It was a day for resignations yesterday with Rugby WA CEO Vern Reid announcing that he will not be seeking an extension of his contract and Head of the ARU John O’Neill stepping down from his role as Chief Executive. Neither announcement came as a great shock.
Reid received criticism from many in local Rugby, along with the board for bowing to player power when coachRichard Graham announced he was leaving at the end of the season, despite telling the coach he could see out his contract he did a backflip and Graham was shown the door halfway through the Super Rugby season. It is therefore interesting that Mr Reid will continue in the role until a replacement is found. Is this double standards? The loss of star player David Pocock was always going to leave Mr Reid in a tenuous position and hence his decision to move on may well have come at the right time. He has in the main done a good job at Rugby WA and it is sad that his time will probably be remembered for the last six months in the role. Should the new coaching staff bring the much desired results then let us not forget his part in their recruitment.
John O’Neill has been touted as one of the great Australian sports administrators, yet he has always managed to polarise people. One thing that has to be admired about Mr O’Neill is he was never afraid to front the media and tell them what he thought, unlike many other highly paid CEOs. He has had two spells at the ARU and his first was clearly more successful than his second. Taking on the role as Rugby Union turned professional he oversaw what was a Golden era of Australian Rugby and was lucky to be at the helm when the Wallabies had an extraordinary coach in Rod MacQueen and Captain in John Eales. At that time Australian rugby swept all before them, World Cup in 1999, Tri Nations, Bledisloe Cup, Mandela Cup and Tom Richards Trophy victory over the British and Irish Lions.
O’Neill also over saw the highly successful 2003 Rugby World Cup that left the ARU with a $44million windfall. O’Neill has been ambitious but his outspokenness which gave him the headlines also restricted his advancement. So he moved to Football. There he oversaw the birth of the Hyundai A League, and despite putting all of his eggs in one basket like the many who had gone before, was fortunate that the Socceroos prevailed in a penalty shoot-out to go to their first World Cup in 32 years. It was a gamble that assured him legendary status. Once again he wooed the headline hungry media but upset those above him. The timing of his departure was ideal. Australian football was once again dreaming of qualifying for World Cups and the A League was still riding the crest of a wave as a new tournament. Yet what did he establish for the grassroots level of the game, for the development of the next generation of Socceroos? Six years after his departure back to rugby those answers are becoming glaringly obvious.
O’Neill returned to Rugby Union and one of the first things he did was slam the door on the excellent and much needed Australian Rugby Championship, a competition below Super Rugby similar to the Currie Cup in South Africa and the ITM cup in New Zealand. He did however do a lot of good the second time around much of it not obvious to the public. He introduced private equity to Australia’s Super Rugby franchises. He expanded Rugby’s footprint by taking the competition into Melbourne. He has also finally fulfilled his long held ambition of gaining a place of influence at international level and not just in Australia; he is chairman of the IRB’s regulations committee and sits on the board of Rugby World Cup Ltd. Let us also not forget that he appointed Australia’s first foreign coach in Robbie Deans, no doubt hoping that Deans could weave the magic that Guus Hiddink had in football, and bring home the William Webb Ellis Cup. Unfortunately he didn’t and the pressure on the two has been mounting ever since.
As much as his departure came as no surprise,what was baffling to many is how the ARU could allow a man in such a key role to have other business commitments. Chairman of the ARU Michael Hawker stating that “John’s workload beyond Rugby has recently grown significantly, and unexpectedly, through his chairmanship of Echo Entertainment,” a Casino company. One has to question how a board, any board at national or state level, can allow a man who is paid an extremely good wage to hold other positions that mean he does not have 100% focus on doing what is essential for the sport he represents. This has to be the biggest indictment on the ARU board, and stakeholders around Australia should be asking questions as to how this was the case.
Ironically the one issue that O”Neill pushed for in his return in 2007 was a review of rugby’s governance, something that had it been done earlier may well have helped him in his tasks over the past five years. The review has now been conducted by former Labor politician Mark Arbib has conducted and he will present his findings to the ARU board on the 22nd of October, but O’Neill will not be there to reap its possible rewards.