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New boss fails first test but is a player at the big end of town

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Name game stumps NRL CEO but it's early days for David Smith, writes Brad Walter.

Dave, he is here to help … Welsh banker David Smith faces the media after being named NRL chief executive on Friday.

Dave, he is here to help … Welsh banker David Smith faces the media after being named NRL chief executive on Friday. Photo: Edwina Pickles

JUST minutes after a press conference to introduce him as the new NRL chief executive, Dave Smith was asked to name five indigenous players in an iconic image from the inaugural All Stars match engraved on the window of an interview room at Rugby League Central.

''No, I can't name any of those players. I am sorry,'' Smith said of Johnathan Thurston, Sam Thaiday, Carl Webb, Blake Ferguson and Wendell Sailor.

How about the Australian captain, Cameron Smith? ''Ah, no,'' he said. ''I have been on a plane for half of this year. I would struggle to name the captain of any team.''

Smith - a 48-year-old Welshman who began his working life as an engineer in the British Army before embarking on a 25-year banking career - accepts that his lack of league credentials will be questioned almost every time he inadvertently refers to the code as simply ''rugby''.

But the Lloyds International chief executive, who is believed to have taken a sizeable pay cut to fill the position that has been vacant since David Gallop's departure on June 5, makes no apologies for not being a rugby league tragic.

''Of course I understand why a question like that might be asked but what I am is an experienced chief executive officer who runs big businesses onshore and offshore,'' Smith says. ''I am not going to dress myself up as something I am not.

''I don't pretend to be an encyclopaedia on any sport. I love watching sport, I love the drama of sport, I love all of that stuff so I think culturally I am a fit, and what I bring to the party is my personality and drive, but I am a business guy at the end of the day.''

With the new television deal announced in August, rugby league has now become a $1 billion business, and Smith's task is to ensure the money coming into the game continues to grow.

He is keen to point out that he grew up in the valleys of Wales and followed rugby league as well as rugby union, which he played from the age of six until he was 40.

But those factors were largely irrelevant to Smith getting the job.

''What I bring to the party is that I am a chief executive, I run businesses and I have run them for a long time so I can bring a discipline, I can bring an opportunity assessment, I can bring negotiating skills and I can bring all of those things to bear in the game of rugby league,'' he said.

''That is the proposition, that is what we have discussed, and of course I understand that you have got to tie the business side with the emotional side and the connection to the fans. I completely get that, and I hope I can do that because of my background.

''I have played competitive sport - it is with the right-shaped ball going in the right direction, and I am from a working-class background so I hope I can connect in that way.

''But fundamentally I am coming here as a chief executive and to grow a business ultimately. I know business and sport interlock but fundamentally that is our opportunity.

''That is how I see it, and I am looking forward to getting into the nitty gritty. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I do get into the nitty gritty and I do understand the detail but fundamentally I have a set of skills and I think the time is right for me to be a part of this and take it forward.''

After moving to Australia nine years ago with his wife, whom Smith said hailed from rugby league's birthplace in the north of England, Smith has had responsibility for managing an international banking division with 1500 staff in 10 countries and assets worth $50 billion.

He flies to London about once a fortnight and spends a lot of time in Europe, Japan, Hong Kong and Uruguay but insists he now wants to spend his weekends at Penrith and Parramatta. ''I am so looking forward to that. It is better than a Qantas plane,'' Smith said.

Because of the amount of travel he has done, Smith said he had not attended a live NRL match - or any sport - this year but watched as many games on television as possible.

''I am like most fans - I watch a game of footy on the TV; I will watch the Roosters or I will watch State of Origin or I watched the recent international match [between Australia and New Zealand],'' he said.

''I love contact sport, I love rugby union and I love rugby league. I love watching those sports and I love the competitive nature of the sport. I love the fact that great sport means any team can win at any given time, and I love what sport does to people and the feeling it gives to people.''

But Smith is aware that as NRL CEO he will come under far greater scrutiny than in any of his other jobs, including helping to protect British troops and the Royal family from IRA bombings in London as an army engineer in the 1980s, and he will have to make some tough decisions.

His response to a question about how he will cope with the ''soap opera'' that is rugby league gives the impression that Smith could be a head kicker if necessary.

''I have had my fair share of difficult issues to deal with, and the context is different but nonetheless, the way you deal with them and some of the impacts may be similar, and I am perfectly capable of getting on the front foot and standing up to be counted,'' he said.

''That is the chief executive's job when you need to but I think equally it is the way you deal with those issues and how you manage in a crisis situation that is really important, and often good leaders come to the fore.

''I do recognise the theatre of sport and how much this means to people but I am familiar with dealing with some pretty tough circumstances throughout my career, and I can be tough enough when I need to.''

After concluding the interview, Smith said he had to return to his job at Lloyds International, and wouldn't be contactable on NRL matters until he officially begins the job on February 1.

ARL Commission chairman John Grant, who said Smith's appointment would eventually enable the eight commissioners to take more of a back seat, called for people to give the new CEO time before judging him.

''Let him get his feet under the table and let him start thinking about rugby league rather than Lloyds International banking business, and let's see where we get to three months after that, and I bet you he can tell you who the captain of the Australia side is,'' Grant said.

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