Dave Smith: an NRL stranger

From the very beginning Dave Smith was a stranger in a strange land.

He was a Welsh banker parachuted in as the head of a fiercely tribal, sometimes cannibalistic, factional code, which he knew little about.

In truth Smith probably didn’t realise what he was getting into.

He insisted the fans were the NRL’s most important shareholders but hardly endeared himself to them by failing to know who Kangaroos captain Cameron Smith was.

He also spoke of the talents of Benji Barba at the 2013 season launch, confusing two of the game’s best players in Ben Barba and and Benji Marshall.

“You have good days and you have bad days, of course you regret those sort of things,” Smith said.

In announcing he was quitting from his role as NRL CEO on Tuesday, Smith pulled the curtain down on a tumultuous three-year reign.

He was a often a target of criticism in the media, but there is no doubt he has sorted out the game’s finances which were in a dire state upon the departure of former boss David Gallop at the end of 2012.

The NRL announced a $50 million profit earlier this year, as Smith declared the game had never been in better shape.

Finances aside, there were other fires to put out.

Smith’s regime dealt well with the ASADA drama that engulfed Australian sport, especially in comparison to the mess the AFL continue to deal with.

“In terms of ASADA, I’m proud of where we got to there, there was never going to be an amazing outcome,” he said.

“You only have to look at where Cronulla, under Damian Keogh’s leadership this year, ended up with the job they did on the field this year.

“Through that whole saga we created an integrity unit which is a significant backbone to the off-field strengthening of this game.”

Smith’s ‘one punch and you are off’ edict issued after an incident involving Nate Myles and Paul Gallen during the 2013 State of Origin series eliminated the biff from the game virtually overnight.

“This is an amazingly tough gladiatorial sport, an amazing thing to watch, it is enhanced by the fact it is tough and it is close and it is skilful, it is not enhanced by gratuitous violence,” Smith said.

“I’m proud of that and any impact it may have had upon society where it is not okay to coward punch somebody on a Saturday night in Kings Cross.”

The big question mark that remains over Smith’s legacy is the NRL’s new TV deal, which is still being negotiated.

The NRL trumpeted a $925 million deal for 2018-2022 with Channel Nine that broke new ground in terms of free-to-air coverage.

But it was swamped days later by the AFL’s $2.5 billion deal for 2017-2022 encompassing free-to-air, pay TV and digital components.

“I have every confidence that we will do an amazing rights deal that will be contemporary and set for the future for our fans,” Smith said.

“I wouldn’t be leaving if I didn’t think that was the case.”

So it will be up to others to conclude a deal that is vital for rugby league’s financial security and one that will impact upon the legacy that Smith has left.

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