Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent, NRL.com
The Wests Tigers' new governance structure, agreed to in-principle by all major parties last month, is an extremely complex one. CEO Grant Mayer gave NRL.com an insight into how it will shake up the club.
Q: In a nutshell, what do the changes mean?
A: Nutshell's not easy. Since I've been in the chair for seven months, there's been consistent feedback from the fans regarding the club and one of the consistent negatives has been around the governance. We're close. For the last seven months, Balmain and Wests boards and the NRL have worked really hard to try and modernise that structure and they've all identified and agreed that having independence on that board is a really important part, because perception is reality. And whilst you have five Balmain and five Wests people on the board, there's always going to be a perception regarding ones way or the other. By adding true independence to the board (with two board members from each club and three independents under the new structure), it'll give us a modern look and remove that speculation.
How does it actually affect the football department?
My personal opinion is that it doesn't. It doesn't affect the individuals in the football department. It affects people outside the club. It gives people a talking point. I guess what we're trying to do, apart from modernising and going down the right path of a new independent structure, you're taking away that one extra talking point. We want people talking about their club - how much they love their club, how they want to become a member of their club and how we want to get the best players and retain the best players. That should be the talking point. A board should be there basically to set strategy and not be a discussion point. I think you'll find that across the game, across the world in sport, boards aren't often talked about. But there has certainly been situations this year and last year where this club's governance structure has been discussed and in everyone's opinion, too much.
There's been talk of star players not getting paid, and unpaid rent. Does it fix all that?
I don't think the governance structure has anything to do with it. It's two unrelated issues. It's money. You go back two or three years and 2010-11, the club was flying with great on-field performances. Walk into 2012 with high expectations around footy, we were hoping, wanting, desiring that on-field performance would allow us to continue operating a business. The reality is in rugby league and most sports that performance in NSW and Sydney is so closely aligned to financial returns that one bad year – 2012 – was disastrous financially. And 2013 has solidified that issue. So I guess the initial tipping point for the governance reform in the first place was that we needed to talk about our finances to the NRL. And fundamentally, until you get the governance structure right, the financial part can't come. Governance is close and the financial strength of the club will continue to grow.
Was talk over insolvency over the top?
It's a very emotional word, isn't it? The NRL have been heavily involved in the governance reform process for seven months. And even as recently as last week, I think we're all satisfied. The club is absolutely important, one to the game as a whole; and two, we're absolutely on the right track.
Are Balmain able to keep their end of the deal financially?
I don't know. The Balmain Leagues Club and the Balmain finances are separate, like Wests. So we have no engagement to that. Both parties through this process have been given the same opportunity to be involved with the Wests Tigers going forward. There are some triggers around it which I obviously don't want to talk about because it's quite private. But for me it's about equality and both parties have been given the chance to be part of it, with the three independents.
Once it's all signed, what will you do with the money the NRL is injecting? There's been talk of you moving out of Concord. Is that true?
The one thing we've got to be clear is that if the NRL invest in this business, it's a loan. That's fundamentally how it is. So we've got to treat it as a loan, it's not a revenue stream for us. But what we do get is that we take all the excuses away that you've heard in the newspaper. And whether it's right or wrong it's irrelevant.
For me there are new priorities: retaining our kids, retaining guys we spent a lot of years developing. That's number one. I think we're on track, signing [Aaron] Woods, Jesse Sue last year, obviously retaining [Luke] Brooks and [Mitchell] Moses, we're on the right track. We're getting there. There are a few more guys coming off contract this year that we want to retain and once that's all done and dusted we can think about other things. But right now we're a development club. We want to make sure we keep the kids we got. Retention's key there. Facilities is a massive part of what we do. I believe that, looking across both our code and the AFL code, to have the best football team, you need the best facilities. Both from a playing point of view and a training point of view. There's no doubt that Concord has served us really well. It's outstanding to have three football fields directly outside our door. But there's no doubt it's tired and needs some help. We're working overtime with state government and local council but the reality is they might not be able to help, so we've got to look at other options. The time frame realistically is the end of 2015 but I personally think, from a club point of view, it'd be great to be doing something and know where we're going by the end of this year. But I'm not going to rush it, I've just got to make sure that we get the right venue going forward. There are two or three options, we've just got to wait and see how it plays out.
Your salary cap: Do you have money to spend on high-profile signings with Benji Marshall now gone?
It's funny isn't it? A lot of the signings we've made are since Benji has gone. I can understand the thought that people think we'll have money to spare, but we could've gone to the market and let some of our young kids go throughout the process or we could've stuck solid to our young kids. Our very, very clear path is to make sure that we retain our young kids. If you look at the team [last] weekend you've got [James] Tedesco, [David] Nofoaluma, [Tim] Simona and you've got Chris Lawrence. Then you start talking about guys like Jesse Sue, Robbie Farah, Aaron Woods, Nathan Brown, Mitchell Moses ... the list goes on. There's not that many clubs that have the local talent coming through that we've got. For me, we've got to stay solid on our path, which is about retention. And then, if we're in a position where we can look at our longer-term strategic purpose, let's look at it. But right now it's retention.
Are you confident they can compete sooner rather than later?
I'm an administrator, not a coach. I'm always confident about something. But at the end of the day, that's the coaching department's job. But if I look at where we've come from last year with these guys to now, they've certainly all grown and they're [still] growing. They're 18, 19, 20-year-old kids that are growing. They've all played together since a very young age, so they're going to know each other's games. For me, that's got to tick a box. You look at our trial game against Cronulla a few weeks ago and whilst it's a trial, the attitude and defence was very different to last year. We'll know more obviously as the year goes on, but I can just see that the club's moving forward, and we'll be better than last year. And the aim in 2015 is to be better again. If we can do that, this club will be successful long-term.
Are you willing to stay patient with Mick Potter if the kids take time to develop?
I'd love to say I can come out and sign Mick tomorrow but that's not my responsibility. It's certainly my role but it's the board's decision. I think Mick's a realist. He understands that success is crucial. He's been recently quoted as saying that not making the eight in 2014 is unacceptable. So he's the hardest task-master himself. He'll know. Looking at our draw, we've got St George [Illawarra] and Gold Coast in the first two rounds and obviously winning is what we want to do, but being competitive is really important as well because then we play South Sydney and Manly in two of the next three weeks. Every week's tough but we've got to back ourselves. We want to see improvement.