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Saturday, December 10, 2005


Unwanted O'Neill sees a touch of karma

By Roy Masters Saturday, December 10, 2005

"What goes around, comes around," former Australian Rugby Union chief executive John O'Neill said yesterday from Leipzig, Germany, following the decision by ARU chairman Dilip Kumar to stand down.

O'Neill, now the chief executive of Football Federation Australia, was in Germany for the draw of the 2006 World Cup. The energetic, driven sports administrator has never forgiven Kumar and Bob Tuckey, ARU chairman at the time, for not supporting him as ARU chief executive following the successful staging of the Rugby World Cup in Australia in 2003.

"What a co-incidence it is that, almost two years to the day they decided they no longer wanted me, they now had a chairman resign," he said from Germany. "The boards of sporting bodies really need to be more transparent and need to be more accountable why these things happen."

O'Neill's antipathy towards Tuckey has not abated. Tuckey now holds a sinecure overseas as deputy chair of the IRB and deputy of Rugby World Cup Ltd, the body that oversees the lucrative tournament that basically pays the code's bills every four years.

RWC has a traditional duty to recommend its preferred candidate country for a World Cup but at the recent meeting to award the host of the 2011 tournament, it opted out.

This lack of leadership by Tuckey's body helped fuel the antagonism that New Zealand, the eventual winner of the bid, had for Australia, which supported Japan. All three bidding countries - South Africa, Japan and New Zealand - believed they had Kumar's vote.

O'Neill did have some ego-rattling exchanges with then ARU president Peter Crittle during the 2003 World Cup, including one over who should deliver speeches.

However, Crittle's post did not allow him to vote and, in any case, federal Sports Minister Rod Kemp counts a speech by Crittle as one of rugby's best. A passionate rugby man, Crittle has been honoured with the Vernon Pugh award as the president who oversaw the most recent World Cup.

With Eddie Jones sacked as Wallabies coach and Kumar now merely an ARU director, it may be assumed Australian captain George Gregan is feeling a little nervous.

But there was a touch of arrogance about Gregan's answer earlier this year when asked how long he expected to remain as captain. He inferred the post was his by right of passage, a position secure as long as he is in the team - an assumption a rugby league player would never make.

The ARU board - probably the weakest in the code's history - can move on Gregan but won't. After all, it has already delegated the decision on the new coach to a three-man committee. Inevitably, it will allow the incoming coach to decide on Gregan.

However, there is precedent for the board to appoint the captain, a story untold until now.

"The board has overruled the coach before," said World Cup-winning former captain John Eales. "It's my understanding [Wallabies coach] Rod Macqueen wanted to replace me but John O'Neill intervened. As time moved on, Rod and I worked really well together and achieved our goal."

While Eales and Macqueen have never discussed the matter, both know O'Neill, as the board's representative, over-ruled the move to replace Eales. Macqueen came in as a white knight after the reign of the previous Wallabies coach, Greg Smith, ended in illness and failure in 1997.

Australia won only one of their two Tests on the tour of Argentina, losing the other badly. The Wallabies then drew with England at Twickenham but managed to beat Scotland.

Macqueen approached O'Neill and told him he wanted to replace Eales. His preferred skipper? Gregan. O'Neill pointed out the decision was not his but the board's.

This dated back from the Kerry Packer-financed, Ross Turnbull-run World Rugby Corporation's attempt to sign up the world's best rugby union players to counter Rupert Murdoch's Super League. The ARU had believed previous Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer and captain Phil Kearns had sold out to WRC.

Lest future coaches have too much influence over the captain, the ARU board took the responsibility away from the coach, voting itself the power to appoint the skipper. So when O'Neill, as the board's full-time manager, was told by Macqueen that Eales wasn't up to it, he acted like most rugby men in a crisis. He invited Eales for a game of golf. After all, if Sir Francis Drake could manage a few ends of bowls before the Spanish Armada arrived, O'Neill could sort it out over a round. On the last few holes, O'Neill raised the matter.

"How much do you want the job?" he asked. It became very clear that Eales was desperate to hold onto the captaincy.

O'Neill then instructed Macqueen to have a heart-to-heart with Eales, who subsequently remained as skipper and led Australia to World Cup success in Wales in 1999.

Strength was needed to retain Eales then, just as it is required to replace Gregan now. In fact, if O'Neill had not acted, the Wallabies may have had Gregan as captain four years earlier.

Photo: Tim Clayton
There were a couple of reasons I wanted to post this.

1) It again highlights that, contrary to perceptions, other unions DO have their internal squabbles. Yet somehow it always appears to have a more dignified outcome than ours.

2) John O'Neil is a genius administrator of the highest calibre and it was a massive surprise that the ARU dumped him in the first place.

3) I enjoyed the maturity of the last couple of paragraphs when O'Neil took Eales for a round of golf to see if he was worth protecting as national captain. Turns out that he most certainly was!
if only sa could lure john o'neil to sort out its mess. you've said it ras: he's a genius. everything he touches turns to gold. he's raised the profile of soccer in australia with the introduction of the huyndai a-league and now australia have won a place in the soccer world cup. no coincidence that the game of rugby has slowly started slipping since 2003 in australia.  
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