Rugby: Controversial Sky presenter Joe Wheeler off air after mocking Asian accent

Rugby presenter Joe Wheeler won’t be part of the Sky commentary team, after controversial post-match comments that mocked an Asian player's accent.

After the Highlanders’ win over the Crusaders, Wheeler shocked viewers by parodying an Asian accent in reference to Japanese international Kazuki Himeno, while interviewing Highlanders first-five Mitch Hunt.

"He was leally impressive, wasn't he? He was leally, leally good," Wheeler said to Hunt.

The incident sparked widespread condemnation of Wheeler across social media and race relations groups.

A Sky spokesperson has confirmed Wheeler will not be part of their broadcast team for either of this weekend's Super Rugby Aotearoa fixtures, choosing to step down while he "works through this issue". 

"Joe Wheeler has apologised for his comments and Sky has made it clear where we stand," the spokesperson says.

"Joe has acknowledged that he has some work to do and we're supporting him through this. Joe is off air at this time."

Sky has given no timeframe for his return.

The Highlanders face the Chiefs on Saturday, while the Hurricanes take on the Crusaders on Sunday.

Just an hour after the incident, Wheeler took to social media to issue an apology.

"Tonight I stuffed up!" he tweeted.

"I've spoken with [Kazuki Himeno] and apologised to him and the Highlanders and our Sky crew. I absolutely accept this is not the standard expected of the sideline team. 

"I've got some work to do obviously, but I'm absolutely committed to doing better."

Sky followed by clarifying its own stance on the matter.

"Joe Wheeler has spoken with Kazuki and apologised to him and to team management," it said.

"He absolutely accepts this is not the standard expected of the broadcast team.

"Sky is committed to being culturally respectful and we expect all crew to do the right thing."

Steph Tan, who organised a recent anti-Asian hate protest in Auckland after the increase in anti-Asian sentiments across the globe, said comments like Wheeler's are "painful" and "belittling".

"It's really hurtful hearing rhetoric such as 'China virus' or that our people are the fault for this pandemic," Tan told Newshub.

"It definitely feels really horrific, and I feel like a victim in that - and we certainly don't like feeling that way."

Join Newshub for live coverage of both this weekend's Super Rugby Aotearoa matches