Rugby League: Moffett insists conversion is no miracle

The new head of rugby league in Australia has some bridges to build following an unfortunate jibe at the game.
RUGBY LEAGUE in its most vital stronghold is in the hands of a man who once memorably described it as "five tackles and a kick". The world of sports administration produces strange bedfellows and the arrival of David Moffett - four years in charge of rugby union in New Zealand - as chief executive of the National Rugby League back home in Australia might appear one of the oddest events of the lot.

However, Moffett, when you scratch the surface, is neither as Australian nor as new to rugby league as his resume suggests.

Speaking on only his second day in his new office at Fox Studios in Sydney, Moffett revealed the shocking information that he was born in Doncaster and has always been a fan of rugby league.

"I was brought up in Kenya and East Africa and completed my education in Brisbane," he said. "I used to go down to Lang Park and watch the league there. Growing up in Australia at the time you couldn't help being exposed to league.

"I haven't mentioned this before, but I named my son after Graeme Langlands, because I thought as a full-back he was the ultimate."

If this all smacks of a man inventing a rugby league past for himself, Moffett insists that he is an all-purpose sports nut. It is through the rugby union scene in Sydney, however, that he made his mark, as a player until a serious knee injury put an end to that, then as a referee and an administrator, forcing through a series of restructuring measures slightly less controversial than the ones that Australian rugby league itself has undergone.

New Zealand, and the growth of Super 10 and Super 12, also cast him in a high profile role on the world rugby union stage, although he says that he never stopped watching rugby league or lost his respect for it.

That respect was well disguised in his infamous "five tackles and a kick" quote. Given league's sensitivity to criticism from union, that remark follows him into his new job like a loaded revolver, quite apart from the opportunity it provides to some, in the wake of the recent rugby union World Cup, to characterise his old code as "five kicks and a tackle". His defence is better than that sometimes seen in his former game. "Phil Gould [the then New South Wales rugby league coach] had just attacked my sport by calling Super 12 touch footy. People would expect me to defend my sport and that's what I did. It has to be seen in the context of me having a crack back at what Phil Gould had said."

Perhaps a more serious concern than past indiscretions is whether there is some sort of hidden agenda behind the appointment of a rugby union man to run the 13-man code.

The NRL is controlled by Rupert Murdoch's News Limited, which also dominates international rugby union. The word reunification has been used in the context of Moffett's arrival more often than a referee's whistle in either code.

"The only people who think that is going to happen are people who are unaware of the differences between the two codes," he insists. "There might be a few administrators who think it's a good idea, but that's coming from rugby union rather than rugby league. If you ask the fans of either game you'd have no support."

Australia's success in the rugby union World Cup has inevitably thrown the relationship between the two codes of rugby in that country into the spotlight, although Moffett does not believe that the Wallabies' victory will change the situation in which union is a niche attraction and rugby league the mass market. But he, of course, was not there to see his homeland win in Cardiff. News of his defection saw him leave the World Cup unceremoniously, but not, he says, because he was kicked out by the NZRU.

"That's the biggest amount of garbage I've ever seen published," he says of those reports. "When I was offered this job, I wanted to get back to New Zealand to hand over to my successor. If people are saying otherwise, that reflects badly on the people who are running that game."

Moffett was in the running for another of world sport's bigger and thornier jobs, with the Football Association. "But in the end I would rather come back to Australia."

That part might be understandable, but there are those in that country who would question why any otherwise sane individual would be so mad as to want the hot seat at the NRL, surrounded as it is by unresolved controversies, not the least of which is a legal case by the expelled South Sydney club to stop the launch of next season without them.

Add to that the continuing bitterness in the aftermath of the Super League wars and the parlous financial state of many clubs and it hardly looks like a bed of roses.

"So I'm looking forward to it enormously. A lot of the hard work has been done; most of the heartache is over."

As Moffett says that, you cannot fail to notice over his shoulder and through the window that one of the shops in the Fox Studios complex is called Fantasy Land.

We will see how he feels about the relatively smooth road he sees ahead when he has copped a few more kicks and tackles in his new role and his new game.