Three main things went through my mind as I watched John O’Neill handle his shock resignation as ARU boss yesterday. Firstly, he looked and sounded tired.
As he said, the wear and tear of 14 years with the ARU in two stints, and three years in between as FFA boss, had taken its toll. It was time to pull the pin.
Secondly, what is in Robbie Deans’ immediate future as Wallaby coach now solid supporter O’Neill will step down at the end of the month? Both their contracts fall due in December next year. O’Neill has gone early.
And finally, what’s the future hold for the ARU and Australian rugby without the leadership of John O’Neill? The biggest and most telling question of them all.
Let me make my position crystal clear right now. John O’Neill is one of the finest sporting administrators I’ve ever dealt with in the world over nearly 50 years.
He’s right up there with South African Danie Craven, keeping rugby alive during sporting isolation, ARU president Charles Blunt for the way he handled the disastrous Springbok tour of Australia in 1971, Australian Cricket Board chairman Tim Caldwell in the 70s, and rugby league’s John Quayle and David Gallop who both coped superbly with bad times in their code.
I’m the first to admit O’Neill isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s the price one pays for being the best. The great Australian knocker is alive and well, and none more so in rugby, where egos are rampant.
Picture the corridors of rugby power becoming alive with “would be’s if they could be” jostling for positions. They have none and Buckleys.
The saving grace for rugby at the moment is the man in the ARU chair Michael Hawker. He was a brilliant choice in the first place, but even more so now with O’Neill out of the mix.
He will deal with the problems that will surface soon enough in exactly the same way as he did in the Wallaby midfield during the 80s in his 25 Tests – cool, calm, and collected.
Hawker turned 53 just two days ago. Old enough to hold senior exec banking positions worldwide, and young enough to be on the same page as the current players.
And he will make sure Robbie Deans isn’t railroaded.
But his biggest job will be to find O’Neill’s replacement, vital to the stability and the future of not only Wallaby rugby, but grassroots rugby as well.
Rugby has made the same fatal mistake as cricket with the emphasis on rep games at the expense of the grade competitions.
Remember rugby was amateur until 1995, as was cricket until 1977 when Kerry Packer stepped in with World Series Cricket.
Neither sport has made the transition work.
Rugby should have learned from cricket’s mistakes, and that’s the only criticism I have of John O’Neill.
The rugby grade competition should have remained amateur with players having a job, paying annual subscriptions to their club, training Tuesday and Thursday nights, playing on Saturday, and recovering on Sunday.
That didn’t happen and as a result every club is either financially busted, or knocking on the door.
Club sponsors have no avenue for mileage except the ABC, that can’t advertise. The ARU pays them to cover one Sydney first grade game a week.
The next ARU boss must address that crippling problem, but in the meantime it’s John O’Neill’s time to go.
Barring club rugby, he has done a very difficult job superbly well, as Michel Hawker said yesterday.
I don’t envy his replacement. It’s the hottest seat in Australian sport.