SPIRO: John O’Neill sort of does it his way
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John O'Neill, (L) with Australian Rugby Union (ARU) chairman Michael Hawker (R), speaks at a press conference in Sydney on October 12, 2012 after an announcement that he will stand down as the ARU chief executive at the end of October 2012. (AFP Photo / Greg Wood)
My reading of the dramatic announcement that John O’Neill has resigned his position as chief executive of the ARU is that he has jumped and was not pushed.
This reading is an intuition based on some knowledge of the devious and bitter politics that often obsess Australian rugby, especially the battle between state rights and players rights over the centralising (and correct, in my opinion) tendency of the national authority, the ARU.
The sort of deal that O’Neill has negotiated, too, suggests that he has driven the changing of the guard operation.
His loyal assistant executive, in rugby and football, Matt Carroll is the acting CEO. The chairman of the ARU, Michael Hawker, said that a world-wide search for a new chief executive was about to begin and that Carroll was a ‘very strong candidate’ for the job.
O’Neill finishes up at the end of October, a year earlier than his contract allowed. He retains his seat on the IRB Board, as chairman of the IRB Regulations Committee and he remains a board member of Rugby World Cup Ltd.
These are the perk positions in world rugby. They are positions of power which O’Neill can use, with his superior political skills, to advance the cause of Australian rugby.
He expressly made the point at the press conference, too, that his commitment to the RWC Ltd goes through to the 2019 RWC tournament which will he held in Japan.
There will be terrific opportunities for Australian rugby in being involved in the first RWC tournament held in a developing (in rugby terms) nation.
Hawker pointed to the fact, too, that ‘John’s workload beyond Rugby has grown significantly, and unexpectedly, through his chairmanship of Echo Entertainment.’
It is a fact, as well, not pointed out by Hawker that O’Neill’s critics have cited this extra workload as a distraction from his main job of running the ARU.
O’Neill has pointed out that his contract with the ARU has always allowed him to have other board appointments. He was the chairman, for instance, of the NSW Tourist Commission.
But it is obvious if you read the business pages of the newspapers (as I did on the train going out to the ARU’s headquarters at St Leonards) that the Echo Entertainment job has become a very time-consuming job with James Packer increasing the pressure for a deal between Crown and Echo.
This Packer pressure has intensified in the last month or so, as Echo Entertainment has been doing very good business apparently.
So at Pretoria, during the Wallabies Test there last month, Hawker and O’Neill came to an agreement to step down with about a year to go on his contract.
The media conference at ARU headquarters was a low-keyed affair. The chairman of the ARU, Michael Hawker, read out a prepared statement citing O’Neill’s undoubted (in my opinion) achievements in his two terms as the ARU’s chief executive.
O’Neill made some personal comments, mainly thanking a number of people who had helped him during his two stints at the ARU’s chief executive.
Danny Weidler, always looking for angle, quizzed O’Neill about Quade Cooper’s remarks about a so-called ‘toxic environment’ in the Wallabies. Hawker just dismissed the line of questioning as inappropriate.
The Roar’s David Lord got into a discussion with O’Neill about the high injury rate of Australian rugby players.
In the course of this discussion, O’Neill made the (valid, in my opinion) point that the NZRU had made the transition from amateur to professional rugby better than any other union. He volunteered the point that the NZRU dictates to the provinces and it controls its players.
This need for the ARU to adopt the NZRU model, which is a highly centralised affair, with even the Super Rugby coaches picked by the NZRU, has been an O’Neill hobby horse. But it has and is meeting stiff resistance from the states and the Super Rugby franchises.
O’Neill’s inability to get much traction on this issue (and I must stress I am giving my own opinion here) might have been another factor in the timing of his jump.
There was a poignant moment right at the end of the media conference. The ARU’s media manager Peter Jenkins intervened to wrap thing up when a journalist expressed astonishment along the lines that O’Neill hadn’t really revealed why he was stepping down.
“What’s the real story?” she asked.
O’Neill picked up her question and, it seemed to me, answered it with some emotion. “You got to be lucky in the end to come into a great job at the right time … I’ve been 14 years in it and CEOs come and go and sometimes it’s hard to battle on … I’m pretty contented with what I did … Echo has added another dimension to my workload … I’ve still got the IRB and the Rugby World Cup Ltd and the Olympic Sevens at Rio in 2016 …”
When he was asked earlier how he would rate his second stint as the chief executive after the great triumph of his first stint, O’Neill rather modestly suggested that he would give himself a “6 or 7 out of 10.”
He pointed out that after 2003 rugby had a 24 per cent market share of football market. It was 13.7 per cent when he came back. It was now at 17 per cent. The Reds won the 2011 Super Rugby title for the first time. The Wallabies won the Tri Nations tournament in 2011. Last year, too, 7 out of the top 10 sports programs on Fox Sports in terms of ratings involved rugby union matches.
“We didn’t win the 2011 RWC last year. The Wallabies are still number two in the world rankings. We’ve expanded the Super Rugby tournament for five teams in each franchise. Argentina is in The Rugby Championship. Our playing numbers are up.”
There was a question about how O’Neill’s stepping down affected the position of Robbie Deans as the coach of the Wallabies.
Hawker intervened immediately and pointed out that the selection of the Wallaby coach is a board decision, not a decision by the CEO. Hawker then launched into a very strong defence of Deans’ record.
This suggests to me that nothing much has changed in this matter. The likelihood is that Deans will coach the Wallabies next year during the tour of the British and Irish Lions. And a decision will be made on his future after 2013 in the light of what happens in this series.
My final thought is this. I believe that O’Neill has had a stellar career as the chief executive of the ARU. In many ways he has saved the game in Australia. He will be a hard act to follow.
>> Read more: Live blog of the announcement.
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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