Depending on your viewpoint, the transition of Rugby Australia CEO Andy Marinos to the hot seat was incredibly poorly timed or is the mother of all career opportunities.
For many, an organisation that has overseen years of underperformance from its national side and professional franchises, presided over increasing disenchantment among grassroots participants, been riven by parochial in-fighting and mercilessly attacked by its previous broadcasting partner, and walked a perpetual financial precipice only offers a new CEO a poisoned chalice.
And that’s all before the impact of COVID-19 throwing schedules into turmoil and imposing a raft of hitherto unforeseen costs.
On the other side of the coin, it’s hard to envisage a better time for a motivated newcomer to take the reins. Savvy investors buy stocks and property on the lows, counterintuitive to the herd – in this case, the disillusioned hordes who viewed Australian rugby as unvaccinated, infected and in its death throes.
Stepping into the role in February this year, there’s barely been time for Marinos to catch his breath. But after a hectic initiation, there’s already a sense that fires on a number of fronts have been doused, and Marinos’s focus is pivoting – new buzzword: check! – to matters of strategy that will ensure Australian rugby thrives into the future.
Speaking one on one with The Roar, Marinos was sanguine about Rugby Australia’s current financial position, now in the second year affected by the global pandemic.
“Without doubt, this is another trading year softer than forecasts,” he says. “We anticipated further challenges, so to provide us with breathing space we consolidated our debt profile by establishing a short-term facility, some of which we’ve had to access.
“But we won’t come close to exhausting that facility, even with the expectation that 2022 won’t be trouble free either. It’s still a little early to be conclusive, but because of the restructuring and measures we’ve put in place, we expect to be in an improved position financially compared to where we were in 2020.”
Marinos is quick to stress that, despite the trials of the pandemic, funding to community rugby has not been reduced. His pledge is that no matter how tough things get, investment is not something Rugby Australia will walk back from.
“The biggest impediment to community rugby has actually been the lockdowns imposed by governments,” he says. “The main thing for now is simply to get people back onto the pitch and back to their club environments.”
I ask about the unforseen costs associated with the Wallabies. There’s a lot of excitement around players like Samu Kerevi, Quade Cooper, Sean McMahon and others returning to the fold, but surely they don’t come cheap.
“The biggest cost is not so much the individual contracts but the need to carry an extended Wallabies squad throughout this season understanding that it wouldn’t be possible to bring players in and out of camp in the usual manner because of COVID,” he says.
This is the other side of the COVID coin. In normal circumstances Dave Rennie and his coaching team would not be afforded the luxury of having so many players together at one time for so long. The benefit comes from exposing a deeper pool of players to the requirements of elite-level rugby – the level of conditioning, nutrition, preparation, performance that will ensure players not only compete for and earn Test jerseys on merit but develop the tool kit to be good Test players.
But what about the next 45 players down? Guys like Trevor Hosea, Jock Campbell, Sam Harris, Ryan Lonergan, Tim Anstee and so on – how do we ensure they aren’t left behind?
It’s clear that part of that responsibility is being sheeted home to Wallabies players to share their knowledge, to mentor and lead teammates, and to set higher standards when they return to their franchises. But the approach is systematic as well.
“We’ve put a lot of work into reviewing our high-performance structures,” Marinos says. “How we contract our players and how we get better alignment between the franchises and the Wallabies and other national teams.
“The focus is unashamedly narrower, directed at producing winning teams. We can only do this in a consistent, sustainable way if everyone in the game is aligned and pulling in the same direction.”
“I think we’re starting to see the fruits of better alignment already. I’m really encouraged by the dialogue and trust that has been built between the Wallabies and the franchises,” he adds before acknowledging that next year’s trans-Tasman competition will be another important yardstick.
Clearly there’s a delicate balancing act at play, with Marinos delighted at the popularity of the domestic Super Rugby AU, which exceeded the expectations of new broadcast partner Nine/Stan. On the other hand, Rennie and director of rugby Scott Johnson are also not shying away from having players tested against the tough New Zealand competition.
“I said from my first day on the job it’s critically important that all of our national teams perform and deliver,” Marinos insists. “It’s the catalyst for what happens in the game. That’s what inspires kids, engages communities, clubs and aspirational players, and it makes the product more attractive, which in turn flows into attendance and TV viewing numbers and sponsorships.”
To illustrate, Marinos points to the current broadcasting situation.
“We’re very happy with the mix of free-to-air and subscription, and what’s also fantastic for us is to have club rugby on the same platform as professional rugby. It’s great exposure for all of those players and it also works to bring all kinds of rugby closer together, under a single umbrella.”
Alignment and communication are constant themes throughout our discussion, including the topic of looming private equity investment in Australian rugby. I ask if Australia is advantaged by having observed the tortuous process undertaken in New Zealand.
“We’re obviously independent of that but also very interested, yes,” he confirms. “There’s not the same tension here with the players – it’s been a big part of my manifesto to have all parties aligned, and so Justin (Harrison) and the players have been around the table with us.
“There are a lot of variables still in play, but we’re very comfortable where things sit at the moment. When a deal is finally struck, we will use some of the money to tidy up our balance sheet, repay some short-term debt, but overwhelmingly our focus will be on establishing a secure, stable platform with which to leverage that investment into the future of the game.”
Alignment also references efforts being made to enable constitutional and governance reform that better reflects the various objectives of Rugby Australia, the state governing bodies and the game’s participants.
Those matters are still being worked through, but what feels different this time around is Marinos acknowledging how provincialism and parochialism have at times been negative forces but also recognising that the onus is actually on Rugby Australia to navigate beyond past perceptions.
“We have to demonstrate that we are transparent, open book and have the capability to steer Australian rugby in the right direction,” he says.
“There’s a lot of positive intent, and this is the way we can provide people with confidence and comfort that the game is in good hands and avoid the internal conflict that has at times held rugby back.”
Cynics might say that nothing quells a ten-captain revolt quite like a first-class seat on the gravy train, but the appointment of Phil Kearns to the role of executive director of the World Cup bid is a prime example of how acutely aware Marinos and chairman Hamish McLennan are of the benefits of adopting an all-embracing approach.
All three men plus World Cup advisory chair Rod Eddington and Australian Olympic Committee boss John Coates will soon head to the UK with the objective of returning with World Rugby’s ‘targeted dialogue’ stamp, which will effectively secure the 2027 World Cup hosting rights.
With a Lions tour scheduled two years ahead of that, these are important financial building blocks slowly being cemented into place. Older heads will know that those same foundations have been laid before. What remains to be seen is how this administration learns from the mistakes of the past and positions the game to take full advantage.
What about the role of SANZAAR?
“Everything’s in a healing mode at the moment. There’s so much change occurring, everyone is under financial and operational stress, so that’s drawn out a lot of emotion.
“What’s apparent, though, is when it comes to the crunch, as we showed with the Rugby Championship we all really want the same thing and we are able to work constructively to make things happen.
“Our biggest challenge is to figure out how we grow organically without damaging the core.”
There’s an obvious question around the integration of Japan and Fiji. Marinos makes it clear that while progress is being made, nothing is going to be rushed into.
“The Six Nations has a huge advantage around the proximity of the nations. Yet they brought Italy in before they were ready in a high-performance sense.
“We have to be certain that new sides can handle the travel and intensity week in, week out. To do that you need a lot of player depth and you need very strong high-performance structures in place.
“Obviously Fiji are now entering Super Rugby. We are working very closely with Japan. We play next week and are looking for more matches in the next couple of years. I’m sure that will feed into the discussion with SANZAAR when we get to determining where we head with the Rugby Championship.”
Having been its CEO for five years, there is no-one better qualified to discuss SANZAAR than Marinos. Fans have long expressed frustration with an organisation that has been largely anonymous and failed to connect with its supporter base. Marinos acknowledges the criticism but qualifies the situation.
“SANZAAR was set up as an unincorporated joint venture, which inherently meant that the self-interest of each nation took precedence,” he explains. “We should have moved to an incorporated structure.
“It would have made a huge difference to the Super Rugby competition to have had a more centralized, more autonomous operation with overarching sponsorship instead of having a different value proposition every time the TV was turned on in each country.
“We probably got away with it in the early years because it was fresh and exciting, but as time wore on and as the competition expanded and the quality became uneven we could see that wasn’t enough.”
If that sounds like Marinos is talking in the past sense, the reality is that, between South Africa increasing its presence in the UK and the ongoing pandemic, Super Rugby as we knew it is effectively dead and buried anyway.
“The focus now, for us and New Zealand, is around the trans-Tasman competition and making sure that fans here and around the world can clearly identify what it is and enjoy the benefits.”
The interview concludes with a quick run through a list of rugby’s global issues in light of the transformational change the game is going through.
“Still a work in progress, the club-v-country dilemma still remains.”
“There’s a lot of effort going in, and at least there is now an understanding of the need to stay ahead of things.”
“We’ve been too haphazard and reactive, which breeds inconsistency.”
“Growth is great but we need to determine the pathway. Is it 15s, sevens or both? And how do we fund it properly?”
“There are a whole lot of worlds colliding. That even affects things like the World Cup; for example, does it expand or does it contract?”
“It’s no secret that we were very upset with the way our referee Nic Berry was treated during the Lions versus South Africa series, and we would have liked the matter to have moved on much faster.
“What makes rugby different to other games is respect for traditions and values, particularly related to referees. Sure, we need to tidy up our rules of engagement for before and after games so that everyone knows which lane they need to swim in. But there’s no doubt that the ball was dropped on this one.”
Marinos’s response sums up his approach in a nutshell – he’s not afraid to identify which causes are worth fighting for on behalf of Australian rugby but with a calm and rational demeanour and a willingness to ensure that everyone in the game is brought along for the ride.
The flames that have licked at Australian rugby in recent years have left it badly scorched. But by no means has it been burnt to a crisp. Green shoots are sprouting – the Wallabies are winning, Super Rugby trans-Tasman 2022 has a fresh feel about it, community rugby will return and the liquidators have turned around and gone home, their services not required.
Andy Marinos’s move into the hot seat may well prove to have been perfectly timed.