bob Scumacher and Tim Dunbar.

Fast copy

Kevin Tutty began his sports-writing career in Ashburton in 1968. He would write up games furiously, then rush five blocks down to the railway station by 6 p.m. to put the stories on the Invercargill to Christchurch train. The night messenger at the Press would have to go to the station to pick them up.

Like many newspaper reporters, these writers often turned their newspaper accounts of tours into books. From 1949, when Graham Beamish wrote a book on the All Black tour of South Africa, every long tour in the major sports was retold in book form, until such tours ceased in the 1990s.

Specialised press

Sports reporters also established specialised publications. Brian O’Brien edited the monthly Sports Digest for 30 years from 1949; Bob Howitt served for over 20 years as editor of Rugby News and the New Zealand Rugby Annual.

Others were highly versatile – such as Wallie Ingram who wrote about sports for many magazines and also broadcast on radio station 2ZB, or more recent writers like Richard Becht, who moved between radio and television and writing sports books. Phil Gifford provided both acute sports commentary and humour as ‘Loosehead Len’. The rise of the internet opened opportunities for writers like Marc Hinton, Duncan Johnstone, Richard Boock and Trevor McKewen to move between newspapers and online sites.

Local writers

Sport encourages parochial sentiments and local pride. Many writers based themselves at one city and newspaper and reported for hometown fans. They included Brent Edwards in Otago, Gary Frew in Northland, Grant Harding in Hawke’s Bay, Peter Lampp in Manawatū, Larry Saunders in Canterbury and Jim Valli in Southland.

Women writers

Sports coverage in New Zealand has tended to be a man’s pursuit, but several women writers have achieved in the field. They include Dot Simons, the pioneer woman sports writer who described women’s cricket, hockey and golf for the Auckland Star; Suzanne McFadden, a fine reporter of yachting and netball; and Margot Butcher, a cricket writer and the first woman to win the Sports Journalist of the Year award.

Sports historians

Others have written extensively about sport from a historical or statistical perspective. They include:

  • Arthur Swan, the first noted rugby historian, who, with A. H. Carman, produced the annual rugby almanacks in the 1940s and 1950s
  • Clive Akers and Geoff Miller, who produced the almanacks more recently
  • Rod Chester, who, with Neville McMillan and latterly the wide-ranging sports writer Ron Palenski, prepared both an encyclopedia of rugby and a biographical listing of All Blacks, Men in black
  • Peter Heidenstrom, who was the country’s greatest historian and statistician of athletics
  • Don Neely, the foremost cricket historian
  • Norma Williams, swimming historian
  • Bernie Wood, who, with John Coffey, has documented rugby league.

Sports photography

Photography has been a significant part of the New Zealand sports story. It allowed those not at the games to catch a glimpse of crucial moments of action and to see their stars up close.

Before the Second World War

Capturing images of sports action was difficult in the early years. The first sports cameras used bulky glass plates, and operators were only ever able to shoot a few images of the events they were covering. An 80-minute sports game might have only 12 plates assigned to it.

However, there are still many iconic images from the early years of photography which were reproduced in newspapers and books. Many at first came from overseas sources. These include:

  • the 1905–6 All Blacks doing the haka and playing England
  • a posed shot of the country's Australasian Olympic swimming gold medallist, Malcolm Champion of Auckland, in 1912
  • Cyril Brownlie being sent off against England during the 1924–25 All Blacks tour of the UK and France
  • Jack Lovelock winning the 1500 metres at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

The great years of sports photography

In the years after the Second World War New Zealand's leading newspapers and press agencies sent photographers on significant tours to capture images for purely New Zealand purposes. This brought out great talent and rivalry among the country's best 'snappers’.

Peter Bush

Peter Bush started taking pictures of sports games and events in the late 1940s. Apart from his years of personal overseas travel and war service in the Malaya campaign, he has continued to photograph into the 2010s. He came out of the glass-plate era of sports photography, through the years of standard film stock, and into the 'machine gun' world of modern digital photography. Bush worked for the New Zealand Herald for a number of years and then for New Zealand Truth. His work, particularly featuring rugby and the outdoors, has won him worldwide acclaim.


Radio arrives

The world’s first sports commentary on the then-newfangled medium of radio is believed to have involved boxing in the United States in 1921. Before then sports reporting was almost totally in newspapers and magazines.

The first broadcast in New Zealand followed a race for the Australasian sculling championship in Nelson on 28 April 1923. The race’s progress was relayed from a launch on Nelson Harbour.

By 1926 in Christchurch, Alan Allardyce had secured work with a local radio station. Not content with studio work, he began to experiment with outside broadcasts of local popular sports events, including trotting, cycling and hockey.

On 29 May 1926 Allardyce commentated on a charity rugby match between High School Old Boys and the Christchurch club on Radio 3AC. It was the first live sports broadcast in New Zealand with exact mentions of game details. The match had been previewed in the local morning paper the Press, but there was no report afterwards.

Test matches on radio

The very first radio broadcast of a rugby test match was from Twickenham in London in January 1927. The following year the touring All Blacks in South Africa had their test matches broadcast live to local audiences, and by 1930 radio description of tests had arrived in New Zealand. The first rugby test between New Zealand and Great Britain to be broadcast was at Carisbrook in Dunedin on 21 June 1930. The commentator was Alfred Canter of Dunedin.

‘Goodnight, mother dear’

For 16 days in 1932 the New Zealand expatriate actress Nola Luxford provided a daily one-hour radio report about the Los Angeles Olympics for Australian and New Zealand listeners. It was the first reporting on the games from a New Zealand perspective. Previously all reports had come through Press Association wireless and cable. Luxford always ended her reports with ‘Goodnight, mother dear.’

Radio’s golden years

In the 1930s radio commentary of sports events quickly became familiar in New Zealand. This was particularly common for rugby, cricket, wrestling, horse racing and trotting, although commentaries were done at many major sports events.

Winston McCarthy

Winston McCarthy became a significant influence on world sports broadcasting in the 1940s and 1950s. Born in Wellington in 1908, he dabbled in radio as an amateur for some years before being dispatched to commentate on the post-war 1945–46 New Zealand ‘Kiwis’ army team’s tour of the UK and Europe. McCarthy’s colourful manner of commentating was in stark contrast to the staid style which had built up in the previous 20 years in Britain, and he gained instant fame. Over the next 15 years he broadcast in dramatic fashion 38 All Black tests at home and on tours. When McCarthy retired it was said he was one of the world’s most recognisable New Zealanders. He also commentated at the 1950 and 1954 Empire Games and the 1956 Olympic Games.

‘Listen, listen … it’s a goal!’

Winston McCarthy’s most famous phrase invited listeners to pay attention to the roar of the crowd following a successful kick at goal. He was also known for colourful phrases such as ‘Goodness gracious me’ and ‘Put it in again, sonny’.

Overseas commentary

The tradition of sending radio commentators to broadcast back the ‘New Zealand version’ of major overseas sports events involving New Zealand teams began with Winston McCarthy and continued in the 2000s. Live radio commentaries are standard procedure, but commentators also service the many radio news and programme outlets that have sprung up.


For many years radio sports commentary was heard free of commercial interruption on state-owned radio, but in 1998 a commercial Radio Sport was established and began to provide live commentaries of most major sporting codes such as rugby league, football, rugby, cricket, athletics and bowls. Radio Sport also hosted extensive talkback sessions on sporting matters.

Noteworthy radio broadcasters or commentators have included:

  • rugby – Ken Anderson, Brian Ashby, Paul Allison, John Howson, Bob Irvine, Joe King, John McBeth, Jack McGuinness, Graeme Moody, Brian Russ, Colin Snedden and Charles Williams
  • cricket – Iain Gallaway, Alan Richards, Colin Snedden (again) and Bryan Waddle
  • rugby league – Raymond Cody, Murray King and Des White
  • Olympic and Commonwealth Games – Garry Ahern, Lance Cross and Charles Martin
  • general reporting and historical reporting – Peter Sellers
  • Gordon Hutter, a racing commentator and a famous broadcaster of wrestling in the 1930s.

Horse racing

Partly because of off-course betting, radio commentaries of racing and trotting have long been popular in New Zealand. Since 2005 race commentating has been administered by the Totalisator Agency Board (TAB).

There have been some outstanding New Zealand racing commentators who developed a distinctive ability to speak fast and accurately and raise the pitch of their voice as the race reached a climax. Among racing commentators of note have been Dave Clarkson from Christchurch, who was named commentator of the century in 1974, and Reon Murtha, also from Christchurch. Peter Kelly, based in the lower North Island, called about 23,000 races, including 28 Wellington Cups, from 1955 to 1973. Reg Clapp, the ‘voice of the north’, was a well-known caller of harness races for more than 40 years from 1948, especially at Alexandra Park in Auckland. His equivalent for the gallops in Auckland was Syd Tonks.


The arrival of television

The first live television involving a New Zealand sports team was in 1954 when an All Blacks’ game at Twickenham, London, was telecast throughout Great Britain. Television did not begin in New Zealand until the early 1960s. The first All Blacks’ test at home to be covered in full was New Zealand playing Australia in Dunedin in 1962. The commentator was Charles Martin. It was recorded on videotape and replayed on television the next afternoon.

Live or delayed?

The New Zealand Rugby Football Union had an early policy of not allowing live television broadcasts. It was believed such coverage would affect match-day gate-takings.

This controversial policy remained until 1972, when the third test against Australia at Eden Park became the first live telecast of an All Black test. The commentator was Bill McCarthy (no relation to Winston).

Overseas and satellite television

In the late 1960s sports broadcasters began to put commentary over video coverage of offshore rugby tests and Olympic or Commonwealth Games. The first TV commentator to travel full-time with a major New Zealand sports team was David (‘Doc’) Williams of Wellington, who toured South Africa with the All Blacks in 1970. While Williams provided film coverage of provincial matches, he was able, via an outside broadcast unit which travelled from Rhodesia, to secure and send home on videotape full match coverage of the tests. The video played on New Zealand TV up to a week after the actual event.

Keeping it in the family

Doc Williams, the pioneering NZBC television commentator to South Africa in 1970, was the son of Charles Williams, who had broadcast radio coverage of test matches in New Zealand before the Second World War.

The first offshore sports event to be broadcast live in New Zealand via satellite was the All Blacks rugby test against Wales, from Cardiff in 1972. The coverage was entirely from the BBC. In 1974 the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) began to send New Zealand broadcasters to cover All Black tests. Keith Quinn was the first commentator to tour Australia and Keith McEwen toured Ireland later that same year. Subsequently sending New Zealand commentators and production crew on All Black tours became a regular practice.

1974 Commonwealth Games

The 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch was significant because for the first time much of New Zealand’s coverage was in full colour. For the event the NZBC had purchased a new fully colour-capable outside broadcast van. This provided colour images from athletics and swimming events, though other sports, such as weightlifting, were still covered in black-and-white.

Sky TV

By the mid-1990s the television rights to All Black rugby matches and a number of significant other major sports had moved from the state-owned Television New Zealand (TVNZ, its name changed from NZBC) to the privately owned Sky. This led to a huge change in New Zealand sports viewing habits.

Part of the game

By the 2000s television coverage of major sports, especially rugby and cricket, had become part of the officiating process. In cricket umpires (and in some cases captains) could refer to a third umpire to call a decision. In rugby the TMO (television match official) could be asked by the referee to judge on the legitimacy of tries.

In 2013 Sky subscribers were offered a total of eight sports channels, comprising Sky's own four general channels and a rugby channel, plus ESPN, and two racing channels (TAB TV and Trackside). Sports coverage on the previously powerful TVNZ was mainly of less popular codes. TV3 and Māori Television sports coverage was also limited.

Sky TV also won exclusive television rights to Super 15 and ITM Cup rugby coverage and all All Black test and tour matches, plus many other events such as the Summer and Winter Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games, the Silver Ferns and Trans-Tasman netball, NRL rugby league, New Zealand domestic cricket, international cricket played in New Zealand and English Premier League football. Sky was the host broadcaster for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Television highlights

Famous televised moments

Television coverage has defined moments of joy and heartbreak for New Zealanders and New Zealand teams. These include:

  • The 1972 New Zealand rowing eight stand on the dais at the Munich Olympic Games after their gold-medal-winning final (not seen live).
  • Dick Tayler jumps for joy after winning the 10,000 metres track final at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch.
  • Australian cricketer Trevor Chappell bowls underarm in the last ball of a one-day game against New Zealand in 1981.
  • Anti-apartheid protesters invade the field to stop the Waikato game against the Springboks in 1981 (not seen live in New Zealand at the time, but broadcast frequently later).
  • Jonah Lomu scores four tries against England in a Rugby World Cup semi-final in Cape Town in 1995.
  • Black Magic wins the America’s Cup in San Diego in 1995.
  • Mark Todd and Charisma win their second gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.
  • David Kirk in 1987 and Richie McCaw in 2011 hold up the Webb Ellis Cup after the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup triumphs.

Notable television commentators

Since the early 1970s television broadcasters have made significant tours and trips with New Zealand sports teams. The most notable rugby commentator has been Keith Quinn, who began his career as a television commentator in 1973 and travelled with the All Blacks on over 30 tours. Other well-known rugby commentators include Tony Johnson, John McBeth and Grant Nisbet.

Important cricket commentators include former cricketers Martin Crowe, Simon Doull, Mark Richardson and Ian Smith, as well as Peter Williams. Peter Montgomery achieved fame as the voice of America’s Cup yachting, and by 2012 he, along with Keith Quinn and Brendan Telfer, had attended his ninth summer Olympic Games. Former netball players Julie Coney, April Ieremia and Jenny-May Coffin have established reputations as television presenters, and former Black Fern Melodie Robinson as a rugby reporter.

1987 Rugby World Cup

The 1987 Rugby World Cup was the first example of New Zealand TV staff providing major ‘host’ coverage for world TV stations that had sent production representatives to New Zealand. The final was broadcast worldwide via TVNZ coverage to an audience of 5 million people. The game at Eden Park, Auckland, was covered by 14 cameras, directed by Michael Scott of Auckland.

2011 Rugby World Cup

By 2011 the world of TV had changed enormously, with high-definition cameras, lengthy video and slow-motion replays, extended fishing-pole cameras and overhead camera views of significant moments from 48 games. Sky TV were the rights holders and brought great distinction to New Zealand in the TV craft. The event was offered live via 38 cameras. The director of the World Cup final coverage was the veteran Wellington TV director Gavin Service, who had been touring with All Black teams since 1978.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Keith Quinn, 'Sports reporting and commentating', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Keith Quinn, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013