At Rugby Australia the more things change the more they stay the same. In 2012 RA, then known as the Australian Rugby Union, adopted a so-called new independent governance model based on the recommendations of a report by the former Labor politician Mark Arbib.
But given the backroom dramas of the current RA board, it seems not much has changed over the last eight years. Instead of a brand-new governance structure to match the likes of the AFL, rugby has really just seen more of the same.
The RA board descended into chaos this week as it attempted to attract new leadership to guide the game through the coronavirus crisis and beyond following the recent resignation of the chief executive Raelene Castle.
At a meeting on Monday the relatively new RA director Peter Wiggs was expected to be appointed chairman of the board, replacing the interim chairman Paul McLean, who had taken over from Cameron Clyne.
Wiggs, a private equity investor and chairman of V8 Supercars, was regarded as the ideal business leader to renegotiate RA’s broadcast deal and organise the resumption of play when coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
There appeared to be a push for him to assume a powerful executive chairman role to become rugby union’s answer to the NRL chairman Peter V’landys, but it is understood Wiggs was either not inclined or did not have the time for it.
Instead, he only wanted to become chairman and appoint the former RA deputy chief-executive Matt Carroll, currently the Australian Olympic Committee CEO, as RA’s new chief executive. If Carroll was appointed, the two-times RA chief executive John O’Neill may have been prevailed upon to return as a board member, providing further experience and expertise in running the game.
The board refused to accept Wiggs’s call and appoint Carroll as full-time CEO, preferring to conduct a three- to six-month search to find a new chief executive, a decision which did not go down well with all the game’s major stakeholders. As a result Wiggs, the man hailed as the saviour of the game, resigned from the board after only 37 days as a director.
Maybe the board felt due process had to be followed. Perhaps it was uncomfortable with Wiggs’s call on Carroll. Whatever the reason, RA has denied itself an enormous amount of combined business, administrative and rugby acumen at a time when the code has never been more vulnerable.
RA announced on Wednesday night that the former RA chief operating officer Rob Clarke would act as interim CEO. Clarke worked under the former RA chiefs Gary Flowers and Bill Pulver, who both succeeded O’Neill after his two separate terms in the role, and also served as the CEO of the Melbourne Rebels Super Rugby franchise.
In the interim, Clarke will shoulder a lot of responsibility as the game struggles to survive as a major sporting code in this country. RA must oversee the resumption of play whether that is a Trans-Tasman Super Rugby competition, a domestic provincial competition or beefed-up Sydney and Brisbane club competitions.
Whatever competition is organised, RA will have to sell it to the current broadcaster Fox Sports in the hope of deriving much needed revenue. On top of that RA must renegotiate its broadcast deal for 2021 to 2025. When Castle resigned, relations between RA and Fox Sports were strained over the former CEO’s decision to take the broadcast rights to market.
It is also possible that RA will begin talks with the Rugby Union Players’ Association before the end of the year about renegotiating the collective bargaining agreement, and player salaries are bound to be a hot topic.
If it takes RA six months to find a new CEO, most of the major challenges facing the game will be resolved by the time of the appointment, which supported the argument for a full-time CEO to be installed immediately.
Who would want the job? We know Carroll wanted it, but would he submit himself to a formal application process? It may not be all that easy to find someone else of his proven ability.
There has been speculation Hamish McLennan, a former Network Ten CEO with close ties to News Corp, will join the RA board at some point. Perhaps McLennan would be interested in the chairman or chief executive role. He has invaluable financial and media experience, but no experience running a sport.
The RA chief executive’s role is a bit like the old coaching adage that as soon as you are appointed you should start looking for a new job. CEOs are accountable, but what about the men and women on the board? One of the reasons the RA board is not truly independent, as intended, is because the appointment process is not truly independent, although it is meant to be.
When RA adopted the “independent” governance structure in 2012 a four-member independent nominations committee was established to recommend independent directors for election to the board. Those four members are the RA chairman, a nominee of RA and representatives of the two biggest rugby states, NSW and Queensland. That is hardly independent.
The system of selecting the board needs to change before the nature of the board will change. Despite all the rhetoric about independence, board members are still effectively chosen by much the same sort of people who always selected the board, the same gene pool if you like. Perhaps this explains why nothing seems to have changed.