Well it only took six months. The ARLC has finally installed a CEO to replace David Gallop, who was unceremoniously dumped in June with little regard for his decade of service at the helm of a vessel that was forced to sail through some very choppy waters. Now, with a seven-figure TV deal lining League’s coffers, David Smith takes over the Good Ship NRL just as it enters calmer seas.
Appropriately for a man named ‘Smith’, no one knows terribly much about the incoming boss. Born in Wales, engineer in the British Army, banker with Lloyds, moved to Sydney 10 years ago, according to the bio. His business acumen can’t be doubted – blockheads don’t wind up in charge of billions of dollars by accident (unless, of course, they work in politics). But his rugby league knowledge is sorely lacking.
Smith was (rightly) grilled on his love for the code at his unveiling press conference on Friday, and he returned serve bullishly, claiming he loved all sports, especially rugby – league and union (he needs to get out of the habit of referring to the 13-man game as ‘rugby’; it’s like hearing nails down the chalkboard for diehard mungoes). He admitted, though, he hadn’t seen a live game in 2012 nor could he name the Australian skipper – strange for a supposed admirer.
Rugby league is an insular sport and, predictably, the press sniffed an outsider a mile off. It was to be expected. Couldn’t someone at the ARLC bunker in Moore Park have pulled the new boss aside, let him know that Cam Smith is the Kangaroos captain, Melbourne won the comp and Queensland are the indomitable Origin champs so that Smith’s blushes were spared once the inevitable barrage of questions were trotted out?
Really, he should have been more prepared himself. It would be like the new McDonald’s CEO unaware they sold this thing called the Big Mac, or the new chairman of Carlton and United Breweries being a teetotaller. You need to know your product, Smithy.
Especially in rugby league, a strangely nuanced sport. An outsider with all the business nous in the world might sit down and suggest that it makes business sense – considering the successful Wests Tigers and St George Illawarra joint ventures – to merge the Roosters and the Rabbitohs, or Canterbury and Parra. Such decisions might make economic sense, but they are patently absurd from a footy perspective. As Phil Rothfield argued strongly on Saturday, there aren’t many genuine rugby league voices on the Commish – and let’s hope their future decisions don’t reflect their lack of sporting savvy.
There’s also the other legitimate problem of a Welsh toff governing Sydney’s working class game – as Rothfield colourfully put it, a man more at home with a glass of red at Machiavelli’s rather than a schooey of New at the Clovelly Hotel. It’s worth remembering the uproar when Gallop’s predecessor David Moffett (who ironically went on to become CEO of Welsh Rugby Union after his post at the NRL) took a midseason sabbatical to watch the Tour de France in 2001, and how untenably unpopular Gallop himself had become with segments of the League world late in his tenure.
Sure, the job isn’t a popularity contest, but it is a respect contest. Andrew Demetriou, often held up as the benchmark in Australian sports management, isn’t universally popular. Powerful presidents Eddie McGuire and Jeff Kennett have been vocal critics of the AFL’s income centralisation policy, for example. But Demetriou is roundly respected. You might not agree with him, you might think he’s a dictator, but you trust and respect him.
Can the rugby league layman warm to a bloke who’s never been to a game in his life? Do they respect a union-playing banker who couldn’t name the Aussie skipper? It’s clear that Smith will have to make his impression with black balance sheets rather than footy expertise.
I wouldn’t blame David Smith for feeling like the ‘city boys’ in Deliverance, wading into a hostile crop of locals famously sceptical of outsiders. But if he can start ticking boxes when he steps into the job in February, we’ll all put away our banjoes and welcome Smith into the code.