Holding the Hammer: The 52 Most Influential Men in Australian Rugby League

Filed in Other by on December 9, 2010

“What a mother sings to the cradle goes all the way down to the grave”
-Henry Ward Beecher

It is not often that my mind drifts to the words of nineteenth century Congregationalist clergymen but every now and then, when the stars are in retrograde and the need to reassert one’s self becomes prominent, wise words from yesterday can prove comforting and can get to the nut of your problem.

Rummaging for and ruminating the meaning of influence, the words of Henry Ward Beecher hit me like a dawn revelation. Beecher’s words, in their broadness and simplicity, hit the nail on the head. Influence is everywhere and can be anything and can stretch from the beginning of time to the end of eternity. It is subjective and fluctuating and in any real sense, indefinable. It is not black and white.

But I am a writer and I have a list compile. And boundaries are required.

For the purposes of this article, influence will include impact on the game at an operational level and on the sport itself. It will include powerbrokers and money men, administrators and media identities, players and their agents, coaches and owners and even oddsmakers. Most are well known and roll in the public domain; others operate in the shadows and are unfamiliar to many. To loosely paraphrase Time, influence, in this context, will be a measure of the effect that individuals have on rugby league in Australia, an ascending catalogue of those who have the largest impact on rugby league today. Essentially, the following men are the ones with the biggest hammers in Australian rugby league.

52. Max Delmege: Owner of Manly whose money single handedly saved the Eagles. Remains relatively quiet but has the only say that counts at Manly.

51. Warren Ryan: The Wok is still regarded as one of the preeminent rugby league thinkers and he has the platform to air his views as an analyst on ABC Grandstand’s rugby league commentary team.

50. Brian Waldron: His ascension up the ranks of rugby league has been fast since switching from AFL. As the CEO of the best team in rugby league, his sphere of sway has expanded. He has made enormous inroads for rugby league in Victoria.

49. Peter Sterling: Uses his role as an analyst and commentator on Nine to influence public opinion. His role at Nine has been downgraded in recent times and thus, so to has his influence.

48. Michael Searle: Has done an amazing job in setting up a successful team on the Gold Coast. His reward will be greater access in the corridors of power. He is also leading the war in one of Australian sport’s key battlegrounds.

47. Eric Watson: New Zealand Warriors owner. Rugby league in New Zealand and international rugby league in general is highly reliant on a successful Warriors team. 

46. Warren Smith: A solid commentator on Fox who contributes to the agenda with his weekly show NRL On Fox. The focus on the chicken-wing tackle this season was a result of Smith’s taking issue with it.

45. Geoff Edwards: Head rugby league trader at the TAB. His lines and prices set the market. That market is rather large with rugby league the most bet on sport in Australia.

44. Gavin Orr and Pacific Sports Management: With a number of stars such as Greg Bird, Reni Maitua and Cooper Cronk on his books, Pacific Sports Management wield a great deal of power in the labour market. The loss of Sonny Bill Williams from the agency has seen the company’s influence drop in recent times.

43. Tony Archer: Anointed as the game’s number one official, Archer is set to be in charge of all the big games for a number of years yet. Fortunes so often ride with the man in the middle and Archer and his cohorts play a major role in how the sport is played and which teams win and which teams lose.

42. Matthew Rodwell: His influence is structural. As head of the Rugby League Professionals Association, he has a great deal of power in labor negotiations. Rodwell’s predecessor, Tony Butterfield, used the power of the office to much greater effect, however. Rodwell’s influence will be truly measured when the next Collective Bargaining Agreement is negotiated.

41. Geoff Bellew: A former administrator, Bellew is often called on to defend players at the judiciary. His abilities on behalf of his defendants can make or break a player’s reputation.

40. Andrew Johns: Johns is revered as the greatest player of the modern game with his thoughts always met with open ears by powerbrokers and fans alike. He has a platform to pursue his agenda with Nine while he remains an influence on how the game is played with his freelance coaching.

39. Greg McCallum: As head of the NRL’s video review panel, McCallum plays a significant role in setting the boundaries of what is acceptable on the rugby league field.

38. Allan Gainey: Player agent who represents Greg Inglis, among other superstars. He plays an important role in player movement, particularly at Penrith, where he represents a considerable number of players.

37. Danny Buderus: As New South Wales captain and an icon of the Knights, he plays an important ambassadorial role for rugby league. Buderus is regarded as a wonderful leader who players will play for. His thoughts carry weight.

36. Sonny Bill Williams: Regarded as one of the rugby league’s greatest assets. On the field, he can terrorise opponents and win games for the Bulldogs. Off the field, he is a marketing tool with the drawing power to attract people to the sport. His threats to defect to rugby have damaged both Canterbury and rugby league. In spite of his obvious simpleton nature, he has an immense impact on the fortunes of the sport with his thoughts always widely reported.

35. Geoff Carr: General Manager of both the ARL and the NSWRL. He has been walking the corridors of power for many years. He plays a role at nearly every level of the game.

34. Bob McCarthy: Chairman of both the Australian and New South Wales selection panels. His decisions – and I am on the record as saying how foolish many of them are – have wide ranging ramifications on the careers of players as well as the success of New South Wales in Origin and Australia in internationals.

33. Tim Sheens: The Wests Tigers coach is one of rugby league’s great innovators and his influence on rule changes and how the game is played after changes to the playing laws and/or the interpretation of same cannot be underestimated. Sheens has also been one of the biggest supporters of the little man in league.

32. Johnathan Thurston: The two-time Dally M Medal winner has more influence on his team than any other player. The Cowboys are impotent without him in a way similar to that of Newcastle, who rarely performed without Andrew Johns.

31. Bruno Cullen: The Broncos CEO is in charge of the best run and most supported rugby league team in Australia. His power and influence are so great that he managed to run Wayne Bennett, the man who has had nearly total autonomy at the Broncos over the last decade, out of town.

30. Ross Livermore: The Godfather of rugby league in Queensland, Livermore’s influence is the same as that of the old-time Tammany Hall ward bosses. Livermore is the voice for the code in Queensland, having a hand in everything from state selection through to the advancement of the game north of the Tweed.

29. Robert Finch: The NRL referees boss seemingly has the power to interpret the playing laws as well as having nearly complete autonomy in measuring the performances of NRL referees. He does an awful job and acts without transparency or accountability. His impact on rugby league cannot, however, be doubted.

28. Cameron Smith: The current Australian and Queensland captain (in the absence of Lockyer), Smith has tremendous sway off the field after redefining the role of the hooker on it. He has played a considerable role in establishing the game in Melbourne, in player welfare and in turning around the fortunes of the Queensland Origin team. His influence will grow in the coming years.

27. Roy Masters: The most respected journalist in rugby league, Masters often uses his platform as a Fairfax writer and guest on the The Offsiders to tackle the big issues. He does not take a backward step and is not afraid of the game’s powerbrokers. He has been vocal in his attacks on the role News Limited plays in the running of rugby league in Australia.

26. Matthew Johns: As a sharp-witted and intelligent analyst with Nine, Johns has increased the popular appeal of rugby league. His understanding of the machinations of the modern game has also been of great assistance to the Storm, where he has engaged in some freelance coaching. His popularity is a wonderful asset for rugby league and gives him a great say in how the game is played and marketed.

25. David Riolo and Titan Management: Titan Management has a hot young stable of stars that include Karmichael Hunt, Todd Carney, Krisnan Inu, Paul Gallen and Anthony Laffranchi. The agency will play an increasingly prevalent role in the game over coming seasons as their stars continue their rise. They have the ability to demand big money from clubs.

24. Ian Schubert: The NRL’s salary cap auditor has wide ranging powers that allow him to investigate clubs and players while highlighting those who have breached the cap. The salary cap is one of the most contentious issues in rugby league and Schubert’s role gives him immense influence on the fortunes of clubs. One need only look back to 2002 to see that.

23. Sam Ayoub: The agent for star players Johnathan Thurston, Robbie Farah and Carl Webb, among others. He wields a great deal of influence in the player market and can cause clubs great angst with his negotiating skills.

22. Steve Gillis: The agent for Brett Finch (among others) and the President of the Player Managers Executive. He has a great deal of clout in negotiation and his role as President of the PME gives him a voice to push the agenda of player agents.

21. Andrew Voss: Uses his role as a commentator, reporter and host at Nine to push for the rugby league he hopes for. And he is not shy in doing so. He is vocal in his criticism when he deems it necessary. Voss is fully aware of his platform and uses it fully.

20. Ray Hadley: As host and lead caller on 2GB, the sole commercial rights holder of rugby league on the radio, Hadley has a huge audience and he does not hold back. He is a powerful man and he knows it. The introduction of pay television has seen the role of radio callers diminish in recent times.

19. Darren Lockyer: The most respected player in the game and a man who has achieved nearly everything there is to on the field, Lockyer is the voice of the league’s players. Having been measured in his words, Lockyer’s thoughts carry significant power. When Lockyer speaks, people listen. His deeds on the field have been integral to the selling of the sport whilst his greatness has ensured the Broncos have remained one of the elite clubs in the game.

18. Wayne Beavis: Beavis is one of the most experienced player agents in Sydney and has played a significant role in increased player salaries and the player drain to England. Stars on his books include Mark O’Meley and Trent Barrett.

17. Laurie Daley: Daley has his fingers in many rugby league related pies. He is a prominent media identity with the Nine Network after leaving Fox Sports, he is a representative selector, he coaches the Country Origin team, is an assistant with the New South Wales Origin team and dabbles in skills training with a number of players and clubs. Daley strongly influences the careers of players in his role as coach and selector whilst assisting in setting the agenda through his work in the media.

16. Ken Edwards: The ANZ Stadium CEO has almost single-handedly put an end to top grade football at suburban grounds. The Bulldogs, South Sydney, St.George-Illawarra, Parramatta and the Wests Tigers now play home games at the monstrosity. Edwards will continue to throw money at clubs in a bid to attract matches. Edwards' influence can be seen in empty seats and felt in the lack of atmosphere. See the local derby between Cronulla and the Dragons, played nowhere near either district, which attracted a lifeless 15,000.

15. George Mimis and Darryl Mather (SFX Management): The agency with the most star-studded client list. Those on the books of Mimis and Mather include Darren Lockyer, Brett Stewart, Billy Slater, Justin Hodges, Mark Gasnier and Steve Price. The company represents a tremendous amount of talent and can severely impact the fortunes of clubs with their advice to players.

14. Ricky Stuart: As Australian coach, Stuart has a significant say in the representative fortunes of those in the NRL. Such influence was no more evident than in his push for Gallen, Crocker and Tupou to be included in the Centenary Test team ahead of more credentialed candidates. Further, Stuart uses his position to aid in recruitment at the Sharks. His power at the Sharks seems nearly autonomous in regards to all matters football.

13. Peter Holmes a Court and Russell Crowe: These two are the most high profile club owners. They saved Souths from inevitable oblivion in purchasing the club. Their injection of much needed funds led Souths to their first finals series in nearly two decades last season. The hands on approach of both, however, have provided undue pressure on Rabbitohs players unused to such a spotlight whilst the bloody war undertaken to gain power has alienated many former greats. For both good or ill and I suspect both, Crowe and Holmes a Court have changed the Rabbitohs markedly. 

12. Phil Gould: Regardless of what he says, Gould still holds a great deal of political clout at the Roosters and remains the number one confidant of Nick Politis. He played a significant role in the fall of both Stuart and Murray. Gould uses his role at Fairfax and at Nine to undermine his enemies, push his favourites and attack aspects and structures of the game that displease him. He remains an astute student of the game yet often resorts to base populism and petty vengeance. Regardless, he still has the ear of many of the game’s powerbrokers.

11. Craig Bellamy: Bellamy’s rise through the coaching ranks has been meteoric. He is regarded as the best coach in the game today. His focus on the ruck and the use of wrestling-style tactics designed to win same have fundamentally altered the way rugby league is played. By bringing success to the Storm, he has further solidified the game in Victoria. As New South Wales coach, he has already made his mark with the inclusion of the likes of Anthony Quinn and Peter Wallace.

10. Wayne Bennett: Bennett was, until his resignation, the most powerful coach in rugby league. A history of success provided Bennett with a mandate to do as he pleased. He used that mandate to keep the Broncos strong which often resulted in some short-term angst from legends who were moved on. There is no more respected coach in the game and he will demand similar autonomy at the Dragons. Players have a strong desire to play for him which has tremendous bearing on his club’s recruitment. Bennett is also usually at the forefront of style shifts in how the game is played. No coach has as greater reaching influence on rugby league as Bennett.   

9. Denis Fitzgerald: At Parramatta, Fitzgerald’s power is total. He is CEO of both the Eels and the Parramatta Leagues Club and has solidified his power bases to the extent that it would seem nearly impossible to strip him of his control over the fortunes of the Eels. As the self-appointed doyen of chief executives, he has a great deal of influence in the corridors of power. Those who have been involved in rugby league politics as long as Fitzgerald are bound to be influential. His antagonistic public remarks about club legend Ray Price and rugby league in Melbourne have been given greater airplay because of the clout he holds.

8. Colin Love: Love mixes in many circles and tends to chair most of them. Love was a key ARL player during the Super League war and has been rewarded in kind since. Colin Love is the Chairman of the News South Wales Rugby League, the Australian Rugby League and the Rugby League International Federation. Love also sits on the NRL Partnership Board, the power that oversees the NRL, and its finances, as well as the SCG Trust. He has also played a major role in nearly all Centenary activities. Further, Love’s law firm received business from the NRL while a company he was a partner in were granted promotion rights to the pre-season sevens competition. Love is a key powerbroker at nearly every level of rugby league in Australia. His influence stretches from finances to appointments. The Super League war turned Love into a major general.

7. Steve Crawley: The Head of Sport at Channel Nine plays a large role in the exposure clubs and sponsors receive on free-to-air television. Crawley has the final say on which games are shown for free and which ones must be paid for. Crawley also takes responsibility for how rugby league is covered in this country while having the final word on the agenda taken by Nine rugby league analysts. The influence of Crawley can be seen in the twilight Grand Final and the lack of a daytime finals game in weeks two and three of the playoffs.

6. The Daily Telegraph Rugby League Platoon: The Daily Telegraph has the highest circulation of any paper in rugby league heartland and is owned by rugby league’s biggest provider, News Limited. It is of little surprise that the paper and its rugby league writers have such an impact on the rugby league agenda. When the off-field behaviour of players is criticised, when the focus is on one particular club or player or when there is an issue dominating rugby league, it can usually be traced back to the Tele. Writers make no apology for engaging in populist campaigns nor do they hide their influence on the code. I am sure Tim Smith will pay testament to the influence the Daily Telegraph has on the code and its participants.

5. Nick Politis: Politis has been running the Sydney Roosters since the late seventies and from his position of Chairman of the Board, he calls the shots. He has the final say in the running of the club and has as much involvement as any executive or board member in the league in the operations of the football department. Politis’s sphere of influence stretches further as he is a major financial contributor to the game and was a key ARL player in the Super League war. He represents that organisation on the all-powerful NRL Partnership Board. Politis is no shrinking violet and is not afraid to stomp heads to get what he wants.

4. David Gallop: Gallop as NRL CEO has total control of all NRL operations and is the face of the administration. He is the spokesman, the rulemaker, the policeman, the adjudicator, the negotiator, the governor, the protector and the boss. In rugby league, David Gallop is the law. He has been a key figure in the post-Super League resurgence of rugby league with his vision, his open-mindedness, his calmness, his savvy and his usual fairness. Aside from the insane decision to throw Canterbury out of the competition in 2002, he has done a sound job in administering rugby league and guiding it through a very difficult period after a great deal of political instability. He is widely respected by most in rugby league and due to his fine record and his unifying presence, has been a greater influence with the few who match or outrank his pull.

3. David Gyngell: Television rights are rugby league’s biggest asset and as such, the game has become somewhat beholden to the owner of said (free-to-air) rights, Channel Nine. Fearful of losing the loot, NRL officials have tended to appease the network at every opportunity. David Gyngell, the CEO of the Nine Network, therefore tends to have great pull. The night Grand Final was instituted for the benefit of Nine while years of no live free-to-air rugby league was also the doing of the network. Gyngell has great leverage with the NRL and he and his lieutenants are not afraid to call on it.

2. Peter Macourt and Ian Phillip: Macourt is the Chairman of the NRL Partnership Board on which Phillip sits. Both are News Limited appointees. As the News Limited appointees, they are the protectors of News Limited’s investment. As well as sitting on the NRL Partnership Board, Macourt and Phillip also sit on the Fox Sports and Foxtel boards, of which News own 50% of and 25% of respectively. The NRL Partnership Board sign off on all media rights which has, in the words of Roy Masters, made Macourt and Phillip “bidders and biddees” who “buy low from a part-owned business and sell high to partners.” Macourt and Phillip may not be well known but they wield a big stick and must agree on everything from funding to NRL appointees.  

1. Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch: It started with Super League and since those heady days Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, through their company News Limited, have essentially overseen the running of rugby league. News Limited is the major financier of rugby league through, among other things, the acquisition of pay television rights. The company has equal representation on both the NRL Partnership Board and the NRL Board and is an equal partner in the NRL. The company owns the Melbourne Storm and 68.87% of the Brisbane Broncos and has owned the North Queensland Cowboys in the past. News takes $8 million from the game annually as repayment for the company’s investment in the sport. The company also owns the Daily Telegraph and the Courier Mail, the most highly circulated newspapers in Sydney and Brisbane. Despite an ambiguous agreement to withdraw ownership in the game by 2018, there has been no indication that they will. The impact of the Murdoch’s on rugby league may not be all that graspable to the common fan but the simple fact is that rugby league would not exist in its current form if it weren’t for News Limited. As the men with the money, their influence on rugby league is immense.  

There is one name missing from that list but for reasons of self-interest and transparency, your always-plotting author has left him off. He prefers to operate from the typewriter, using his knowledge and love of the game to procure change and protect the sport. He is wise and all-knowing.

And he should be read each and every week under the influence of a bottle of whiskey and, if the feeling hits you, two class-A narcotics. 

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