Peter V’landys is the man of the moment. Roy and H.G., in their welcome return to form, could not have conceived of a greater rugby league character.
He is a figure that has gained accolades greater than any recent sporting administrator, particularly through traditional media channels.
The coverage has been almost embarrassingly gushing. From the “greatest leader in Australian sport” to being “entitled to be nicknamed Zeus,” seldom has the head of a sport in Australia received such praise through the media.
This contrasts to some sections of the rugby league community, let’s call it rugby league Twitter, where people have been less positive.
They see a front, a stooge for the media companies, coming in and selling the farm. More than one meme of monorails and Springfield have gone around the traps.
Who is this man? The bloke who poses for press photographs with a seeming intent to present himself as the disheveled man in the suit.
We have heard parts of his origin story, how rugby league provided a young boy of Greek parents, living in Woollongong, the chance to overcome bullying and bigotry.
He follows a long line of notable Kytherians who have made their mark on Australian life. But there are parts of his biography that are maddeningly brief.
He graduated from high school in 1984, got a Commerce degree and started work at the NSW Harness Racing Club in 1988. Then we fast forward to the 21st century to hear about his achievements with Racing NSW.
What are the stories of his formative early years? What lessons did he learn? How did he become the operator he is today?
V’landys is rugby league’s war time leader. Author and leadership guru Simon Sinek defines two kinds of games: finite games where players, rules and the overall objective are clear and agreed upon; and infinite games, where the rules are unknown and there is no outright winner, success is that you keep playing he game. V’landys is adept at finite games.
Very early in the COVID-19 outbreak, he realised the situation and the role he could play. The game, he outlined, had no money, the cupboard was bare.
Playing was the only option to save the game. He created a finite game: we have to save rugby league by getting back on the field as soon as possible.
That is our objective and everything should be honed towards that. Get back on the field, on the TV and everyone will be sweet: from the players to the physios to the bus drivers.
This is a tactic often used by rugby league coaches. Amongst chaos and limitless options, they create a game plan. It sets a direction. As Ivan Cleary famously said “you’re either on the bus or you’re off it.”
This approach has given a degree of unity. Clubs, administrators and players are pulling in the same direction. Interesting examples arise, though, in those who missed, or were thrown under, the bus.
Referees, a crucial cog in the rugby league ecosystem, felt unheard when the one referee system was announced. A brief stand-off came and went, but it demonstrates a fascinating aspect of V’landys’ leadership style.
In a finite game, it’s clear who the big dogs and the little dogs are. Power relations are simple. But as we get closer to 28 May, the game itself will change to being an infinite one. That is, the goalposts will have shifted. The game’s back on air. Hooray! Now what?
That’s the captivating bit, that peek into how V’landys may operate in an infinite game, where the goal is to sustain the game. In this scenario, he would need to tackle issues of expansion, the international game, the women’s game, junior participation.
These are things that aren’t clear cut. They’re not black and white. The approach and tools used during COVID-19 will not be as effective as they once were.
It risks having more situations like that of the peeved referees: stakeholders not being heard, people feeling rolled over, people turning off. You’ve turned the lights on, now how do you keep them watching?
You get the game flowing. You bring back the little man. Make fatigue a factor again. All of things sound great as ideas. But how do you achieve them?
Steps are being made to try and keep people’s attention, in anticipation of the game changing. My question is whether V’landys should be, or whether he wants to be, that person.
In many respects, he is very much some people’s cup of tea. League nostalgics him as a strong leader who can take the game back to where it was. But he does have his detractors. A notable aspect in the public debate around his relative merits is the difficulty each camp has in seeing what the other side loves or loathes about him.
His detractors see him as a Sydney-centric dinosaur, but have a hard time seeing the significant achievement of returning the game ahead of other Australian football codes. Likewise, his supporters turn a blind eye to mis-steps, his failures to consult key stakeholders, his fondness of making decisions on the run.
Both sides have valid points, and that is my argument. Peter V’landys is a human, who like all of us, has his strengths and weaknesses.
I believe that he was well-equipped to dealing with the finite game of getting rugby league back, but that he will struggle to continue to be such a leading figure in the infinite game of rugby league administration.
I would urge him to go out a winner, either handing the reins back to a Chief Executive Officer or riding off into the sunset.