Rugby writer, rugby fan, and an inspiration to so many, Mike Pulman has died aged 29. Jamie Wall pays tribute.
It’s less than a minute into the Chiefs versus Hurricanes game on Anzac weekend and Mike Pulman is fuming. I’m alongside him high up in the main stand of FMG Stadium Waikato, in the media box where we first met a couple of years earlier. It’s not actually the real media box, that’s down the hall full of fans necking Waikato Draught and talking shit. Despite being the layout of a uni lecture theatre, the Chiefs have turned it into a hospitality suite and relocated the journalists to a spare room barely big enough to fit four of us. The view is terrible, and if you’re unlucky enough to get the seat on the far right of the wobbly bench provided for us, you can’t actually see half the field.
I give Mike’s wheelchair a little nudge with my elbow. The Canes have scored already and they are looking good to knock over the home side, yet again.
Mike just breathes a sigh of audible frustration. He loves the Chiefs, they are the team he’s grown up with and even though he’s up here with the media, he can’t shake the fact that he’s a fan, first and foremost. I’ve tried to tell him that he needs to be a soulless cynic like the rest of us. We always catch up when I come down from Auckland to Hamilton and cover the Chiefs games. It’s every fortnight or so during the Super Rugby season and I’ll wait in the central city mall cafe for him to arrive in the hours before kickoff.
I don’t know exactly why Mike is in a wheelchair. It’s never come up. All I know is what I can see – he has the use of his hands and forearms, but even then I can tell that using them takes a lot of effort. The wheelchair is massive, electrically powered and he controls it with his thumb and forefinger. He can’t turn his head, so when we sit next to each other in the media box he looks at our reflections in the window to gauge our expressions. He has a carer with him whenever he comes to the stadium, sometimes it’s his partner Jess. But ever since we met all he wants to talk about is rugby, cricket and writing about rugby and cricket, so that’s all we talk about. Sometimes he sends me messages to check in, for no other reason than just to see how I’m doing.
Our hearts go out to Mike’s family & his partner Jess. Kia Kaha.
RIP Mike ❤️💛🖤 pic.twitter.com/s3Y5bpudSl
— Gallagher Chiefs (@ChiefsRugby) September 11, 2021
The Chiefs have accredited him as a journalist and he spends each game in our little room tapping away on his laptop, noting down the tries and kicks and letting out a small cheer every time they score. Even that sounds like it exhausts him.
Tonight it’s just the three of us in the box, Aaron Goile from Stuff is there too. It’s a bit of a comedown from the pre-Covid days, when there were around half a dozen of us in for every game. Despite our tiny room, FMG Stadium Waikato is a fun place to hang out. The Chiefs are good to deal with and there is a sense of camaraderie among the media, so much so that radio commentator Nigel Yalden started a baking roster. Even Ollie Ritchie from Newshub made an effort, although we all suspect he just bought some cupcakes from a bakery.
The game keeps moving along at a pretty good pace, the Chiefs edge ahead and Damian McKenzie is really pulling the strings. “DMac” is Mike’s favourite, he reckons he should be starting for the All Blacks. It’s only one of the things we disagree on, my lot is in with Jordie Barrett. But there’s more than just All Black selection we don’t see eye to eye on. Mike is a pretty conservative guy. I admire that about him, he never has a problem saying he doesn’t agree with things and that some people need to just harden up.
Jordie sends over a penalty goal from 63 metres out and I nudge Mike’s wheelchair again. Mike spits out an F-bomb.
Mike’s always asked the rest of us about how he can be a journalist full time. We gave him tips, put him in contact with people, went on his podcast and told him not to worry about being in the daunting and pressurised media environment. We are just regular people at work. That’s how he was treated when he came into the environment too, one of the boys having a joke and not being afraid to pipe up. The only time his wheelchair was ever mentioned was when he bragged about being exempt from driving it under the influence, which led to a suggestion that he could tow us home at the end of a big night.
Deep into the second half and the Hurricanes go in front thanks to a try to Billy Proctor. Mike is gutted, he had to put up with the Chiefs going winless in Super Rugby Aotearoa last year. For the rest of us it was great, coach Warren Gatland’s woes were a constantly fruitful narrative, but Mike was watching the team he was devoted to turn into a joke. Gatland would attend each press conference with the demeanour of a funeral director who had just dug their own grave.
But this year was different. Gatland was gone, replaced by Clayton McMillan, a big former cop who dresses like a tradie uncle wearing his one set of mismatched nice clothes at a wedding. He liked Mike and his little digital camera recording questions and answers post match, but then again all the Chiefs players did too. They’d turn to their right, look down and make sure Mike got what he needed out of every press conference. Sam Cane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Brad Weber – it didn’t matter if they were All Blacks, they had time for him.
The Chiefs had repaid Mike’s faith in 2021, charging to an unlikely finals appearance. But they look to be coming undone tonight against the Canes, who lead by one as the hooter goes.
Penalty Chiefs. Forty metres out. Mike’s man DMac steps up and places the ball on the tee, then gives his trademark grin. I look at Mike, he’s transfixed by his team and the hope of victory. He’s clenched his fists in anticipation. The ball leaves DMac’s boot and never looks like missing, Mike is ecstatic, exhausted. It’s one of the best wins his team has ever had.
It doesn't get much bigger than an All Blacks test. Hugely privileged to be back covering a match at this level and always grateful for the mentorship from so many.
It's been so long between tests that NZR still had my employer from pre 2019 still in their system! pic.twitter.com/scJpwfmlRE
— Michael Pulman 🇳🇿🏉♿️ (@realmikepulman) July 16, 2021
Later, we’re downstairs after the post-match chats, packing up and about to leave. It’s the final home game for the Chiefs so we’re all shaking hands and wishing each other luck. Mike rolls around and gives us all a fist bump, trying not to show just how hard it is for him to raise his arm to do so.
It would be the last time I saw him.
Mike Pulman died last week. It wasn’t due to the spinal muscular atrophy he lived with his whole life, but from complications due to injuries suffered in a car accident. He was 29, over twice the age his parents were told he’d live to be when he was born. His casket will be taken around Seddon Park and FMG Stadium Waikato, and he’ll be buried in his Chiefs jersey gifted to him by Damian McKenzie.
Mike wanted to be a sports journalist. He wanted to be an example to people facing challenges. He wanted to make a difference. He wanted to be one of the boys. He achieved all of those things.
But he never stopped being a fan when he wrote about the Chiefs. I’m glad he never listened to me on that one.