Israel and Greece sign record defense deal

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JERUSALEM — Israel and Greece have signed their biggest ever defense procurement deal, which Israel said on Sunday would strengthen political and economic ties between the countries.

The agreement includes a $1.65 billion contract for the establishment and operation of a training center for the Hellenic Air Force by Israeli defense contractor Elbit Systems over a 22-year period, Israel’s defense ministry said.

The training center will be modeled on Israel’s own flight academy and will be equipped with 10 M-346 training aircraft produced by Italian company Leonardo, the ministry said.

Elbit will supply kits to upgrade and operate Greece’s T-6 aircraft and also provide training, simulators and logistical support.

“I am certain that (this program) will upgrade the capabilities and strengthen the economies of Israel and Greece and thus the partnership between our two countries will deepen on the defense, economic and political levels,” said Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz.

The announcement follows a meeting in Cyprus on Friday between the UAE, Greek, Cypriot and Israeli foreign ministers, who agreed to deepen cooperation between their countries.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch Editing by David Goodman)

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How AFL coaches deal with constant losing as North Melbourne’s David Noble prepares to take on Geelong Cats

Shaw said he sometimes tried to surprise opponents with unorthodox positions, for instance. “You can’t do that now because of 6-6-6,” he said. “And you can’t just keep changing things around without everyone losing confidence in the direction you’re taking.

“All you can do is keep testing them out, maybe find something that gels. You’ve got to be honest and upfront with them. And the players have to be honest with themselves. Are they that bad, or are they making excuses in the back of their heads?”

Denis Pagan in his Carlton days.Credit:Vince Caligiuri

Schwab said a proper understanding of your side’s capabilities mattered. “Hard as it is, you’ve got to be realistic,” he said. “Do we expect North to beat Geelong? Well, no. Then it’s a matter of how you monitor losses. Is it a really bad loss, or did we learn a bit?

Schwab noted that Noble was new to coaching, but steeped in the game. That would help. So would his expertise as a list-builder.

“You know there are a lot of holes to fill. That can become overwhelming,” he said. “You start to think you’ve got so many gaps. But you’re never going to fill them all straight away. You’ve got to be careful you don’t let it drown you.”

Schwab said it was only natural for self-doubt to creep in. “You start to think, is the game plan right?” he said. “He won’t worry about the players, because he can’t, because that’s his list for the year. He’ll be thinking about how do we want to play? What’s best in the long term?”

Peter Schwab is surrounded by the media when coaching Hawthorn.

Peter Schwab is surrounded by the media when coaching Hawthorn.
Credit:Vince Caligiuri

Shaw and Pagan both remember how vulnerable they felt. “Have a look at how close a good coach like Damien Hardwick was to getting the flick,” Shaw said. “He could have been one board member, or one ordinary administrator, one hour away from getting the sack. He would never have got the opportunity to do what he’s done.”

Pagan agreed. “You’ve got to have strong leadership, and I hope the people who are leading North understand that,” he said. “Most board members don’t really have an understanding of what goes on.”


In hard times, especially, everyone becomes an expert. “It’s like real estate [Pagan’s job now]. You give a price to the vendor. You sell,” he said. “Five minutes later, someone says you should have gone to auction, you should have sold before auction, you should have got $500,000 more. The same thing happens in football.”

Pagan said Noble had to trust himself. “You can do all these things and it will still be mission impossible,” he said. “But when you’re an AFL coach, that’s what you’ve got to do. Not many people will understand that. You’ve got to please yourself. That’s what I did at Carlton.”

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The half-price airfares deal begins today. Here’s what you need to know about the cheap flights

If you’re in desperate need of a holiday after a year under the shadow of coronavirus, you’re not alone. And today’s the day to book it.

The federal government is spending $1.2 billion on a stimulus program to get Australians to spend up big on domestic travel to support the struggling sector.

International travel is not an option until October at the earliest so it makes sense to travel at home.

Thirteen regions are included in the program, which features half-price airfares on the nation’s three major carriers: Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin.

So make your plans and get ready to book.

Here’s the list of destinations chosen on the basis of their reliance on tourism:

The tickets are on sale from today until the end of July, for travel through until the end of September.

Tickets are meant to be discounted by 50 per cent, according to prices in February. But the prices will be demand-driven and peak periods will cost more.

About 46,000 half-price fares will be offered each week, mostly with Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar.

The ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) will be monitoring the prices to make sure there’s no gouging.  

The airlines are directly benefiting from the program, so James Gilchrist Stewart from RMIT thinks it’s unlikely they’ll inflate their prices.

“However, with the end of JobKeeper coming at the same time as these cheap airfares, there’s a possibility accommodation providers and tourism operators may increase their pricing,” he says.

“The bigger question here is whether day trips, equipment hire and food and beverage suddenly get more expensive as tourism operators are desperate, especially as autumn and winter can be quiet at the best of times.

“Worst-case scenario is a $4 beer could cost $12.”

Chrystal Zhang, from RMIT, says demand, the time of day of the flight and the airline will all have an impact on prices.

She says it will likely only a limited number of half-price fares will be available in the first few weeks.

“Bargain hunters should look at routes like Darwin to Cairns, Adelaide to Gold Coast and Avalon to Gold Coast, with one-way fares likely to drop $50 to $80,” Ms Zhang says.

To get the best deals plan further ahead.  

“Travellers will have the best chance of getting a cheaper fare if they travel later in the eligible time frame (July, August and September) but avoid school holidays and weekends,” she says.

Queensland has four destinations on the list, but Brisbane isn’t one of them — which is good news, since most states are advising people not to travel there.

The best option is to plan as far ahead as you can and hope with more people being vaccinated that the impact of localised clusters will be limited.

The current situation in Queensland is enough to make anyone think twice about planning ahead.

Dr Stewart says the constant threat of border closures makes planning a holiday one big headache.  

“Every airline, accommodation and tourism operator have their own terms and conditions — meaning if there’s a lockdown or similar, consumers must unravel multiple contracts for one holiday,” he says.

So buyer beware and have options up your sleeve in case you need to change your plans.

Deputy Prime Minister and Transport Minister Michael McCormack says not every destination has been revealed, calling it an “initial list”.

After complaints, Darwin and Hobart have been added to the list.

Other states are angry that their cities have not been included.

Melbourne Airport isn’t included in the list. Western Australia’s only destination is Broome.

Travel within states has also been left out: so Queenslanders, for example, miss out on the airfares to the Whitsundays.

The only exception to that rule is Kangaroo Island: there are flights from Adelaide Airport.

Hopefully, as Australia’s vaccination program rolls out there will be fewer outbreaks and everyone can enjoy their holiday.

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Illinois’ Pritzker signs firefighter pension bill that Lightfoot slams as ‘backroom’ deal

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a firefighter pension bill into law this week that both Democratic Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Republicans in the state have called a “fiscally irresponsible” bill that will increase property taxes.

The new law removes an age restriction on a 3% cost-of-living increase that affects about 2,200 current and retired firefighters born after 1966, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

The governor said the law assures “fair treatment,” adding that he believes “hardworking men and women who have earned their pension shouldn’t pay the price for local or state budget challenges.”

Lightfoot had asked for the governor to veto the bill, which she said would create a “deeper financial burden” for Chicagoans already struggling during the pandemic.


Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker are seen in Chicago on Tuesday. (Associated Press)

She added that firefighters need to be “appropriately compensated” but stressed that an “unfunded” bill is the “exact wrong way to accomplish this goal.”

Republican House Deputy Minority Leader Tom Demmer agreed with Lightfoot that the law will make a “property tax increase inevitable.”


“Chicago taxpayers are on the hook for an additional $850 million thanks to Governor Pritzker signing HB2451 into law today,” Demmer said in a statement.

He added that Pritzker “continues his bad habit of spending hypothetical revenue” by bringing up the potential sale of the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago as a way to pay for the pension increases.

Lightfoot said the bill is “fiscally irresponsible and validates a Springfield practice of cutting backroom deals without full transparency and debate,” agreeing with Republicans that it would add an $18-30 million financial obligation that will necessitate another property tax increase.

The legislation was introduced by state Sen. Robert Martwick, a Democrat, and passed in January.


Martwick told the Sun-Times it makes the city “confront necessary, albeit really difficult, decisions about what they need to do with their finances, so that they can live up to the commitment to fund their pensions properly.” 

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South Sydney Rabbitohs approached Adam Reynolds with a two-year deal with an option, but it wasn’t enough

The North Queensland Cowboys are in the box seat to sign Reynolds. However, as reported by the Herald on Monday, clubs are concerned about Reynolds’ body after revelations – denied by Wayne Bennett on Wednesday – that he has been on a restricted training program since fracturing his vertebrae in 2019. Three clubs have told the the Herald about their reservations in signing Reynolds.


However the Cowboys find themselves in a desperate situation trying to turn the tide after a dismal start to the season and may be willing to take a punt on Reynolds and offer him a lucrative three-year deal to lead the revolution under new coach Todd Payten.

The Cowboys are expected to be without Michael Morgan, who is close to announcing an immediate retirement as he battles an ongoing shoulder injury, while dumped halfback Jake Clifford is bound for Newcastle next year.

There’s a feeling at the Rabbitohs that Reynolds’ manager, who also represents winger Alex Johnston, had hoped the same public outcry that helped earn the winger a new deal last year would have a similar impact this time around. Although the club has maintained the only reason it was able to re-sign Johnston was because of Ethan Lowe’s medical retirement and not the pressure from fans to extend one of their favourite sons.


Although moving on from South Sydney at the end of the year, coach Wayne Bennett said he would like to see the club find a way to keep the halfback.

“When you’ve got an experienced one, I don’t like to let him go,” he said. “I’m not going to be here, it’s not my team next year. I’m not the one who is going to coach it and manage it so it’s the club prerogative.

“It will not derail us. It will not derail him, he is not bitter and twisted about it. He understands.”

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Northern Territory flights featured in half-price travel deal

Travellers will be able to obtain half-priced airfares to Darwin, Alice Springs and Uluru under the Federal Government’s $1.2 billion tourism package.

Federal Tourism Minister Dan Tehan and Country Liberal Party NT senator Sam McMahon confirmed on Thursday that Darwin is included in the list of destinations targeted in the package.

An initial list released by the government did not include Darwin.

NT tourism operators who have been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic welcomed the announcement.

The price of nearly 800,000 airline tickets will be halved with the aim of enticing Australians to travel interstate for their holidays.

Tourism Central Australia welcomed flights to Alice Springs from Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.

“We’re certainly very much keen and looking forward to the upcoming season, where we’ll hopefully see a lot more people coming to Central Australia.”

Flights to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park are included in the scheme.(

ABC audience contributor Eleni Curry


Top End tourism operators expressed disappointment when the initial program list included only two outbound flights from Darwin, to Broome and Cairns.

But Senator McMahon said she spoke with Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack on Wednesday evening and “demanded Darwin be added to the list”.

“I am delighted to have been able to secure this important addition to the list, which will benefit the whole of the Northern Territory,” Senator McMahon said.

The discounted tickets will be offered between April and July, for travel through until the end of September, the Territory’s prime tourist season.

“This is a real opportunity to put bums on seats and bums on beds for our tourism industry that has been on its knees for the last 12 months.”

A close-up of CLP senator Sam McMahon.
Sam McMahon is a CLP senator for the Northern Territory.(

ABC News


It was a sentiment shared by the Mutitjulu Community Aboriginal Corporation.

“As long as COVID is under control in Australia and we keep the same flights from the same places, it’s a good thing to get more tourists to Uluru,” said CEO Thalia Bohl-van den Boogaard.

In August last year, members of the group blocked the entrance to the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park following a flight from Brisbane — then a hotspot — landing in Yulara.

“It’s what the [Ayers Rock] Resort needs, but it’s also what our businesses need and what the community needs to make some money,” Ms Bohl-van den Boogaard said.

But Mr Rochford said he was still concerned about businesses on the cliff-face once the JobKeeper wage subsidy ends later this month.

“The support measures have not targeted these businesses, which we’re certainly concerned about.”

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Are Melbourne Demons the real deal in 2021?

The Demons are 3-0 this season – their best start since 2005.

Is the steel that we’ve been looking for from Melbourne finally here?

This week on the Real Footy podcast, Michael Gleeson, Jake Niall and Caroline Wilson discuss Melbourne and whether it’s too soon to say they’re back to their 2018 form. Though they haven’t faced particularly strong teams, there are some definitive, positive takeaways after three games.

There’s praise for Christian Petracca, who has become a star, Max Gawn, who dominated against GWS and the recruiting that landed Kozzie Pickett, who is providing brilliant highlights and draws comparisons to a young Eddie Betts.

Also this week, the Swans are flying at 3-0 after their big win over Richmond and it’s their young brigade bringing the most excitement. But clubs are already beginning to “rumble” about the Swans’ academy – what will it mean for any cost of living offsets in the future? And while no one is writing the Tigers off, will the new rules prove to be an issue and enable teams to beat them more easily? Will we see a new, evolved game plan from Richmond before the end of the season?

Meanwhile, the Saints were upset by the Bombers in round three and it highlighted just how much they have missed their rucks, especially Paddy Ryder. But there was a bigger issue when it came to effort and intensity from St Kilda. Is it a larger issue with the type of personnel the Saints have? Or is it more about buy-in from the players?

Plus, Josh Kelly’s contract and where it leaves the Giants going forward, why the Eagles are a premiership threat, why the Pies should start playing the kids, and are we seeing a changing of the guard at the top of the table?

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will a new CEO and TV deal make the game successful again?

It’s a balmy evening in January, and the Pearl Ballroom at Sydney’s Crown Towers is looking its finest, with its theatre-style curtains and platinum-coloured wall panelling, its floating chandeliers and mirrored ceiling. Chef Guillaume Brahimi has outdone himself, dishing up a tartare of yellowfin tuna for entrée followed by minute steak with Cafe de Paris butter. There is pinot gris, shiraz and chardonnay, and here to enjoy it, the premier cru of Australian rugby union’s gilded past: David Campese, John Eales and Nick Farr-Jones; the fridge-like Phil Kearns, Gary Ella and even Eric Tweedale, who, at the age of 99, is the oldest living Wallaby. They’re all here, the great and good of “the game they play in heaven”, grazing at the table like buffalo at a watering hole. It’s a rugby Valhalla, with pistachio gateau for dessert.

Tonight’s event has been organised by Rugby Australia, the game’s governing body, with the express purpose of picking a permanent colour for the national jersey. The national team, the Wallabies, have traditionally worn gold, but over the decades that gold has morphed like a lava lamp from the warm ochre of the 1980s to a burnt orange and even, most recently, a traffic-stopping yellow.

“A picture says a thousand words,” Hamish McLennan, RA’s chairman, told the media in the lead-up to the event. “It [the constant colour changes] shows the madness of our inconsistency.”

Tall and urbane, with thick, dark hair, McLennan, who took over the role in June 2020, radiates charm and capability, with the casual confidence of a man who enters a job interview with another offer in his back pocket. He’s positioned tonight’s event as an exercise in unity and esprit de corps, a way of honouring history while building for the future. “We need to decide,” he tells me. “The symbolism is important.”

The fans have already spoken: in an online poll conducted by The Sydney Morning Herald, most popular among the 13,300 votes cast was the jersey worn by the Wallabies in 1991, the year Australia won its first Rugby World Cup. McLennan has said the poll result will have a bearing on tonight. “After all, the fans own the jersey.”

Rugby legends mull over which jersey to pick as permanent Wallabies colours.  From left, Phil Kearns, Gary Ella, Bob Dwyer, David Campese and Tim Gavin.

Rugby legends mull over which jersey to pick as permanent Wallabies colours. From left, Phil Kearns, Gary Ella, Bob Dwyer, David Campese and Tim Gavin.Credit:Edwina Pickles

Soon, the voting begins. There are eight jerseys to choose from. As each one is presented to the room, there’s a show of hands and the numbers noted. Another jersey, more hands, more numbers. A certain dissonance arises: we’re told to forget nostalgia and think about the future, but nostalgia is built into the process. Indeed, for Australian rugby fans, traumatised by decades of defeat, nostalgia is all they have left.

In the end, after several rounds of increasingly raucous voting, of good-natured heckling and faux outrage, the number of jerseys has been whittled down, from eight to six to four to two, and finally, the winner, as duly presaged, the 1991 World Cup-winning design.

Most agree it’s a victory for good taste and sound judgment. But it is also, inevitably, a victory for nostalgia. Once again, to everyone’s relief, Australian rugby is going back to the future.

It’s hard to imagine now, but once upon a time Australians were very good at playing rugby union. The Wallabies won World Cups in 1991 and 1999. In 2000, they retained the Bledisloe Cup against the New Zealand All Blacks for the third year running, and took out the Tri Nations Series, beating the All Blacks and the Springboks, the national team of South Africa. The NSW Waratahs ranked alongside the AFL’s Collingwood and the NRL’s Brisbane Broncos as one of the country’s most recognised sporting brands.

The game brought in big money and colossal crowds: more than 109,000 packed in to Sydney’s Stadium Australia in 2000 to watch the Wallabies and the All Blacks play what has been described as “the greatest ever rugby match”. In 2001, the Wallabies won a three-Test series against the British & Irish Lions. Two years later, when Australia hosted the World Cup, rugby was, for perhaps the first time in its history, a mainstream sport in which the broad mass of Australians were emotionally invested.

The period since then has been a waking nightmare for Australian rugby. The Wallabies have slumped from second in the world to seventh. We haven’t won a Bledisloe Cup since 2002. Crowds and TV audiences have plummeted. There have been intermittent victories over the All Blacks and others; Australia even made the World Cup final in 2015. But such victories have invariably been followed by humiliating defeats, a pattern of false dawns that has bred within the rugby community a culture of scepticism and apathy.

“Rugby is on the bones of its arse right now … and what you’re left with is a bunch of huge men, who we don’t know, running into one another.”

Thousands of fans have drifted away to rugby league or Aussie Rules, disillusioned not only with the on-field performances but with the game’s dysfunctional governance. Despite being run by a coterie of investment bankers and private equity chiefs, rugby has lurched from one financial crisis to another, in some cases staving off insolvency with emergency loans.

“Rugby is on the bones of its arse right now,” says columnist and author Peter FitzSimons. “There used to be a magic and romance to it, and now that magic is gone, and what you’re left with is a bunch of huge men, who we don’t know, running into one another.”

FitzSimons, 59, appeared in seven Tests for the Wallabies in 1989-90, “when we played for the honour of it,” he says, “and got paid $50 a day.” He embodies a certain amateur-era type; grizzled and voluble, given to self-mythologising, with a face that appears to have been hurriedly chiselled from a block of salt.

Like many fans, FitzSimons, who infamously started an all-in brawl against France in 1990 at the Sydney Football Stadium, mourns the raw colour of amateur rugby and the figures it produced: Ray Price and David Campese, the dancing Ella brothers and Roger Gould, with quads like bags of concrete; players like Greg Cornelsen, who cowed the All Blacks with four tries at Eden Park in 1978, and Stan Pilecki, who was once interrupted smoking a cigarette when called off the bench for a Wallabies match in Argentina.

“Rugby has lost its theatre,” says FitzSimons. “There are no characters any more. Now we have 15 professional footballers whom no one can relate to. The key is to know who is representing us again, to care about them, and to see them win.”

There have, in fact, been some wins of late, albeit off the field. For the past 25 years rugby has been broadcast on Foxtel, majority owned by Rupert Murdoch. When the rights became available in 2020, Foxtel offered $31 million a year, down from an annual $57 million payment since 2015. In November last year, McLennan and interim CEO Rob Clarke declined the offer, signing instead with Nine Entertainment Co. (publisher of Good Weekend), in a deal worth $100 million over three years.


The deal, which starts this year, includes the rights to Wallabies Tests, the women’s game, including the national team, the Wallaroos, and the club schedule. It also covers Super Rugby, a provincial competition which has in the past featured teams from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and Japan. (The competition has since become an Australia-only model, due to COVID-19.)

Most importantly, the agreement involves a commitment to show a weekly Saturday night Super Rugby game on the Nine Network – the first time the competition has been given a free-to-air platform.

The Nine deal is widely seen as the last best hope for the code. McLennan tells me it could reactivate “rugby’s latent fan base”, a secret army of followers waiting to emerge from their basements wearing Wallabies scarves and waving gold flags.

“The problem before was exposure,” says McLennan. “A lot of people didn’t actually see rugby because they couldn’t afford pay TV. Now with free-to-air, suddenly rugby is going to be more front of mind. Kids will see it and they will want to play, and that makes it bigger, and more money will come into the game.”

“It’s really exciting,” says Stephen Moore, former Wallabies skipper and 129-Test veteran. “[McLennan] is a smart guy and 100 per cent committed to the game being its best.” But Moore acknowledges that rugby’s problems are bigger than a broadcast deal. “The state of the game here is so bad at the moment that it has to be transformed totally. For too long we’ve papered over the problems, and look where that’s got us.”

The Wallabies walk off the field after yet another defeat against the All Blacks, in the 2011 World Cup.

The Wallabies walk off the field after yet another defeat against the All Blacks, in the 2011 World Cup.Credit:Getty Images

In 2017, Rugby Australia moved into a new headquarters, a gleaming, cobalt-blue glass and steel structure in Moore Park, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. There’s a high-performance gym, a 600-square-metre indoor training area and a rooftop running track. From the second-floor boardroom, where I’ve come to meet RA’s new CEO, Andy Marinos, you can see the construction site of the former Sydney Football Stadium, once home to so many of rugby’s mythic victories, and which now, in a metaphor almost too obvious to mention, has been reduced to an enormous crater.

Marinos, 48, has a close-cropped beard and a torso like a concrete bollard. He played rugby at the provincial level in South Africa, where he grew up, and also for Wales, in the early 2000s (he has Welsh ancestry). He then moved into administration, managing the South African Rugby Union. For the past five years, he’s been based in Sydney as the CEO of SANZAAR, the body that runs Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship, an international competition between Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Marinos has arrived at RA at a turbulent time, even by the turbulent standards of Australian rugby. Last year saw the rancourous departure of the then CEO Raelene Castle, a global pandemic and record financial losses. “Rugby has been through a lot,” he says. “But COVID is an inflection point. It gives you the opportunity to restart.”

One of his immediate priorities is financial stability. “That way we can stop being reactive and start being more strategic about how we’re wanting to do things.” The money from Nine should right the ship in the short term. But repairing the game in the long run and making the Wallabies win again will be infinitely harder.

“Rugby has been through a lot, but COVID is an inflection point. It gives you the opportunity to restart.”

“There are so many constituent parts,” says Marinos. “Creating pathways for the players, managing stakeholders, the sponsors, fans and the community game.”

He believes his outsider status is an advantage. “I’m not caught up in the things that happened [in Australian rugby] in the past,” he says. “I don’t have any preference for a particular state, place or person.” He’s free, then, to begin “rugby’s journey of renewal, one that is about being genuine, authentic and listening to people.”

I must look sceptical. “It’s a fantastic opportunity!” he says. “But it’s going to take time to fix. And it’s not going to be easy.”

Almost everyone has a different take on why Australian rugby is broken. Some blame the referees; others blame the rules; it’s AFL’s fault, or rugby league’s. It’s stupid coaches, overpaid players, inept leadership. When I ask Eric Tweedale what he thinks the problem is, he says it all began when the game went professional, which seems as good a place to start as any.

According to legend, rugby began in 1823, at Rugby School in England. For most of its history, it was staunchly amateur. But successive World Cups, in 1987, 1991 and 1995, saw the game explode in popularity, increasing the demands on players, who insisted on being paid. In 1995, the three most powerful southern hemisphere rugby unions, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, formed a body called SANZAR, to oversee Super Rugby and the Tri Nations. SANZAR approached Rupert Murdoch, who paid $US555 million over 10 years for the rights to broadcast the games on his nascent cable network, Foxtel. Sensing the momentum, the world’s governing body, the International Rugby Board, declared the game professional in 1995.


Australia’s cut of the broadcast rights was $35 million a year. Despite this, the game’s peak body, then called Australian Rugby Union, remained an amateur outfit, with no fewer than 21 committees overseeing everything from finances to player selection. The committees were run by honoraries, whose positions as such gave them considerable status within the rugby community, not to mention good parking and the best seats at games. When former NSW State Bank chief John O’Neill became CEO of the ARU in 1995, he set about abolishing the committees outright, seeding a bitter antipathy from the honoraries, or the “blazer brigade” as he called them, that would bedevil rugby for years to come.

O’Neill didn’t want for confidence. (In his 2007 book, It’s Only a Game, he writes of becoming “quite depressed” to discover how “over-qualified” he was for the job.) But there was no doubting his ability. He broadened the game’s appeal, boosted participation, and presided over the hugely successful 2003 World Cup in Australia which left the ARU with a $45 million profit. He also attempted to centralise authority and take power away from the states, particularly NSW and Queensland, whose squabbling had hobbled the game for years. “They didn’t like that,” he tells me. “They thought I was too influential.”

After the 2003 World Cup, O’Neill still had a year on his contract, and intended to stay until 2007. But his enemies had other ideas. In late 2003, O’Neill, then acknowledged as one of the country’s finest sports administrators, was pushed out. Rugby writer Peter Jenkins wrote that O’Neill’s “only crime was being high-profile, and of daring to challenge his directors”. Australian rugby had begun a long tradition of shooting itself in the foot.

From left, former Australian Rugby Union boss Gary Flowers; John O’Neill, who was pushed out as ARU CEO after antagonising the “blazer brigade”; Bill Pulver is one of eight Shore old boys to be Rugby Australia and NSWRU officeholders in recent times.

From left, former Australian Rugby Union boss Gary Flowers; John O’Neill, who was pushed out as ARU CEO after antagonising the “blazer brigade”; Bill Pulver is one of eight Shore old boys to be Rugby Australia and NSWRU officeholders in recent times.Credit:Edwina Pickles; AAP; Daniel Munoz

O’Neill and his deputy Matt Carroll had wanted to put the $45 million World Cup windfall in a trust. “The idea was that it’d be a future fund,” says Carroll, who is now CEO of the Australian Olympic Committee. “If they’d invested that money back then, it’d probably be worth $100 million now and be producing a yearly income for rugby.”

But they didn’t. Instead, the money was given to the state unions and ploughed into a new competition called the Australian Rugby Championship (ARC), featuring eight teams from around the country. The ARC, which was announced in mid-2006 by then CEO, Gary Flowers, was intended as a pathway from the club system to Super Rugby. But the model was flawed from the outset. The teams had no history and no local followings. It was expensive and attracted almost no sponsorship. It also detracted from the established club scenes in Sydney and Brisbane, angering the game’s grassroots. By the end of the first season, the ARC had lost $4.7 million, with forecast losses of $8 million by the end of 2008.

At the same time, the ARU was struggling with inflated player salaries. When rugby went professional in 1995, Murdoch had faced competition from rugby league, which had attempted to sign up most of rugby’s best players. At the same time, fellow media mogul Kerry Packer was backing a rival competition called World Rugby Corporation. Players were in demand, and in order to win, Murdoch was forced to pay top dollar. Salaries skyrocketed, and were pushed even higher thanks to competition from cashed-up clubs in the northern hemisphere, some of which had billionaire owners.

“In comparison to other sports, rugby players were getting a higher proportion of the revenues,” says management consultant Michael Crawford, who has advised the ARU for 20 years. “This left less money for development and created further anger at the community level.”

Flowers stood down in 2007, opening the way for O’Neill and Carroll to return. They immediately scrapped the ARC. But the performance of the Wallabies, the financial engine of Australian rugby, was going from bad to worse. In 2009, Australia lost four matches to the All Blacks, two to the Springboks, and one to Scotland. Super Rugby was also faltering. The three Australian teams, the ACT Brumbies, the NSW Waratahs and the Queensland Reds, had all at one time or another enjoyed considerable success. In 2006, a fourth Australian team, the Perth-based Western Force, was added to the competition, followed by a fifth team, the Melbourne Rebels, in 2011. The idea was to give the game a national footprint and generate more broadcast dollars.

But it soon became apparent that Australia didn’t have enough talent to go around. According to a 2017 Senate standing committee report into the future of Australian rugby, the expansion from three to four to five teams saw a step down in performance, from Australian sides winning 60 per cent of their games to 50 per cent to 40 per cent. When the teams began to go broke, their owners – the state unions – ran to the ARU for a handout. By the end of 2011, the national body was funding the Super Rugby outfits to the tune of $25 million a year.

The obvious answer was private ownership. “In the US and Europe, 90 per cent of professional sporting clubs are privately owned and have strong business models,” says Colin Smith, director of the advisory firm, Global Media and Sports. “And that’s because they focus on the profit motive.”

“The parochialism and backward thinking is crippling rugby. It’s a self-made destruction.”

In 2008, Smith was charged by the ARU with getting the state unions to consider private ownership. But according to Smith, “the general reaction [from the states] was, ‘Under no circumstances’.” A board member of one union told Smith that he didn’t want to sell his Super Rugby team because he might miss out on free tickets to the games. “The thinking [was] incredibly myopic,” says Smith. “It just shows a complete lack of understanding of how the business of sports works.”

Smith has worked in sports for 30 years. There is virtually no market that he has not run the ruler over, no major club that he has not scrutinised. But rugby is special to him. “The first game I attended was in the early ’90s at Twickenham between England and the Barbarians. It was absolutely scintillating, and I was hooked.” But he now despairs for the game in Australia. “The parochialism and backward thinking is crippling rugby. It’s a self-made destruction.”

Dejected Wallabies players after losing to Argentina in 2018. The once high-flying national team has slipped to seventh in the world rankings.

Dejected Wallabies players after losing to Argentina in 2018. The once high-flying national team has slipped to seventh in the world rankings.Credit:Getty Images

Rugby is played in more than 120 countries, with 9.6 million registered players worldwide. Outside Australia, the game is booming: the 2019 Rugby World Cup, held in Japan, drew a total broadcast audience of 857 million over six weeks. (When Japan played Scotland, 54.8 million people in Japan watched it on television, nearly half the population.) Such events showcase the lore and legend of each national team, together with their signature playing styles: the mercurial French, the doughty Scots, the flamboyant Fijians, and the Welsh, whose scrum could push down mountains.

The Wallabies used to be famous for “running rugby”, a swaggering brand of free-flowing football made famous by the Ella brothers and David Campese, among others. Now, not so much. Indeed, the saddest thing a rugby fan can hear is that the game in Australia has become boring. Observers blame the referees, who have become increasingly pedantic. But the complexity of the rules is also a problem, especially compared to rugby league or AFL.

For years, rugby administrators have tinkered with the laws to make the game a better spectacle, but it’s a slow process. “Rugby is a global game,” says Brett Robinson, former Wallaby and current member of the World Rugby Council, which oversees laws, regulations and player welfare. “League and AFL are essentially domestic sports. It’s easy for them to make rule changes, but we have to influence over 100 nations to make changes that can be applied across the world and ultimately at a World Cup every four years.”

Rugby connoisseurs claim the complexity of the game is part of its beauty; that rugby is chess to rugby league’s checkers. But sometimes checkers is all a sports fan has time for. This is especially true in Australia, which has no less than four football codes – league, union, AFL and soccer – all competing for hearts and minds. And in an era when sport has become mass entertainment, being dull is death.

Rugby connoisseurs claim the complexity of the game is part of its beauty; that rugby is chess to rugby league’s checkers.

Growing rugby’s fan base is essential. One way of doing that is by winning games; the other is to create new audiences. “To me, the biggest wasted opportunity has been the failure to bring more people outside the narrow culture of rugby into the sport,” says James Curran, a Sydney University history professor who is writing a book about David Campese. “Rugby officialdom hasn’t been able to move beyond those who were supporting the game in the 1970s.”

Most of rugby’s elite players are still drawn from a small number of private schools in Sydney and Brisbane. The same goes for the game’s leadership, at both national and state levels, an inordinate number of whom come from Sydney’s most exclusive private schools, including Newington, Scots or St Joseph’s. One school in particular, Shore, figures prominently.

No fewer than eight recent RA and NSWRU office holders are Shore old boys, including current chairman, Hamish McLennan, recently departed CEO Rob Clarke and director Phil Waugh.

When the ARU went looking for a new CEO in 2012, it conducted what it described as a worldwide search before turning up Shore old boy Bill Pulver, in Sydney’s affluent harbourside suburb of Mosman. (Living, as it happened, right next door to ARU director John Eales). Pulver received a ringing endorsement from then ARU chairman, Michael Hawker, another Shore old boy who had played rugby with Pulver in the school’s First XV some 35 years earlier. “The whole thing is so incestuous,” says Colin Smith. “It’s not good for the game.”

It also reflects a fundamental disconnect to the game’s grassroots, which attracts a far broader demographic. “Many of our players are scaffolders or concreters,” says Craig Moran, general manager of Western Sydney Two Blues rugby club, in Parramatta. “They’re not rich people.”


Founded in 1879, Two Blues is a Shute Shield stalwart. The club is operated almost entirely by volunteers, including Dennis “Muncher” Garlick, the 71-year-old waterboy, and the helpers who run the canteen, which provides much of the club’s revenue. But clubs like Moran’s have over the years been variously ignored or held in contempt by the ARU. In 2014, when the ARU was facing insolvency, Pulver requested the clubs forgo their annual $100,000 grants. Two years later, when the clubs requested the grants be reinstated, Pulver refused, reportedly saying he didn’t want them to “piss it up the wall”. (Pulver declined to take part in this story.)

State administrators have been equally out of touch. For decades the NSWRU has appointed a development officer for Shute Shield clubs, including Two Blues. But, according to Moran, it never understood the cultural dimension of the job. “Western Sydney has a large Islander population but we didn’t have any development officers who were Islanders. Development officers have to understand the social conditions. You can’t just send someone from Manly to be a DO in Merrylands.”

Moran says the game is “cannibalising itself”. Recent years have seen lavish pre-season launches at exclusive nightclubs; catered corporate events and runaway overstaffing. Last year it emerged that RA had spent $19 million on corporate costs in 2019, and just $4.3 million on community rugby, and was employing more than 200 people.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Scott Allen, who was appointed assistant coach to the women’s national rugby team, the Wallaroos, in 2016. “I remember walking into ARU headquarters on my first day and there were people and desks everywhere. And I thought, ‘What the f… are all these people doing?’ ”

Pulver had some wins, including a $285 million, five-year broadcast deal with Foxtel. But he also oversaw the disastrous axing of the Western Force Super Rugby team in 2017. The decision enraged Force fans, and saw the West Australian premier threaten to sue the ARU. Thousands of people protested in Perth, led by mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest.

“The process was a charade,” Forrest tells me. “It was shocking leadership and governance.” Former Wallaby Nathan Sharpe described the decision on Twitter as “the biggest mistake the ARU could have made”. The episode effectively ended Pulver’s term. He quit, in August 2017, pocketing a $300,000 bonus on his way out the door.

RA chairman Hamish McLennan, left, and CEO Andy Marinos are aiming
to “rebuild” rugby.

RA chairman Hamish McLennan, left, and CEO Andy Marinos are aiming
to “rebuild” rugby.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Not all of rugby’s woes are self-inflicted. You can’t blame administrators for time zone differences, which mean that games involving Australian teams overseas are often broadcast here at 3am or 4am. It’s also hard for Australia to compete with the financial might of the northern hemisphere unions, which regularly poach our best players. Then there’s Israel Folau, the star Wallaby whose homophobic social media posts wound up costing RA millions of dollars in legal fees and saw the game ensnared in a high-profile debate over free speech that it could not win.


Yet infighting and opportunism continue to poison the game. Last year saw a clumsy attempt to overthrow the RA board, when 11 former Wallaby captains wrote an open letter accusing the game’s leadership, headed by CEO Raelene Castle, of mismanagement. Castle, who is from New Zealand, had taken over from Pulver in 2017, and was wrestling with the financial impact of COVID. At the same time, she had put the broadcast rights out to tender, snubbing long-time partner Foxtel. Castle’s decision would eventually deliver a huge win for rugby, opening the way for a $100 million deal with Nine, part of which involved a free-to-air component.

But at the time Foxtel was furious. Castle found herself under attack from journalists at News Corp (Foxtel’s majority owner). Then came the captains’ letter, the public faces of which were Nick Farr Jones and former Foxtel commentator Phil Kearns. The letter was regarded by many as baldly self-serving of Kearns, who had lost out to Castle for the CEO’s job two years before. Kearns denies this.

“No one from Foxtel ever rang me and said they wanted me to run for CEO,” he tells me. “[And there] was never any talk by the captains explicitly of me going into the CEO role.” It was telling, however, that Kearns and the others had not intervened when the game faced insolvency under Pulver. “In any case,” says Sam Bruce, rugby writer at ESPN, “if they really wanted to help the game, there was nothing stopping them from calling Castle and saying, ‘How can I help?’ ”

“The whole episode painted a really ugly picture for the game right when what it needed most was positivity and cohesion.”

As far as Bruce is concerned, the coup was just another power play. “Castle was an outsider,” he says. “She was a Kiwi, a woman, and she didn’t live in Mosman. Her appointment caught rugby’s old boys’ establishment off guard. They thought they were losing control.” Castle resigned in April 2020, her decision prompted by what the then chairman Paul McLean described as a campaign of “abhorrent” bullying, both online and from vested interests in the media. Says Bruce: “The whole episode painted a really ugly picture for the game right when what it needed most was positivity and cohesion.”

In 2012, John O’Neill put together a presentation using a report by US management guru Jim Collins. Collins outlines five key stages of an organisation’s collapse, including Inaction, Crisis and Dissolution. On the last page O’Neill had written: “Where is Australian rugby?” One could ask the same question now.

A commentator on the sports website The Roar suggests the game is facing a “multi-generational battle” to restore its fortunes. A reader proposed that rugby go amateur again. Peter FitzSimons, meanwhile, believes the game’s worst days are behind it. “We have crossed the Valley of Death and are slowly starting to climb to the other side.”

Hamish McLennan is similarly upbeat. “We’ve got some great young players coming through [at the elite level],” he says, when we meet at RA’s Moore Park HQ. “And there’s been a lot of good work reconnecting with the grassroots.” McLennan has stopped the soap opera at head office, and established an advisory board to bid for the 2027 World Cup (Phil Kearns is the executive director). “That’s the light on the hill,” nods McLennan. “We stand a pretty good chance of getting that.”


Private equity is also in the picture. Luxembourg based CVC Capital Partners has invested $1.2 billion in European rugby, most recently buying a 14 per cent stake in the Six Nations, a yearly tournament between Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France, England and Italy. And American group Silver Lake Partners reportedly plans to put $NZ465 million into New Zealand rugby in return for a 15 per cent share of commercial rights. McLennan says a number of private equity outfits, including CVC, Bruin Capital and Silver Lake, are likewise looking at Australia.

It’s unclear what such an investment would look like. “Do we do it at a competition level, do we include the clubs or not, do we sell a part of the Wallabies or the whole organisation? We have to figure that out,” says McLennan.

There’s a lot at stake. “We’re on the ground floor of a complete rebuild for rugby. But it’s taken a long time getting to this point, and it’ll take quite a few years to get out of it.”

For those who believe the game is beyond salvation here, he points to Argentina, who beat the All Blacks for the first time ever last year. “That’s the thing with sport,” says McLennan. “You can come from nowhere and surprise people.”

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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Asia-Pacific sees 3.9% growth in deal activity in February 2021

The Asia-Pacific (APAC) region saw a 3.9% month-on-month growth in deal activity (mergers & acquisitions, private equity and venture financing deals) from 1,126 deals to 1,170 deals in February 2021, according to GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company.

Aurojyoti Bose, Lead Analyst at GlobalData, comments: “The COVID-19-hit 2020 remained a roller coaster ride for the global deal landscape and APAC was not an exception. The market conditions are expected to remain volatile as the fear of a second wave of COVID-19 in some of the key markets is likely to affect the investor sentiments.

“However, the growth witnessed in February, albeit bit slow, can be a positive sign for the revival of deal-making in the APAC region as investor cautiousness is likely to prevail for some more time.”

Aurojyoti Bose, Lead Analyst at GlobalData

An analysis of GlobalData’s Financial Deals Database reveals that the APAC markets such as India, Japan, Australia, South Korea and Singapore witnessed growth in deal volume by 22.8%, 47.3%, 59%, 31.8% and 12.8%, respectively, while China and Malaysia witnessed decline in deal volume by 25.3% and 31.3%, respectively.

M&A deals volume saw a growth of 19.8% in February 2021 compared to the previous month while private equity and venture financing deals volume declined by 9.7% and 7.5%, respectively.

Source : GlobalData

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Frenchman takes on Gold Coast cryptocurrency firm after allegedly losing $800k in failed deal

Alexandre Raffin, 28, has filed a lawsuit in the Federal Court of Australia against Modern Assets Australia, a cryptocurrency advisory and research firm based on the Gold Coast.

Mr Raffin is accusing the company and its directors, Jonathan Allison and Carlo Sciubba, of breaching their duty of care to him over a lucrative deal to buy a South Korean cryptocurrency called Klaytn.

It is believed to be the first cryptocurrency fraud case of its kind in Australia.

The Gold Coast company was allegedly meant to provide the cryptocurrency to Mr Raffin in exchange for cash, but when the deal fell through, they put him in touch with the person who was supplying them.

About a month later, that same supplier allegedly made off with all the cash and deleted his account.

Since then, the cryptocurrency’s value has gone up 30 times, and had Mr Raffin and his investors received it, they would be sitting on close to $3.7 million.

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