Dave Smith – stud or dud?
The jury’s still out to lunch but it’s becoming the belief of some senior figures in the NRL that the chief executive is more concerned about his image than running the game; that the merchant banker is more concerned about hitting KPIs than having a general feel for the game so adored by the unwashed.
When Smith was installed in rugby league’s most important position, the code was generally prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Yes, he came from a banking background. Most forgave him when he didn’t know Cameron Smith was the Australian captain. We didn’t want the new guy to be a genius at rugby league but a genius at running rugby league. ‘‘Growing the game,’’ as Smith often says.
Is he the right man for the job?: NRL boss Dave Smith. Photo: Edwina Pickles
We also felt sorry for him when he was dispatched to Canberra on his first day in the job as the federal government declared that doping and match fixing were rife in Australian sport, with rugby league firmly in the cross-hairs.
What I particularly liked about Smith was that he wasn’t prepared to play media favourites. That criticism hung around David Gallop for most of his 10 years in office because he had served as a lawyer for News Limited during Super League.
The formation of the independent commission, the departure of Gallop and the appointment of Smith was seen as a dramatic shift from this nefarious link, whether the link was real or merely perceived.
Happy days: Israel Folau and rugby union are in a good place at the moment. Photo: Getty Images
All senior journalists were briefed during the early days of his tenure that Smith wouldn’t be the mouthpiece for the game that Gallop had become.
Gallop was the go-to man on everything. He was on speed dial and picked up the phone to most reporters. It took months for anyone to get Smith’s number. It’s still a closely guarded secret.
Significantly, he went so far as to tell several reporters he would never kowtow to columnists who were critical of him. He was Sinatra, doing it his way.
There is indeed a belief that has changed in the last six months, and a story about the notion of a rookie draft on the front page of The Sunday Telegraph at the weekend has infuriated club bosses no end.
The draft ... cue Imperial March music from Star Wars now. Some want it. Some don’t. All of them choked on their Coco Pops on Sunday morning because they had no clue that Smith was about to air it publicly.
As Panthers boss and Fairfax Media columnist Phil Gould noted this week: ‘‘Sure these matters have been at the forefront of casual conversations among people in the game for some time, so the concepts are not new. However, to have this matter announced in the public arena long before any real discussions in the proper forums have been conducted is yet another embarrassment for our game.’’
When the club bosses looked at their emails on Sunday morning, they were bemused to find a pre-emptive email from Sandy Olsen, the NRL’s head of media and communications, sent just after 7am.
‘‘[The draft] is still very much early days and would not be considered until the 2017 season,’’ Olsen assured.
‘Naturally, it would require detailed planning and extensive consultation with all clubs and RLPA before it could be progressed. However, having said that, the right kind of draft would have considerable merit in ensuring the competition remains even. It would also act as a means of rewarding clubs which develop juniors because there would be scope for clubs to secure their best young players.
‘‘Again, this is in the very earliest stages of consideration.’’
If that’s so, some club bosses ask, why were they finding out about it in The Sunday Telegraph? They saw it as grandstanding.
Smith can be hard to nail down. You mostly find him at the announcement of warm and fuzzy initiatives, such as the Pacific Strategy featuring Sonny Bill Williams and Jarryd Hayne on Wednesday.
The dirty work is often left to chief operating officer Jim Doyle (who is leaving at the end of the season) and head of football Todd Greenberg.
Rugby league, grand old girl that she is, is splintered into so many factions and stakeholders it’s difficult to get a grip on whether Smith is doing a good job.
Behind the scenes, he is said to be ruthless. He tore into a veteran chief executive at a recent meeting. Staff at League Central say morale is low, because the boss can be a hothead. This column knows of one candidate who was spooked out of taking Doyle’s job because they didn’t want to work under Smith.
But he also has vision.
In the last few weeks, Smith has ripped out 10 or so ‘‘State of Play’’ briefings outlining what it is.
League has never been allowed to look at the big picture, but Smith does so in the belief that he can grow ‘‘the business’’. The idea of the draft, among other ideas floated publicly, is merely a fraction of that master plan.
That’s all well and good, but the good folk who matter most – the aforementioned unwashed, remember them? – don’t look that far ahead.
While Smith thinks jacking up Origin and grand final ticket prices makes the bottom line look pretty, it disenfranchises fans who can’t afford them. They wonder how they are going to get to the SCG in peak hour last Friday night, why they should bother buying tickets to a Monday night game played at Allianz in pouring rain, and why broadcasters dictate when their side plays so why the hell should they buy a membership in the future?
The greatest thing to happen to rugby league in modern times was the $1.1 billion jackpot that was the broadcast deal. It was also the worst, because it meant the game handed over control of when it plays its matches.
Smith started in February last year. He’s told me before that he’s here for the long haul. How he navigates the next broadcast deal – whether he has the cojones to restore the balance and let rugby league run itself again – will answer the jury’s question.
GREAT STATE OF THE UNION
Rugby’s dead, eh? Why will more than 70,000 fans pack ANZ Stadium for the Bledisloe clash on Saturdee night, then? And why have hundreds of corporate boxes and suites sold out?
Because it’s back, baby.
Rah-rah diehards should also be aware the Shute Shield final between Eastwood and Southern Districts will be shown on big screens in the Sydney Olympic Park precinct before the Bledisloe match.
So get there early, beat the crowd, enjoy a shandy, then watch the Wallabies win. Simples, as that meerkat says.
Q&A: ISRAEL FOLAU
We speak to the Wallabies fullback before Saturday night’s Bledisloe Cup clash against the All Blacks at ANZ Stadium.
Izzy, let’s get to the big questions first: That streaky blonde hairstyle the other week – what’s doing?
Haha! I lost a bet when Queensland lost the State of Origin series this year and the blond streaks came from that. Eight years with dark hair was enough I guess.
What was the reaction from your teammates?
We have such a close-knit group at the Tahs so it was all in jest, but the boys definitely had a bit of fun with it. Things are back to normal now, there shouldn’t be any surprises on Saturday night.
The reaction to the Waratahs win was enormous. Where does it rank in terms of everything you’ve done across three footy codes?
It’s difficult to rank moments in my career, but winning the Super Rugby is right up there. We worked very hard over a long period to put ourselves in a position to win the title, so to achieve that was very satisfying. Knowing how much it meant to our fans as well made it extra special. What was most pleasing for me was that we didn’t change our style or freeze up when things came right down to it. I think we were rewarded for backing ourselves and sticking to our guns.
Who was the worst dressed on Mad Monday celebrations?
There were a number of interesting outfits on Mad Monday: onesies, sombreros, budgie smugglers and blond wigs — they all got a run.
Here’s a loaded question: there is an old belief that league is the better game to watch, but rugby is the better game to play. Would you agree with that?
There always seems to be strong opinions about league and union, but for me both are great to watch and play. I really enjoyed my time in rugby league and remain close with the friends I made there — we support each other and try to catch up whenever we can. No, I’m loving my time in rugby union and am excited about what lays ahead. It’s a new game so I’m learning all the time and trying my best to improve every week.
You’re an ANZ Stadium ambassador. Tell us what it means to play there.
I’ve been fortunate to win NRL and Super Rugby grand finals at ANZ Stadium, as well as State of Origin series, so it’s a very special place for me. I also made my AFL debut with the GWS Giants there and all of those were memorable occasions. Away from my own games, being an ambassador gives me the opportunity to meet lots of people at different events — AFL, cricket, league and soccer, etc — which is something I really enjoy. There’s nothing better than running out at ANZ in front of a huge crowd, so hopefully everyone comes out tomorrow night. The support makes a huge difference.
‘‘What’s up fool? Why mess with my wife if I do not mess with you?’’ Diego Maradona reportedly said this to, er, a reporter who he reckoned had winked at his ex-wife. He then slapped the reporter. It was at a Children’s Day event in Buenos Aires. Good times.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: love is a battlefield. If love is a battlefield, then what is a golf course? Think about that for a second as you ponder that Rory McIlroy has won the British Open and PGA Championship, and become the world No.1, since breaking up with tennis star fiancee Caroline Wozniacki.
Josh Reynolds is like Mick Ennis, Justin Hodges and a litany of misunderstood players over the years who are reviled on the field, but champion human beings off it. Nevertheless, it’s hard to defend the Bulldogs five-eighth when he kicks Sam Thaiday in the face and then trips Ben Barba. Naughty.
IT’S A BIG WEEKEND FOR ...
The Swannies, who take on St Kilda on Saturday. It’s their last match at their beloved SCG this year, with the finals not far away. They’ll be pumped.
IT’S AN EVEN BIGGER WEEKEND FOR ...
Those brave souls looking to survive and also win the Billabong Pro at Teahupoo in Tahiti. One surfer headbutted the reef this week. In case you weren’t aware, Teahupoo roughly translates to ‘‘sever the head’’ or ‘‘place of skulls’’.