After years at the foot of the NRL, South Sydney Rabbitohs are enjoying a reversal of fortunes in the NRL.
Now owned by Hollywood superstar Russell Crowe and successful businessman Peter Holmes a Court, the Rabbitohs have made a bright start to 2007. Their Chief Executive is Shane Richardson and I spoke to him for Rugby League World in 2008 to discuss the famous Redfern club and his time in England with Gateshead Thunder and Hull FC.
You must be pleased with how Souths began this season.
Yes we are although we’ve lost a couple of close ones recently that would have had us in the top four but we’re a long way from where we’ve been in the past. We’re rebuilding the club and it’ll take a little while to do it.
What are the main changes you’ve instigated?
Wherever you are, you’ve always got to make sure you’ve got an administration and a board that you’re able to work with and feel comfortable with. The front office has to be right and, of course, a quality coaching team has to be there. You’ve also got to bring in the right players with the right attitude – regardless of their age – and if you do that you’re a chance of turning the club around. You can bring in the best players in the world but if their attitude’s crap and they’re not willing to work with the team then you might as well not have them there in the first place. In Roy Asotasi, Nigel Vagana, Dean Widders and David Kidwell we’ve bought in great leaders with great attitude. There’s also Jeremy Smith who’s a real competitor. He had a bit of a turbulent youth but he’s turned that around and we’ve got him in the prime of his career.
What roles do your owners Peter Holmes a Court and Russell Crowe play at the club?
I’ve been in the game for 25 years and Russell and Peter have been nothing but a breath of fresh air. They bring new thoughts into the game and our corporate performance has doubled. They’ve poured money into infrastructures like IT and training facilities and they’ve really given me a free hand in doing whatever needs to be done to make the club successful and I couldn’t be happier with them. Peter’s involved with the marketing and corporate side and he’s got an enormous amount of contacts which opens doors that we wouldn’t normally get through. Peter and Russell are always in the limelight so that takes pressure off me!
Was it a tough decision to part with Shaun McRae as coach given that the two of you go back a long way?
It was the hardest decision of my life. We still watch games together and I think he’s an excellent coach but it was my decision and one I felt was best for the club going forward. I felt Jason Taylor would be better for the job.
Was that based on what Jason did in the second half of last season after Brian Smith left Parramatta?
No because I’d already him employed him as assistant coach. I just felt that we needed to bring a new discipline into the club. It was very difficult for Shaun because he came here when we were in our worst position with money. We needed a change but people may have wanted a change of Chief Executive if we hadn’t turned things around. You’ve got to make tough decisions about people.
Did you expect to improve so quickly?
We’ve got better on the field quicker than I thought we would have done. There’s been a real revolution here with new owners and so many new players as well as the coach but we have a lot of things in place here to ensure that those changes have been managed properly.
Recently we’ve seen the Warriors, Panthers and Cowboys go from the bottom of the table to Grand Finalists very quickly. Does that give you confidence?
Yes. We also turned Hull around and I was at Cronulla when they were bottom and we got things moving there so I know what can happen. The key to it all is having the finances and the backing. When I first went to Souths, we were a million dollars worse in debt that I’d been told and there was a two year battle off the field to make the changes we needed to be successful on it. With the right tools you can turn any club around.
Were the times at the Rabbitohs that you thought you’d never see any daylight?
Absolutely. I wanted to turn the greatest club in the history of the game into a Premiership threat again but like I said we were a million dollars more in debt that I’d been told and there were a lot of struggles. It’s been very difficult for my family at times but we’re moving in the right direction and hopefully we can get some results over the next 18 months.
How do you look back on your time in England?
I loved every minute of it especially at Hull. The fans and ourselves rebuilt that club up from the ground up to be totally honest. Those three years are up there with anything I’ve done and I’ve got very fond memories of my time there.
What about Gateshead? Are there any regrets?
Yes, absolutely. It was a classic example of being under-capitalised at the start of the business and, if that’s the case, then it won’t work out. I’ve got great regrets and I believe I let some of those people down and, until the day I die, I’ll know I did that. We paid everybody but money’s not everything and the sadness in their eyes when we had to shut the club down is something I’ll go to my grave with.
In 2009, we might see new franchises in England. Is there a danger that the RFL will make similar mistakes?
Absolutely. The AFL here in Australia has been very successful in expanding the game because they’ve been willing to spend a lot of money and to underwrite heavy losses over a period of time. Unless the governing body is prepared to do that then it’s commercial suicide. You fish where the fish are. I’m an expansionist in my views but the governing body has got to have a lot of money set aside. Having said that, the governing body over there has done a tremendous job in the last two years in rejuvenating the league, creating a feeling of independence and it’s not run by the big clubs. They leave us in Australia for dead in the way that they do that so I’m not a critic of them, I’m just saying that expansion is a very costly exercise and unless you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is, you may as well not do it.
When you came to England to run the Gateshead club, do you think the RFL were dealing more in hope and optimism rather than in sound business planning?
Absolutely. I went over there thinking there’d be all these shareholders but I had to end up putting all my own money in which had never been in my thoughts. Start-up costs are astronomical and the people involved, or the RFL, will have to have very deep pockets. You need to average around 8,000 to 10,000 crowds and that’s paying supporters, not free tickets. Otherwise, it’s impossible to do unless you have someone willing to put in a million and a half a year. I admire what they’re trying to do in London but, like with Melbourne, it’ll be a long time, a long long time, before you can turn things around. Fortunately, Melbourne is backed by News Limited, basically the NRL, who are willing to weather the losses. The RFL will have to do the same with new franchises because they’re going to be massive ones.
What did you think of the Millennium Magic weekend in Cardiff?
Well I wasn’t there but I’ve seen the RFL praise it and some clubs bagging it. If it was put on to put a team in Wales, then that’s not going to prove that there should be a Super League team in Wales, only that the Welsh wanted to go and watch an event. The only thing that does prove a Super League team should be there is strong financial viability. If it doesn’t have that then forget it.
From that point of view, there are similarities with the Leeds v Salford ‘on the road’ fixture that was played in Gateshead in 1999 in front of a crowd of 4,122 and the RFL believed that there was enough interest to set up a Super League club for 1999. Approximately 5,000 Welsh people turned up each day in Cardiff and the RFL appear delighted with that figure.
For that game in 1998, they’d given away so many free tickets that the gate revenue was only about 40% of what it should have been. In these situations, numbers are just crap. The commercial reality is that you’ve got to see what money is coming through the gate.
Moving onto Hull FC, you immediately had a competitive team because of the Gateshead players moving down there and you beat Wigan in the Challenge Cup almost immediately. Did that make your job easier?
It was an extremely difficult job because the fans had been kicked in the teeth for such a long period of time and they were angry and bitter. The turning point for us wasn’t the win over Wigan, it was the semi-final loss to Leeds when the crowd invaded the pitch because we were able to do things with the fan groups to turn around the attitude of the Hull fans that would have taken 50 years to do otherwise. When they looked like losing their club because of the disgraceful acts of a few on that day, all the fan groups got together with the administration to turn the Boulevard into a pleasant place to come to. We got the council involved with building the new stadium and they saw how serious we were about things. How devastated I felt at the end of that day was, for me, the real start of the regrowth of Hull FC to where it is today. It would have been easy to go home after that semi-final but I woke up the next morning determined to make it into the club that it is now. Likewise at South Sydney, I want to be here when we do turn this club around and when we do win our 21st Premiership. For all the smiles and happiness on the faces of the Hull fans when I left, I still see the images of disappointment on the Gateshead faces when I left there. It’s a very emotional thing.
What did you think when you heard Paul Cooke had crossed the city?
I was surprised. I knew he was always a KR boy and he’s not the first to do it. I’m sure the fans will be devastated and the Judas calls will come up. They even reckoned I’d bring him to Australia! Paul’s been through a tumultous time in his life. I’ve always thought he was a good bloke and will remain that way in my mind.
Why aren’t there more English players in the NRL and have you tried to sign any?
Firstly, the British player has got to want to come and he’s got to be prepared for the grind of 24 games of the highest intensity in the world of Rugby League. Very few people want to take that risk. Some players in England are just below that standard and others don’t want to take the risk. We talked to Sean Long a couple of years ago but I always got the feeling that he didn’t really want to test himself at that level so we pulled out of that. That’s why I admire Adrian Morley so much. Not only did he take the challenge, he also proved he was one of the best in the game. He actually changed the way the game is played over here and he never failed to put his body on the line.
Talk us through some of the good times at Hull FC.
I enjoyed the way the fans were. My son grew up playing football in the district. I used to love the games, the atmosphere and the singing. It epitomised everything I want to happen in Rugby League. It gave me a great warm feeling and I still get emails from people there. Hull is a great town and getting better every day. Working with the council to make the KC operational was fantastic and the legacy was the Challenge Cup win and the Grand Final appearance. All those things make me really proud of my involvement.