As an experienced sports broadcaster, New Zealander Rikki Swannell is used to taking anything in her stride.
That was literally the case when, in 2011, she found herself broadcasting reports on the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup win live into the Radio Sport through-the-night show in New Zealand as she hot-footed it back to the studio from a gridlocked Eden Park with car horns blaring in the background in celebration at the All Blacks win.
It is one of three Rugby World Cups Swannell has actively worked on, the first coming in 2003 when she was just 22 and only six months into the profession, in addition to five Olympics Games, two Netball and Field Hockey World Cups, a couple of Wimbledons and countless other major sporting events.
Since 2018, Swannell has also made a name for herself as one of the voices of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, initially covering the women’s competition but more recently the men’s as well.
In Vancouver last month, she became the first female lead commentator on the men’s World Series and went on to call the Cup final between Argentina and Fiji.
Breaking new ground is “no big deal”
For Swannell, she hopes that one day gender won’t be an issue or a talking point.
“I find all of this side of it a bit strange. I wish it wasn’t a big deal, and I think a lot of people do.
“I think it went by largely unnoticed which is fine by me, just because I have been around a while now, and there have been other ‘firsts’ that I and others have done.”
That the transition back and forth between the men’s and women’s World Series has been seamless and largely gone unnoticed speaks volumes for Swannell as a master of her craft. The trolls remain, but Swannell knows not to take any notice.
“I went off Twitter about four to five years ago, and I think that has helped me immensely,” she said.
“There was a lot going on at the time, and at the same time Twitter is a relatively negative place to be, and I thought, ‘I don’t need this in my life, someone talking about me that I don’t’ know’,
“I have taken steps to take myself away from it because the people who matter are the ones I get feedback from and it’s their opinions I actually care for and I guess the fact that I keep getting jobs is all the feedback I need.”
Like with many broadcasters who have gone on to achieve great things, Swannell’s ascent hasn’t all been plain-sailing or without incident.
“My World Series debut in 2018 in Kitakyushu could have very nearly been my last,” she revealed.
“I had literally just gone to the loo – after drinking copious bottles of water – when I heard Maggie Alphonsi yelling down the corridor, ‘we’re on air!’
“I was supposed to be bringing us back on air leading into the second round of games and had totally misread the times of matches.
“I thought ‘I’ve done my one tournament, met some wonderful people but that’ll be me.’
“Thankfully, our wonderful director Steve Jamieson said, ‘don’t worry’ and was very kind about it!”
😲 "Man, they get away with it... holy smokes!"— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) April 22, 2022
🎙 Go inside the commentary box with Rikki Swannell and @KT_Ten10 for Santiago Vera Feld's 𝙫𝙚𝙧𝙮 close call in the #Canada7s final #HSBC7s pic.twitter.com/i8Fq9pM9VK
Lasting the distance in Vancouver
In Vancouver, Swannell was more concerned about her voice lasting the weekend than anything else.
As with players, a lack of ‘game time’ meant Swannell felt ‘under-cooked’ going into the tournament.
“With that tournament, I was more concerned by the fact it was my first tournament in two years because us Kiwis hadn’t been anywhere. I was as rusty as anything and I was exhausted after day one. I was like, ‘what do you mean we have to do this all over again’?
“Because I’d largely done the women’s, so slightly smaller tournaments with 12 teams as opposed to 16, there was a lot more to get my head around.
“By the time I’d actually looked at the roster properly, there was not a whole lot I could do about it so I had to just get stuck in.
“Sevens is a big day but it’s cool because there is always something to get excited about.”
While listening to Swannell call the action is easy on the ear, like any self-effacing broadcaster she is reluctant to hear herself back.
“I cringe at everything!
“I love the World Rugby clips and highlights they put up. When I hear them, I think to myself, ‘did I add anything to that and was it okay’?
“Sometimes getting it right means not saying anything or very little. You can’t put the words back in your mouth once they are out, and I have got better at not dwelling on it if it doesn’t quite come out right.
“The one that makes me want to crawl into a hole is ‘Gayle Broughton has got more moves than Beyonce’.”
A sporting all-rounder
Words come naturally to Swannell, they always have done, especially when the subject is sport.
“For me growing up, watching sport was not unusual because it’s just what we did and it didn’t matter what it was.
“My dad is English, so we’d get used to watching big-league soccer back in the day. In the summer, it was cricket. Any time an Olympics or Commonwealth Games was on, we’d watch that, the Silver Ferns too, as all my mum’s side of the family are netballers, and we’d get up at three in the morning to watch the All Blacks if they were playing in the northern hemisphere, or we’d go to provincial games and things like that. We were a family that watched a lot of sport!
“I was a drama kid, did the shows, I was always reading, always writing … using words all the time. I loved books and language and debating as I got older.
“I don’t recall doing mock commentaries or anything like that. I don’t think it was on my radar but at 16, I knew I wanted to be a sports journalist.
“I started off in radio, with our national sports radio station, probably the equivalent of Talksport in the UK – Five Live but commercial.
“I started there in 2003, so that was a Rugby World Cup year. We were in the studio in Auckland and I recall it being late at night and me and my colleague, we’d only been there about six months, and we were the ones working on it. He was producing and I was writing the stories and I remember thinking, ‘how can they let two 22-year-olds be in charge of a radio station on the night of a World Cup final’?”
Next stop Toulouse
Swannell shoulders responsibility well – she went on to be the station’s sports editor before turning freelance in 2016 – but there was one time when she almost ‘bottled’ it … “I remember going to my first press conference at a hotel in Auckland. Crusaders were away at Blues if I remember rightly, and Robbie Deans and Reuben Thorne were at the top table. and I’d forgotten my mic stand. But thankfully one of the old cameramen came to my rescue and helped me set it up on a water bottle. I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten it since!”
With Swannell just about to pass through airport security on her way to Dublin to present the Rugby World Cup host location media conference, our interview comes to an end.
But fans of the World Series will hear plenty more from her before the season is out. . After Toulouse this weekend, Los Angeles, on 27-28 August, is looking like the next World Series date on the calendar. As Beyonce would say, put a ring on it.