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The Wrap: Overreach stops Rugby Australia coup dead in its tracks

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10th May, 2020
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So what has the last few tumultuous weeks in Australian rugby taught us? Not much that we didn’t already know.

Despite a letter signed by ten ex-Wallabies captains demanding wholesale change at the top of Australian rugby administration, the establishment remains firmly in place – admittedly with CEO Raelene Castle a highly publicised casualty.

The famous line “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” is lifted from a 1795 poem by Robert Burns, To a Mouse. Here, 225 years later, it can be applied equally to the game of rugby in Australia, as well as the group whose ambition to change its direction has been stymied, for now at least.

One thing we’ve learnt is that – ex-captains or not – it is one thing to whip up a media frenzy, storm the front door of Rugby Australia and demand change, but it is another thing altogether to maintain enough control over events to deliver a perfect coup.

And so it was last week when new board member, the 37-day man Peter Wiggs, went from Rugby Australia chairman-in-waiting to another frustrated rugby person – just like the rest of us – in the blink of an eye. He took with him the hopes of the ex-captains and other believers in a Mosman-centered revival.

In a situation dripping with irony, perhaps the biggest idiosyncrasy is that people on both sides of the argument essentially want two of the same things: the best for Australian rugby, and chairman Paul McLean out of the way.

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McLean has signalled several times his desire to step down from the board, yet rather than let events run their course for a matter of a few weeks, the impetuosity and overreach of Wiggs and New South Wales Rugby chairman Roger Davis only served to push McLean into digging in for longer to try to engineer a more conventional handover.

With McLean on his way out after an eight-year term on the board and Castle out of the way, there was an opportunity to install both a new CEO and chairman, in tune with the demands of the ex-captains group.

Former Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle

(Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

That this didn’t happen speaks to a comedy of errors on the part of the dissidents, another irony given the criticisms of incompetency directed at the board members they were trying to move aside.

Among their mistakes was allowing Nick Farr-Jones and Phil Kearns to take prominence, believing it would add weight to their cause and allow them a platform to spruik their credentials. It actually had the opposite effect. Because of the underhand nature of their methods, they effectively removed themselves as credible contenders as office bearers capable of unifying Australian rugby.

But it was classic overreach on the part of New South Wales chairman Roger Davis that almost singlehandedly stopped the coup dead in its tracks.

Wiggs impressed the board and the state unions in his short tenure, albeit under expectation that he wasn’t seeking a high-profile role. This is why it came as a surprise to the rest of the board when at a meeting last Monday night, Wiggs stepped forward to not only claim the chairman’s seat, but insist that Mosman native, Australian Olympic Committee CEO Matt Carroll be appointed CEO alongside him.

Unsurprisingly, the cat was set squarely among the pigeons, with board members railing against what now appeared to them to be an ultimatum and ambush.

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Even so, Wiggs’ position wasn’t terminal, with Tuesday bringing an opportunity to lobby board members and insist that Wiggs and Carroll were the right team to drag Australian rugby from the mire.

Step forward Davis, who squarely in the Wiggs camp and looking to ice the cake, advised Tom Decent from the Sydney Morning Herald that the Wiggs-Carroll ticket “had the full support of the states” and that “state administrators called various RA directors on Tuesday to explain why they thought Wiggs and Carroll would be excellent candidates.”

Australian Olympic Committee CEO Matt Carroll

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Further, Decent reported that: “One (chairman) told the Herald: ‘We’re bereft of leadership at the most critical moment in our history’.”

That one chairman was, of course, Davis. The full support of the states was in fact news to those states, who on Wednesday clarified their position with board members, and by evening had cobbled together a press release signed by all eight chairmen whose surname wasn’t Davis, which expressed support for McLean and the board.

“Australian rugby’s provincial representatives do not support individuals or groups designating appointments,” it read.

“We are supportive of the process of re-structure with appropriate consultation.

“We feel it is vitally important for all rugby’s stakeholders to maintain a calm focus, and to give Paul the support and time he and the board require, as we collectively navigate through this transitional period.”

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With Wiggs and Carroll ready to take over as well as twice CEO John O’Neill now back in the mix and being touted as a likely board addition along with Farr-Jones, there were too many dots too closely clustered around postcode 2088 for the board to dismiss as sheer co-incidence.

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Wiggs was rebuffed and his resignation was accepted, and despite efforts made on his behalf on Wednesday afternoon to negotiate an outcome whereby Wiggs would un-resign and drop his demands for the chair in return for Carroll being accepted as CEO, the board had seen enough.
By late afternoon they had met again and appointed Rob Clarke to the CEO position in an interim capacity.

Aside then from swapping Castle for Clarke, what exactly has been achieved? And how did the agents for change get the process so wrong?

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One factor is the very reason there is agitation for change in the first place. The nominations process for the board allows for the promotion of individual board members, but is not a ready mechanism for a bloc to gain sufficient numbers to effect change en masse.

That said, because the board has undergone substantial renewal over the last two years, including the recent addition of Wiggs and Brett Godfrey, and with other board members weakened by constant attack from sections of the media, there was confidence that even without absolute numbers inside the tent, there was sufficient new blood and momentum to force change.

A second critical factor is that one of the failings of the board so vehemently trumpeted by Alan Jones and others – that the board is a closed shop, lacking in proper governance – was allowed to be turned back against them.

Alan Jones and Michael Cheika chew the fat

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Jones was still at it in Friday’s The Australian, criticising the board, saying that “politics is everywhere in our game. It is run on the same principles as the branch stacking of political parties.”

Yet faced with the demands of a new fellow director that they not only allow him to take the chair but appoint a CEO without undergoing any formal appointment process whatsoever, the directors did the only thing they could possibly do in those circumstances. They rejected Wiggs’ advances.

Whatever criticisms have been made of the board and individual directors over time, this was a probity test the board passed with flying colours.

In doing so, they showed up comments made by Jones and others for what they were: hypocritical, partisan muck-raking. When it comes to governance, what these people decry as cronyism in others, when applied to themselves, becomes acting urgently to install people to fix the game.

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The third nail in the coffin was the leaking of a private email exchange between McLean and Wiggs, where McLean – not unreasonably – was trying to broker a middle-ground solution acceptable to the board. This would allow for Wiggs to pursue what he had indicated was his ambition, without holding the board up to ridicule for waving Carroll straight into the CEO chair without even a single interview.

It was not the content of the exchange that was important, but the fact that soon afterwards it ended up at the desk of a journalist from The Australian – a reporter who has been openly hostile towards the Rugby Australia board over the last few months.

If that was intended to damage McLean and the board, it only allowed them to claim the moral high ground, and galvanised them into believing that they had dodged a bullet. It also exposed the role of Davis in his advocacy for Wiggs and for misrepresenting the position of the state unions.

Note how in the wake of the Israel Folau settlement in December, Davis was quoted in The Australian saying: “We are a united rugby family and we’re all people aligned in trying to ensure the best outcomes for the game. We want it to remain that way.”

I wonder if that one will be rolled out at the next state chairman’s meeting?

The irony is that without Davis’ overreach and a little more subtlety on his part, Wiggs may well have snuck things through. Farr-Jones certainly expressed his frustration on Friday, indicating how everything from the ex-captains letter and the relentless media attack on Castle through to the replacement of board members was part of an agreed “process”.

Former Wallabies captain Nick Farr-Jones

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Unfortunately for the ex-captains, Wiggs may have been the man they believed could deliver them the change they sought, but he wasn’t actually their man.

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“This is not a criticism of Peter, but he went off-piste, and that was disappointing. I thought we had a process”, Farr-Jones said.

The best they can hope for now is that new chairman-in-waiting Hamish McLennan will give them and their agenda a sympathetic hearing and deliver some of the changes sought, assuming of course that the group is more interested in positive change for Australian rugby than seeking power for power’s sake.

Certainly, there is appetite among all parties for constitutional review. As explained in last week’s detailed column, the current constitution is working for nobody. For Australian rugby to move forward, a more appropriate and relevant governance structure is essential.

In terms of the immediate future, there are a couple of misconceptions doing the rounds. The appointment of interim CEO Rob Clarke is just that – interim. His task is solely to steer Rugby Australia through the next few months of getting rugby back on the pitch, salvaging whatever revenue he can from the COVID-19 wreck, adjusting the cost structure to suit, and working with SANZAAR to confirm professional competition structures for next year.

It is also wrong to view Clarke’s appointment as a negative in terms of the relationship between Rugby Australia and Western Australia. Clarke was chief operating officer at the time the Force were cut from Super Rugby, but he wasn’t a board member making that decision.

Rob Clarke

(Hugh Peterswald/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Further, with the ice broken by Castle, it is evident via the admission of the Force to the upcoming domestic competition and recent comments made by CEO Mark Evans and coach Tim Sampson that there is now a forward-looking, collaborative mindset on the part of important people in the game in WA.

When he joins the board, McLennan can be expected to play a prominent role in securing broadcast rights for 2021 and beyond, but it is wrong to suggest that he is a stalking horse for News Corporation.

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His employment background should prove to be an asset in brokering a solution to what is a very delicate and messy situation, but it should become apparent very quickly that McLennan is there to unify rugby and take it forward, and is not part of the aforementioned process.

Whether he will be up to fixing Australian rugby’s great divide or not is another question. The coup has, for now, been stopped in its tracks, but it would be naïve in the extreme to believe that we have seen the end of the back-biting and agitation.

In last week’s column I highlighted how without solving the NSW puzzle and satisfying the needs of juniors, schools, subbies, Shute Shield clubs, the Waratahs and the NSW Rugby Union in a coherent way that aligns to the national objectives [then] lasting, harmonious and effective change in Australian rugby is probably impossible.

In light of the events of the last week, that statement holds truer than ever.

And in light of his role as part of the process, and for so deviously misrepresenting the views of his fellow state chairmen, NSW chairman Davis should today be thinking very seriously about whether he has a constructive role to play in the future of Australian rugby.

Even the rebuffed Matt Carroll said of Rugby Australia over the weekend: “they seem to be constructing a new board, which is great, I wish them well.”

It is time for the process to be put aside and for the board and executive to be allowed some clear air to get on with the job.