The End of the Line
It was just before the 2008 season that David Gallop and I met at his old office at Fox Studios. There was no kind of business on the table. This was just an off-the-record meeting to discuss important rugby league matters. I was not there chasing a story. I was playing the role of advocate, a serious rugby league man with serious concerns for rugby league.
So we chatted casually for an hour. The thing that impressed me most about Gallop was his genuine warmth, for both the game and me as a simple fan fed up with where rugby league was at. The discussions were frank but we rarely reached much common ground. Gallop had a ready response for each matter and why most could not be achieved. He defended the night Grand Final, stood by the McIntyre Finals system, steadfastly dismissed the prospect of a draft, refused to believe betting corruption had its teeth as deep into the game as it had.
That, to me, was his great failing as NRL boss. He was unwilling to push through, often timid at times, to borrow a term from John Grant, reactionary. He was overtly negative. Explanations as to why not rather than why were his core constituency.
When fresh ideas were raised, Gallop could always find a reason not to proceed. When the need for significant change evident, the game often remained stagnant.
For far too long, Gallop stuck with the McIntyre finals system when it was universally despised. He refused to even consider a draft that would have eased the burden on the salary cap and presented the game with myriad new commercial opportunities. When warned of the very real dangers – and the very scary anecdotal evidence – related to spot fixing and match fixing, he thought the current body had it under control and that a betting commissioner would be a waste of resources. He made no inroads into the messy transfer system, essentially throwing his hands up in the air and allowing a free-for-all signing system. He refused to fundamentally change the nature of the video referee set-up and refused to move against rogue officials like Robert Finch and Bill Harrigan or arrogant rights holders like Nine despite the station suffocating the code.
Perhaps the twilight Grand Final best depicts this conciliatory, non-confrontational bent. Traditionalists – the vast majority – wanted the Grand Final to remain on a Sunday afternoon. The marketing department and the bean counters of the NRL wanted the game played in prime time to give it a Super Bowl like feel. For the last few seasons the game has been played at twilight, pleasing nobody.
Gallop was not a scrapper. He preferred to cut trouble off at the pass. Confrontation was not in his blood.
This is not to be overly critical of Gallop because, for a long time, rugby league did not need a confrontationist. He was the right man at the right time.
Rugby league today is very different to the rugby league of 2002 when Gallop ascended to the top job following the tumult of the Super League war and the embarrassment of the Moffett era. At the time, the game needed a leader who could thread his way through the landmines, not some kamikaze Gough Whitlam-style break through or break boss. Relationships were strained, the game was on its knees. It needed a man of Gallop's intelligence, sensitivity, neutrality, political savvy and empathy.
The hard-headedness of Bill Buckley, the belligerence of Kevin Humphreys and the Machiavellian-style politicking of Arthurson and Quayle were not needed in 2002.
But come the second part of his reign, there was without question the need for a man with a vision and the balls to put it into place. The game needed a leader, not a manager and that is very much the case today.
In his outstanding book Inside League, Roy Masters differentiated between management and leadership, quoting ill-fated former Major League Baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti: "Management is the capacity to handle multiple problems, neutralise various constituencies, motivate personnel … leadership on the other hand, is an essentially moral act – not as in most management – an essentially protective act. It is the assertion of a vision, not simply the exercise of a style."
Gallop was, for the most part, a very good manager but he was not a leader in the Giamatti sense. He was not a man of vision. He excelled within the boundaries but those frontiers were never pushed, never tested. A decade in charge and Gallop never sought to fundamentally change the way the game was played or administered.
The independent commission came to being on his watch but it was not driven by him and I'm not entirely convinced he was happy with the final structure.
There is no question at all that rugby league has grown like never before on Gallop's watch. The former boss deserves much of the credit. Commercially rugby league has never been in a better position. The on-field product is excellent. It is the most watched sport in Australia and the game is on the verge of a certain billion dollar-plus television deal. Rugby league is once again firmly entrenched as the undisputed and unchallenged top sport in NSW and Queensland. Parity has thrived under Gallop, the former News Limited lawyer rightly understanding the importance of hope in sport and ensuring teams were never down for too long. The NRL is the most even major football competition in the world. There has not been so much stability in the game since St George were winning title on top of title in the 1960s. He has done an exceptional job in straddling the line between security and unpredictability.
There has been the advent of the all-star game. The return to preeminence of international football. He has done well in striking a delicate balance with the image of the game, giving it more widespread appeal while refusing to steadfastly whore the game out to the soccer mums and their dollar, ensuring the big hits and explosive plays were central to the game's image.
Much good has been achieved by Gallop. The game is certainly in a better position than when he was spirited into the job in 2012.
He did this all under exceptionally difficult circumstances. The ownership structure he operated under severely limited his ability to implement real change. He had the freedom of everyday liberty from the partnership board but he lacked the powerbase to drive through real and necessary change. He had to rally against a divided game, an insular culture and the relatively poor commercial position compared to other major Australian sports. It must be remembered that rugby league politics makes the politics of the Catholic Church and the Australian Labor Party look like kindergarten elections for first term lunch monitor. It is death-match, small-minded, self-interested politics – and it has been so for a century.
Gallop is right in saying that rugby league has a unique way of attacking itself. It is inherent in the game. Few insiders have managed to breakthrough such a dense labyrinth and such entrenched opposition. No outsider – and as a non-player and non-clubman, Gallop was an outsider -in the long history of the code has achieved as much.
On the big issues he was confronted with, he had mixed success. On these, it was when Gallop was at his most reactionary.
I vehemently disagreed with how he handled both the Canterbury salary cap scandal and that of the Melbourne Storm. Both teams deserved strong penalties but to randomly strip 37 points from the Bulldogs and then to allow the Storm to play for no points all season was ridiculous and unfair. There was no settled or considered or consistent policy on these. It was pure reaction and it left a bitter taste in the mouths of both Bulldogs fans (of which I'm one) and Storm fans. Not showing up in Melbourne to discuss the matter alienated a very important market. Comparing Storm fans to terrorists only heightened the tension between NRL headquarters and the southern capital and was an ill-considered and silly thing to say. While the club got punished, no individual copped any noteworthy sanction. Compare this to the punishments handed down to the New Orleans Saints by the NFL for its bounty scandal. Both Canterbury and Melbourne deserved the heavy hand but the randomness of the penalties undermined the legitimacy of the League's sanctions.
The NRL under Gallop was very poor in achieving adequate coverage of the code. The NRL refused to force Nine to show Sunday afternoon matches live or any matches outside of the heartland on free-to-air television before midnight. The answer from NRL HQ was always the same: poor ratings look bad. But refusing to enforce Nine's contractual obligations prevented the game from ever building a base in Victoria.
The Brett Stewart saga was a debacle. He was too quick on the trigger back in 2009. Stewart should not have been suspended. Today, Stewart is the bad guy in this wrangle despite his acquittal because of his childish vindictiveness but back in 2009 Gallop was out of line and inconsistent to dish out a month long suspension to the Manly fullback. Policy was being dictated by The Daily Telegraph.
When the spot-fixing scandal of 2010 rolled around, Gallop was too little and too late. Those in betting circles have a long list of rorts going back over the last decade and nothing was done. Against the most important issue facing the game – one that could eat at the integrity of its very existence - the NRL did nothing until the most obvious of rorts took place. This was allowed to drag on for months. The NRL should have been ready to act against such a fraud. That, in itself, perhaps could have stopped it.
The NRL has been behind the eight-ball on gambling, marketing and technology issues. The League took forever to reach an agreement with betting companies to get a slice of the pie and still refuse to properly ratify stats (with full disclosure on how they are accumulated) to allow for growth in exotic betting and more money for the game. The NRL website does not even offer basic stats, an issue that should have been readily fixed years ago when brought to the NRL's view but has not. There has been an absence of attention to detail. The NRL has moved slowly on new media technologies.
On other matters though, Gallop made the right call.
He barred Sonny Bill Williams from returning to the NRL for the length of his contract. It was a strong position and the right one. He properly raked Canterbury over the coals for the Coffs Harbour sex scandal. He correctly deregistered Todd Carney for a year after repeated embarrassments to the game.
All in all, Gallop will be remembered as a good man, a decent man, a man of great character. He had the good of the game at heart and tried to make the right calls for the game. He was a good manager, a compromiser who suited the times. But he was not a visionary. He did not have any grand picture for rugby league and he did not seek to expand the game, grow it, take it to a new level. Gallop was too often prepared to say why rugby league couldn't rather than why rugby league could.
Rugby league will look back on his time as one of prosperity … but one where the game perhaps did not grow to the levels it could have.
The search will now begin in earnest for a new leader. It certainly won't be anyone linked to the past. The timing of Gallop's outing – and while it was a resignation on paper, there is no question that he was forced – was without question a giant 'fuck you' to News Limited. Ensuring Gallop was there to oversee the transition was central to News handing control of the game to an independent commission. The commission took less than four months to out him and they did so before the most significant event of 2012 – the new television deal.
It was a sad if not entirely unexpected way for Gallop to go. Gallop deserved to see out the year, deserved to be part of the big television deal he had helped to build. But John Grant would have none of it. He is the man at the helm now and he wants the game to know it.
Grant's maneuvering is bold. He had want to pull it off. Shifting Gallop was the easy part. While Gallop was likable, most in the game recognise the need for a new beginning, a strong frontman to take rugby league to new heights, to conquer new frontiers. There is legitimate fear, however, that the next boss could be a disaster. There is certainly a stream of sentiment that it is better the devil you know. Grant slammed Gallop for being a reactionary but Grant and his commission have been nothing but since coming into power, almost embarrassingly so.
This will be the most important decision that Grant and the commission will make in the next decade. If they make a mess of the new CEO, so much damage will be done to the game.
They certainly won't choose anybody from the old guard. No old time rugby league warlord will be accepted. Stephen Humphreys, son of former League boss Kevin and chief of the Wests Tigers has been mentioned, but he is no hope. Nor will anybody even remotely connected to News Limited.
Grant has indicated he will go for someone who at least has some history in the game. That will surely rule out ARU boss John O'Neill. I would have thought his arrogant and incompetent running of that inferior rugby code would have been enough to ensure his name was not mentioned but he has been linked. The game is in a sad state if it comes to hiring O'Neill.
The most likely contenders are Canterbury chief executive Todd Greenberg, Panthers boss Warren Wilson and former sports minister Mark Arbib. Former NSW premier John Fahey is another who should find himself in the mix.
Greenberg is the favourite. He has done a simply magnificent job with Canterbury and is widely revered as one of the best operators in the game. It would be a terrible shame for the Bulldogs but rugby league could use a man like Todd.
Wilson has experience with the big end of town but has been passed over for the post before and was overlooked for the commission.
Arbib has excellent political connections but is a divisive character and one without a great history in the code.
Fahey, also from the political realm, is less divisive but has his age counting against him.
An internal candidate from the current regime is highly unlikely.
There has also been speculation that Grant could plump for himself for the role. That would be a total and utter disgrace if that were to happen. Grant has proven nothing yet, has no qualifications. He should stick to his role as chairman and stay out of the day-to-day meddling.
These are heady days for the NRL, for rugby league as a whole. We stand on the precipice of a bright future but one that can turn dark very quickly if the wrong calls are made. As we stare out into the sun though, we should not forget the contribution made by David Gallop. He was not a bold visionary but he was a fine man who led rugby league through some tough times and ensured the game prospered.
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