A hugely respected rugby writer who has spanned six decades as a writer, Peter Jackson talks us through his life in rugby

The Forward Pass Podcast – Peter Jackson

Welcome to The Forward Pass, a series of conversations with leading rugby union journalists, broadcasters, presenters and photographers who will offer the next generation of media professionals – and fans – an insight into how they cover the sport.

Veteran journalist Peter Jackson has been writing about sport for over 50 years with the vast majority of that time spent at Daily Mail’s rugby union correspondent. He ‘retired’ from that role in 2009 but continues to break news and offer views for The Rugby Paper and recently embraced TV fame as a straight-talking and crowd-pleasing guest on BBC Wales’ Scrum V magazine show.

A noted author and respected member of the sports media, he joined Graham Jenkins to reflect on his journalism journey, what he has learnt along the way, the colourful characters he has met and how the game has developed over the years.

What came first, a passion for rugby or writing?

“It was the passion for writing. I was blessed in that I always had a clear idea of what I wanted to do in life. From the age of 11 or 12 I wanted to be a sports journalist, I mean I grew up in the 50s when newspapers were king, local radio hadn’t been thought of and if you talked about anything like mobile phones you would have been taken away by men in white coats and locked up!

“It was very much a newspaper dominated age, you followed all the major sports event through the eyes of the great sports reporters of the time, I remember, I was lucky enough to win a prize at school and we could pick a book and I chose ‘More Ringside Seats’ by Peter Wilson, who was on The Daily Mirror, and I think the Mirror at the time were the highest selling newspaper in Europe with something close on six million.

“Rugby then, was not cool, in Northern Ireland it was seen as a bit of a class game, pursued by the kids who went to the poshest schools, and I don’t think that was inaccurate, and the only time I think the working man talked about the Ireland rugby team was if they played what was then a Five Nations game and there might have been a cursory ‘oh I see we lost to England’ or whatever.

“It never grabbed the imagination and it was only when I went to Cardiff and changed jobs that my whole life changed and I couldn’t believe it that bus conductors were talking about football, and by football they meant rugby, and all the little grounds in the South Wales, the Cross Keys, Newbridge, all these had floodlights and it was there that I felt the passion for the game and in many ways I wish I had felt that when I was back home growing up in Northern Ireland.”

Is it true you came across a certain Mike Gibson in your school boy playing days?

“I didn’t know anyone called Gibson but there was a guy in my class who knew all the rugby players at all the schools, I asked him, ‘Who’s this Gibson?’ and he said, ‘Oh, that’s Mike Gibson, he’s the biggest thing since sliced bread. You’re not playing Saturday are you? What have you don’t to deserve that?!’

“Of course, Gibson then became what the late John Reason described as ‘pound for pound, the greater three-quarter the British Isles have produced in the last 50 years of the amateur era’. Yes, that was my misfortune. To say I suffered by comparison would be to put it mildly, but it does reinforce my view that if you’re going to make a living out of sport it is going to be writing about it, not playing it.”

Mike Gibson

The incomparable Mike Gibson was admired by Jackson as a young man

You opted to pursue a career as a rugby writer rather than football?

“The reason for that was that I enjoyed rugby more. Rugby to me then was full of colourful characters which is something I regret about the game today, in that is has become so much like football. You leave school, join an academy, you become pretty one-dimensional.

“I go back to the great days of the 70s with Wales you had steel workers and miners rubbing shoulders with doctors and lawyers. They were all interesting people and quite willing to speak their mind on things. The game was just that, a game, it was not their livelihood although some of them felt it ought to have been. I miss those blokes.

“I was even more blessed when I did become the chief rugby correspondent as that coincided with the period leading up to professionalism, all kinds of things were going on in the game…we all knew that for some time players, particularly in France and South Africa were being paid and amateur rugby union was a sham.”

You spent 35 years at the Daily Mail, did you enjoy being part of the rugby press pack during that time?

“Wonderful. I couldn’t have wished for better colleagues to work with or against, because we were competing. We did that in a way without falling out, inevitably there were bust ups but they didn’t last very long, we accepted we were all trying to scoop each other.

“On tour there tended to be a more communal effort, nobody wanted to be woken up in Dunedin by an irate news desk saying, ‘Why haven’t we got this story they’ve got in The Telegraph?’ or ‘What about this piece in The Times?’”

Do you have any tours or matches that you remember more fondly than others?

“Yes, unquestionably the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa. If only every tour could have been like the 1997 Lions Tour. Why? Because it still had the best of the amateur ethos mingled in with early professionalism, everyone was made welcome and it hadn’t been made into the circus it is now. There were not people at every turn saying ‘you can’t speak to him’ or ‘you can’t ask him that’.

“Fran Cotton was the manager and in every sense he is a gigantic figure of the game, not just in England, but he was free and easy, understood we had a job to do and Ian McGeechan, the coach, likewise, he was always very accommodating…The matches were wonderful, everywhere we went you were aware it was a big event, people were hugely interested and for me it will always be the stand out tour.”

Lions 1997

Joyful tour: The 1997 Lions tour of South Africa was a favourite of Jackson’s

The 1995 Rugby World Cup final in particular must stick in the memory?

“That was staggering. They did tell us there was going to be a surprise and I can remember the stands at Ellis Park began to vibrate, we heard this almighty roar, then we saw the 747 and at first glance it seemed to have just climbed above the stands by about 20ft! I’m sure that wasn’t the case but that was the optical illusion.

“I think, of all the events I was at, in terms of global dimension, that was THE final…Nelson Mandela dancing in his Springbok jersey with Francois Pienaar, it changed South Africa. A man who had been incarcerated for 27 years comes out without a trace of bitterness in his bones and sets about leading this country – it was absolutely amazing.”

Were there any coaches or players you made a bee-line for knowing that they would be good copy?

Barry John

Ring me anytime: Barry John (far left) was always accommodating to journalists

“Yes, all those Welsh players were always available. Barry John, the prototype rugby superstar, he would say ‘ring me anytime you want, it’s not a problem’ and it never was with him.

“I wish I could say I got on with certain English fellas as well as I got on with those guys. Will Carling, I have great admiration for him as a player, when the chips were down boy did he stand up.

“Will go a lot of criticism about the Lions in New Zealand in 1993 but when the Lions hit rock bottom at Hamilton when a Waikato team featuring John Mitchell and Warren Gatland beat the Lions 38-6, Carling I can still see manning the barricades when others weren’t bothered.”

You hit the headlines yourself with your comments on BBC Wales’ Scrum V show a few months ago?

“I could not believe how bad Wales were in the first game of the November series against Australia. I racked my brain because you don’t want to over react. Had I seen anything as bad as this from Wales in Cardiff? And the answer was no.

“The trouble is, you will know, in journalism if you express your views then you are liable to upset people and they don’t speak to you and it’s a case of ‘that’s the end of the cooperation I’m going to give him’ and if that’s the price for my views then so be it.

“It was nice to know that the fans generally tuned in with what I had to say although there was one tweet that made me smile, ‘more rubbish from the lamentable Peter Jackson, how the Mail put up with him for so long I do not know!’ I’m probably more used to being criticised than praised anyway!”

Bernard Foley

Bad day at the office: Jackson was highly critical of Wales’ performance against Australia

Critics were common even before the dawn of social media?

“Your job as the rugby union correspondent is to write about the team, you are writing for your readership, not for the players, because they are the people buying the paper. You are more than happy to give England, Wales or whoever the main team is the benefit of the doubt but that does not stop you, we are not cheerleaders, which is a mistake I think a lot people make that we are there to glory the team’s good points and ignore the bad points. That’s not how journalism works, especially not these days when everything is under such microscopic inspection.”

Do you think the sport is in good shape today?

“I think to say it has come a long way is an understatement. I remember Wasps at Repton Avenue, at Loftus Road, at Wycombe at the end of the bottleneck going into the industrial estate when 6,000 would be a good crowd. I look at them now, 28,000 against Leicester – staggering.  A wonderful story, from almost going out of business to being the Pied Piper of the West Midlands and perhaps filling the void that great amateur clubs like Coventry would have filled.

“Who would have forecast that? I remember Syd Millar, someone who I have immense respect for, he was propping for Ireland when I saw my first international in 1959, and he said to me a long, long time ago, ‘Always remember one thing, the public will only come out in big numbers for international rugby, they will not support the club rugby to the same extent.’ Whether that was wishful thinking on Syd’s part and he didn’t want to see the club game grow too big, for whatever reason that is totally wrong.

Wasps crowd

Growing the game: Jackson has been impressed with Wasps’ renaissance

“That said, there are problems. I am concerned by the apparent ease at which players can be sent off simply trying to catch a high ball. Is it there fault if the opposing wing chooses to take a suicidal leap over the top of him? There’s a difference between that and deliberately tipping someone up when they are in the air.

“Likewise with the head-high tackles. It’s all very well saying no tackling above the shoulder but players being players and coaches being coaches will say what you do here is go in very low so that you are so low if anyone is going to tackle you they are bound to hit you around the head. You hope referees will use their sense of feel for the game, it is tough for them, they have a split second to make up their minds, we can sit back and analyse it frame by frame and say he should have gone.

“But the danger now is you go from one extreme to another. From the amateur era where there was all kinds of skulduggery to today where we may lose players to red cards unnecessarily. The danger then is you almost emasculate the game as a consequence.”

Is there one particular change you would like to change?

“Most definitely, and this is a kind of in-house thing which I’m sure rugby journalists all over Britain would agree with me on, there is far too much interference by press officers, we tend to call them, with good reason, ‘prevention officers’.

“I would like to think that if I was a press officer at a club,  I would take the job on the understanding that they would listen to my advice about how to tackle difficult scenarios. I mean it’s a wonderful business to be in but I do wonder about the lack of access and how you can develop relationships…today there is a divide between the critic and the performer which I think is to the detriment of both. I think we would have a better understanding if we could go back to the old days and we all mingled together as one and if someone wanted to ball you out then they did so in front of all the players and then it was forgotten about.”

Peter Jackson’s top tips:

+ Enthusiasm – “When you are disappointed or get knocked back, bounce back up again! Don’t feel sorry for yourself, you’ll need to develop a fairly hard skin. You’ll think, ‘I could have done better than that, better than the bloke who’s done it’ then make sure that you’re available the next time the opportunity comes along. Keep persevering, don’t be put off easily.”

+ Don’t be a cheerleader – “You are writing for your readership, not for the players, because they are the people buying the paper…we are not cheerleaders, which is a mistake I think a lot people make that we are there to glory the team’s good points and ignore the bad points. That’s not how journalism works.”

+ Be a good listener – “My father always used to say, ‘Son, you learn nothing from the sound of your own voice’. Listen to people, even when the person you are interviewing is perhaps being a little slow, looking for the right words, don’t interrupt them, let them continue speaking because that’s the way you will get the best quotes, the most meaningful comments.”

Brian O'Driscoll

Under scrutiny: Brian O’Driscoll takes the questions of the press pack

+ Make your questions count – “The art of a being an interviewer is a bit like being a good referee, you’re not seen. Just ask the short, simple questions. Of course there are times when you want a straight answer, either yes or no, but equally there are other times when someone is a little reticent about speaking, ask them a question that they can’t answer so simply. ”

+ Prepare – “Always come briefed, always know as much as you can about the person you are interviewing so you impress them with your knowledge of them. Don’t ever say to a player, ‘how many times did you play for England?’ as that will invite the answer, ‘Well you should know that!’”

+ Be lucky – “When I left school, I joined the Belfast Telegraph in my home town as a news reporter. I didn’t have a clue as to how to write a news story but there were a lot of good people there, John Dinsmore was the news editor and John Wallace was the chief reporter, I could not have wished to have learnt from better or more qualified and patient people.”