Stepping up to the job … Dave Smith. Smith will start as NRL boss on February 1.
WHILE he hasn’t played rugby league, Dave Smith proved he still has a strong fend, even though, as someone who is not a rugby league man, that might not be enough to stop criticism.
Smith is not only a man with a rugby union background, but also a banker, neither of which will endear him to some rugby league people.
That he learnt his sporting fend in rugby union, as well as his continual references to the sport – even if as a boy growing up in working class Wales – will irk some.
Should it? Probably not. He is a businessman and he has been hired to run a business. But rugby league can be an insular sport. Outsiders are frowned upon. Which means the new NRL chief executive, an outsider, will not be fawned upon.
That was clear from the outset today, when he was asked – first up – how he responded to the assertion that he was not a rugby league man. Largely, he responded well.
“I love rugby league,” he said. “I’m a fan of rugby league. I’m a fan of rugby union. I’m a fan of multiple sports. I watch all sports. I really enjoyed the grand final, I thought the State of Origin series was probably some of the most competitive matches I’ve ever watched.
“For it to be reported that I’m not a fan is misleading.”
So he passed one major test; he did not refer to the jewel in the crown of rugby league as State of the Origin. Yet being a rugby league fan is one thing; being a rugby league man is another to the masses. How many games did you go to this year? “I’ve spent six months on a plane this year, I manage businesses across ten countries, and I haven’t had a lot of time to spend with my family, let alone to go to live games,” he responded. “I haven’t been to any live sport this year.”
It seems remarkable that Smith – who grew up in working class Pontypridd, has been in the army, counter terrorism, and lately in the banking sector, while always with a passion for sport – can have such business acumen but might be eyed suspiciously when it comes to understanding the salary cap. But rugby league can do that.
“I’m in a big business at the moment, I have to manage multiple stakeholders,” Smith said. “I’ve been doing that for many years. That’s a challenge in terms of any business, and it’s something that I’ll have to take very seriously. I always try and earn credibility.”
Today was, as Smith said, an “introduction”. But in two ways. He introduced himself to rugby league, while rugby league introduced itself to him.
“This is the best job in Australia,” Smith maintained. For now.
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