When Phil Waugh became the first ex-Wallaby to be Rugby Australia’s CEO, he vowed that his close relationships with chair Hamish McLennan and coach Eddie Jones wouldn’t stop him from challenging the pair on vital issues.
The 43-year-old was officially announced as Andy Marinos’ replacement on Tuesday, at the venue where he spent a decade wowing fans with his toughness and footy smarts, the Sydney Football Stadium.
After 79 Tests for the Wallabies, one of Australia’s greatest-ever flankers will now look to revive the game’s declining popularity and engagement with fans, as well as revive the increasingly poor level of performance on the field – particularly in regards to Super Rugby.
But he will face hurdles contending with the huge politics in play at Rugby Australia, particularly when it comes to the increasingly outspoken McLennan.
Given Waugh has a close relationship with the powerful chairman thanks to his time as a non-executive director on the board, and Jones handed him his Wallabies debut during his first stint as coach in 2000, many would wonder whether he would be able to stand up to the two heavyweights.
New Rugby Australia CEO Phil Waugh (left) says he won’t be afraid to challenge his outspoken chairman Hamish McLennan (right)
Waugh insisted he would also have a similarly robust relationship with his first Wallabies coach, Eddie Jones (pictured)
The father-of-four, pictured with son Arthur at his unveiling at CEO on Tuesday, is the first ex-Wallaby to be named CEO of Rugby Australia
Waugh put those worries to bed, insisting he would make the hard calls if necessary, but also spoke of the importance of having a united front after a decade of tumult on and off the field.
‘I’ll certainly challenge aspects I may disagree with … you will always have battles,’ he said at his official unveiling in Sydney on Tuesday afternoon.
‘It’s a bit like playing, or selection room. You will have differences of opinion … but when we go to market we need to make sure we’re out there in front of people as a united board, with the executive.’
McLennan, who has waged a very public battle against the NRL in recent times in his dogged pursuit of convincing league players to switch codes like Joseph Suaalii will soon do, backed up that assertion.
He maintains there will be a robust working relationship that isn’t all one-way traffic with the chairman always getting his way.
‘When I look at my interactions with Phil, we’ve had our healthy debates and disagreements on a range of issues, but we’ve always ended up in a better place,’ McLennan told reporters at Waugh’s unveiling.
‘I think the board recognises that too and they’ve taken a lot of comfort around his insights around the game and how we can drive it harder.’
Waugh, a married father-of-four, will also have to form a similar relationship with his first Wallabies coach, who is as outspoken as McLennan.
Jones (green jacket) will team up with Waugh (second from left) to turn around rugby’s fortunes in Australia
Jones is known as a coach with a relentless desire for perfection and high-standards on and off the field, and Waugh said that would help drive rugby Down Under to greater heights.
‘It was always very robust with Eddie,’ he said.
‘I think we still have that robust relationship where we want the best and highest performance of the Wallabies, and we’ll work together to get that.’
If anyone can turnaround the fortunes of rugby in Australia, it is Waugh.
The 180cm, 100kg flanker played with enormous heart and toughness during his outstanding career that included 136 matches for the Waratahs.
Thanks to brilliant footy smarts at the breakdown, rugged defence and a surprisingly strong running game for an openside, Waugh was the soul of any side he played for.
Waugh played 79 Tests with the Wallabies and is one of Australia’s greatest-ever flankers. He also won the 2003 John Eales Medal as the Wallabies best player of that year
The Waratahs stalwart played 139 Super Rugby games before retiring in 2011
Waugh (centre) was known for playing with tremendous heart and toughness despite his relatively small frame
The 2003 John Eales Medallist for the Wallabies’ best player, even competed in the Sydney to Hobart, before forging a hugely successful career in banking after completing two Masters during his playing days.
And he will attack his new challenge – his first CEO appointment – with the same gusto he had with Gilbert ball in hand.
‘I see it as quite exciting, I like ambition, I like leaning in and having a crack. I certainly played my rugby that way, I intend to lead rugby in the same way,’ Waugh said on Tuesday.
He’d been the raging favourite to replace Marinos after his shock resignation in March, and McLennan insisted after an external search that Waugh was ‘hands down’ the best person for the job.
One of his first jobs will be to re-connect Rugby Australia with fans and grassroots rugby, after a decade of disconnect and accusations of only prioritising the game’s relationship with the private school system.
Super Rugby standards are falling on the field, and fans have turned away in droves, though the popularity of the Shute Shield in Sydney has been revived after a period of neglect from the top brass.
Super Rugby (pictured is a crowd at a Waratahs v Rebels clash in round 12) desperately needs to reconnect with fans
Waugh said it was crucial to rectify that.
‘Over time, people are making choices about whether they go to club games or they go to Super Rugby games,’ he said.
‘When I was playing, you’d you to your club game and then go support your club players at the Super Rugby game.
‘It’s really important we go back to that, and put our best Super Rugby players into clubs and then we bring club supporters into Super Rugby and Test matches.
‘I do think there’s been a huge separation over time. The game starts and ends at our clubs.’
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