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New NRL chief must work hard to prove he's not out of his league

Stepping up to the job ... Dave Smith.

Stepping up to the job ... Dave Smith. Photo: Edwina Pickles

WHILE he hasn't played rugby league, and perhaps only knows rugby league with the intimacy of one party in an arranged marriage, Dave Smith proved he can still find a strong fend.

The fact that he learnt his sporting fend in rugby union, as well as his regular references to the sport in his initiation on Friday - even if as a boy growing up in working-class Wales - will irk some. Should it? Probably not; Smith is a businessman and he has been hired to run a business.

Will it? Certainly. Rugby league can be an insular sport. Outsiders are frowned upon. Which means the new NRL chief executive, an outsider, will not be fawned upon.

Smith will start as NRL boss on February 1.

Smith will start as NRL boss on February 1. Photo: Edwina Pickles

That was clear from the outset, when he was asked first up how he responded to the assertion that he was not a rugby league man. Largely, in the half hour that followed, he responded well.

''I love rugby league,'' he said. ''I'm a fan of rugby league. I'm a fan of rugby union. I'm a fan of multiple sports. I watch all sports. I really enjoyed the grand final, I thought the State of Origin series was probably some of the most competitive matches I've ever watched.

''For it to be reported that I'm not a fan is misleading.''

So he passed one major test; he did not refer to the jewel in the crown of rugby league as State of the Origin. Yet being a rugby league fan is one thing; being a rugby league man is another. That was clear. John Grant, a successful businessman himself when he is not the ARLC chairman, believes Smith ''understands the strategic importance of consumer brand marketing, and new media, in building a major new business brand''. Yes, yes, but can he fix the obstruction rule?

And what of the fear that he is simply a yes man for Grant?

''I am my own man, and hopefully you'll get to see that,'' Smith said. ''I'm open, honest and direct. I can be tough when I need to be, but I'm here to do it my way. I'm a chief executive, I've been a senior manager in some very difficult circumstances and some great growth opportunities for a long time.

''Good governance, good business, comes from a board that is engaged. It doesn't come from a board that's disengaged. I'm really looking forward to working with the commission.

''I've been hired because it's me, and I'm really proud to be able to say that. I'm my own man.''

But how many games did you attend this year? And so it continued, the underlying inference being that Smith - who grew up in working class Pontypridd, has been in the army, counter terrorism, and lately in the banking sector, while always with a passion for sport - can have such business acumen but not possess the ability to understand the salary cap.

''I'm in a big business at the moment, I have to manage multiple stakeholders,'' Smith said. ''I've been doing that for many years. That's a challenge in terms of any business, and it's something that I'll have to take very seriously.

''I always try and earn credibility.''

It was clear he will have to. Friday was, as Smith said, an ''introduction''. But in two ways. He introduced himself to rugby league, while rugby league introduced itself to him.

''This is the best job in Australia,'' Smith maintained. For now.

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