New NRL chief has faced stiffer challenges

FACING FIRE: David Smith is the perfect man to deal with the crisis currently facing the NRL.
FACING FIRE: David Smith is the perfect man to deal with the crisis currently facing the NRL.

He calls it "day minus one", a term from his army days, meaning the 24 hours before his official duty began.

Dave Smith, the ARLC's new chief executive, was scheduled to begin work at the code's Moore Park headquarters on February 1, but his staff had received a summons from the Australian Crime Commission, ordering them to a meeting in Canberra on January 31.

"I was part of the process," Smith says, explaining why he came to work a day early.

Together with two executives, he boarded a plane to the federal capital and met the Crime Commission bosses at their bunker on the deathly named Mort Street, Braddon.

Asked if his shoulders lurched back and he sucked in a chestful of air at the blast of news of widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs in the NRL, Smith says: "Not at all. Never.

"That's not to say it wasn't serious. To me, my first reaction was, 'How can I help? What can I do to get the game through this in the best and fairest way.'

"I could see from the others around me - people more experienced in sports administration than me - calibrate themselves at the news. I knew it had the threat of risk."

It's tempting to suggest Smith is being brave after the event, except he has been involved in baptisms of fire before.

He was an 18-tear-old corporal in the British Army during the IRA insurgency in London, a member of the signal corps responsible for designing systems to protect fellow soldiers from sophisticated bombs.

Asked if he was ever put in a position where signals intercepted a bomb threat and there were only minutes to evacuate the area and render it safe, he says: "Several times. Several times we were under pressure from bombs going off.

"London was a big terrorist threat in 1981, and the IRA was targeting British soldiers. I helped design systems to prevent these sophisticated bombs being set off."

The detonation in Canberra the last day of January 2013, therefore, is minor compared to the potential loss of life in London 32 years ago.

"Nothing compares to your mate's life being under threat," he says.

"It forces you to think about things differently."

But back then, like now, his job is similar. "I was working in London with intelligence people and senior people in government."

The day the Herald spoke to Smith he had been on the phone from the airport speaking to ACC boss John Lawler, following up a four-hour meeting days earlier with ASADA chief Aurora Andruska.

He admits his baptism of fire - having to fast forward his learning curve in such a challenging environment - was not his preference.

"When you take on leadership roles, it's inevitable you have to deal with serious issues," he says, but the past six weeks has been a war without blanks, a planned dry run but with a real enemy.

"I wouldn't have chosen it, the way it has transpired, but it's been a great way to get into the organisation. We set out a plan regarding my induction but this has been an induction in a real way."

Smith's family is working-class Welsh. "Mum and Dad never had any money," he says. "I come from an army family. My dad was in the army 45 years and my brother 30 years. My brother was a paratrooper who fought in the Falklands and Dad was in the South Wales regiment whose campaigns include fighting the Zulus at Rorke's Drift," the 1879 battle in which 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded.

He has also researched his rugby league history from his debut day as the announced head of the NRL when he admitted he didn't know the name of the other Smith, the Australian captain, Cameron.

"There is a link with Rorke's Drift and rugby league," he says, in reference to the game known as the Rorke's Drift Test, in Brisbane in 1958, a brave battle when no replacements were allowed and England won despite several of their players suffering serious injuries.

Smith spent six years as a regular soldier, raising the question if he was a corporal at age 18 and never moved beyond two stripes, perhaps he wasn't considered officer material.

"I was a bit of a scallywag," he admits, indicating there were times he was confined to barracks, before quickly adding: "Not jail time."

Given rugby league's enduring capacity to produce men who misbehave, Smith will be able to look across his desk at them and remember how he was when he was 18.

He is a charmer who looks healthier than the organic section at the supermarket but there is a steely edge, possibly an explosive temper.

His 25 years in banking has taught him to deal with the code's more serious stakeholders, the ARLC board, the broadcasters, the sponsors.

"I sat at the top tables and dealt with the captains of industry," he says. "It taught me that being organised, disciplined, focused with attention to detail matters a lot. You can't have a scattergun approach."

He will be initially judged on how he handles the drugs crisis, involving 31 current NRL players.

It gave him a quick introduction to heads of other codes, including ARU boss Bill Pulver - father of fake collarbomb victim Madeleine- who sat across the aisle from him on a Canberra-bound plane.

Compared to the Andrew Demetrious and David Gallops, Smith is the snappy barker in the coloured coat, standing out the front in sideshow alley.

However, once he gets you into the tent, he's quite traditional, filled with values and doing the right thing. "We were given serious information by the ACC and we have hit it with a straight bat," he says. "The investigation will give us the evidence to proceed. I can see the frustration in the players, coaches and fans. We want it to go quickly but it must be done justly. There is a correct procedure to follow.

"The frustration is the reason I have pushed hard to get some shape for the next stage and I'm grateful to the ASADA team, who have worked extremely well with us."

Everything he did in the army and banking, he says, involved team work.

Asked what his corps of signals team achieved, he says: "My reward during my six years in the army was to stop the IRA setting off bombs in London." And what about his six weeks in the NRL, in which the sport has been tarnished by a drugs scandal? "I'm not far from finalising our anti-doping protocol. We will have a world class code."

Sydney Morning Herald