The only surprise with Todd Greenberg’s departure from his role as NRL chief executive was the timing. And given the concerted media attack in recent days, perhaps even that wasn’t a shock. Greenberg was off with chairman Peter V’landys and there is not a long list of those who have fallen out of favour with the ARLC boss and survived.
Greenberg’s cards were essentially marked last September. Peter Beattie, after his beleaguered tenure, announced he would step down as ARLC chairman. Peter V’landys was emerging as his likely replacement. Already widely regarded as a strongman with enormous political clout and a penchant for imposing his will, the knock on him was that he would struggle to run both Racing NSW and the NRL.
Greenberg saw this as an opportunity to assert his power in the game. He canvassed behind the scenes to stop V’landys’ ascension. It was a play that was reckless and ignorant. A train was powering at full steam and he failed to heed the warning. It was a fundamental misevaluation of power – both his and that of the oncoming train.
V’landys’ influence is significant. When it comes to sporting administration in Australia, he is a strongman who has built his base on an ability to deliver, force of personality and sheer will. While his power is relatively unprecedented in recent times in Australian sport, his ability to influence and dictate is hardly a secret. A man who is willing to argue that the Melbourne Cup should be moved is a man afraid of nobody and a man not concerned about either enemies or political chicanery.
It was only a matter of time once V’landys was appointed ARLC chairman that Greenberg would be gone. The drums were beating at the start of the season that changes were afoot but the coronavirus pandemic seemed to stave off the firing squad. It was thought he would at least be able to see the return of the game but it has been widely reported that V’landys has been frustrated with the lack of action and delivery from the executive team. Those of action are often irked by those who cannot deliver. V’landys is a doer. Optics mean little to him.
Combined with the stinging criticism delivered by Nine of Greenberg’s administration and the need for the chairman to increasingly involve himself in operational matters, it was clear Greenberg’s days were numbers. He had lost the confidence of his boss to do the job.
There was a considerable lack of concern in clubland about the leadership and performance of NRL HQ to boot. While it was labeled “bloated” last week by Nine boss Hugh Marks, the bigger concern for clubs was the decided lack of output.
With Greenberg, there was lots of sizzle but very little steak. There were trust issues in clubland, no doubt, and only some had to do with finances. The money issues around grant funding and distress fund discrepancies were fairly minor compared to a lack of faith that Greenberg could see a project that would deliver significant benefits for the game from beginning to end. The belief had already calcified that there was more talk than action coming out of HQ when the curtain finally fell on Greenberg’s tenure at the top. At its crux, according to one powerbroker, was that Greenberg could not make the tough decisions.
There is no question that a lot was achieved in his time as NRL boss – the rise of NRLW and the more consistent approach to off-field behavioural issues come to mind. The failings were far too large to overcome, though. The hugely expensive digital project became a white elephant of gargantuan proportions that lived up to all its cost while delivering very few tangible benefits. Hats were hung on The Bunker but that proved to be nothing more than an expensive shiny object that did not improve decision-making accuracy or speed one iota due to a failure to tackle the more complex underlying issues. Delivering commercial outcomes to future-proof the game was always tomorrow’s problem.
Projects were started. Initiatives announced. Rules changed. People hired. People fired. But end-to-end delivery was rare. Projects stalled. Commitments were not followed through. There was too much concern about optics and not enough about substance.
In the end it left Greenberg alone and it left him vulnerable. Even with the support of clubs it would be unlikely he could have survived if he was in the crosshairs of V’landys. Without the backing of the clubs though, he was a bus driver without a bus.
Rugby League has often flirted with democracy. It has dabbled in consensus politics. For the most part though, it is the strongman that survives and the strongman that thrives. Todd Greenberg just didn’t have the style that was going to inspire support and quieten doubters. He is a politician. He is not a strongman. And he could not stop one.