In the spotlight: NRL CEO Dave Smith.

In the spotlight: NRL CEO Dave Smith. Photo: Peter Stoop

A showdown is looming on Wednesday as some of the game's most powerful figures prepare to confront NRL chief Dave Smith over his plan to demand independent directors at clubs, and raise other issues that have left them increasingly disenchanted with League Central.

Frustrated at how the NRL's intentions for governance reform have been presented publicly, club chairpersons will use the meeting with Smith in Sydney to seek assurances that independents will not be thrust upon them, arguing that the make-up of boards should be assessed on a case-by-case basis rather than a one-rule-fits-all framework.

There remains great confusion in clubland about how the NRL's landmark funding shake-up, announced in principle in May, will be rolled out when it is scheduled to begin on November 1. The competition's 16 teams stand to lose up to $1 million if they don't meet minimum standards of governance proposed to include seven-member boards for all clubs with three independents and female representation.

Smith has denied reports that clubs will also need to have an independent chairpersons – a requirement that would jeopardise the positions of long-standing club bosses – but at least one club says they have been told by NRL officials that it is a condition that remains in the blueprint for reform.

There is also angst about what will constitute the independence of a director amid concerns the same criteria will be applied as that used in the formation of the ARL Commission. If that was the case, new independent board members would not be allowed to have had any association with their club for three years.

The NRL is expected to shortly announce three independent directors to a seven-member Wests Tigers board in a deal aimed at improving relations between the joint-venture partners and the financial viability of the merged entity. The NRL's head of club services, Tony Crawford, is also in the process of appointing four independent directors to a new Newcastle board after they took control from embattled former billionaire Nathan Tinkler on June 14.

At other clubs such as Parramatta, mired in factional upheaval in recent years, the introduction of independents could serve to provide much-desired stability.

Club chairpersons are concerned, however, at the prospect of governance guidelines being applied uniformly to every club no matter their size, financial status and ownership structure, and intend to make that clear to Smith on Wednesday.  

Club bosses including Nick Politis (Sydney Roosters), Ray Dib (Canterbury), Phil Gould (Penrith), Damian Keogh (Cronulla), Warren Lockwood (Dragons), Mike Bailey (Tigers), Scott Penn (Manly) and Bill Wavish (New Zealand Warriors) came together in July in a bid to form a united front against the proposed reforms.

They intend to press Smith for details on Wednesday and spell out their opposition to the blanket concept of passionate, long-serving directors being discarded to make way for business-savvy candidates with no existing ties to the clubs. 

Those who attend are also expected to express their dissatisfaction at what they perceive to be a growing disconnect between NRL head office and the clubs. Several were angry to learn of plans for an NRL rookie draft via Smith's comments in a newspaper last month. Others are frustrated at the absence of the ARL Commission chairman John Grant in the governance-reform process, believing they could have benefited from his input.

A spokesman said the NRL would continue to consult with the clubs in relation to minimum standards for boards. "This remains a work in progress and we will continue to discuss the best way forward with the clubs," he said.