Doyle: No place for league men behaving badly

STRAIGHT TALKER: NRL chief operating officer Jim Doyle says the troubles at the Sharks can be directly linked to the ongoing ASADA investigation.
STRAIGHT TALKER: NRL chief operating officer Jim Doyle says the troubles at the Sharks can be directly linked to the ongoing ASADA investigation.

Fairfax Media profiles the straight-talking Jim Doyle who is cleaning up the NRL with a potent mix of power and pragmatism.

Jim Doyle comes whizzing around the corner before bringing his golf cart to an abrupt stop outside the pro shop at the Lakes Resort in Pauanui.

His forehead is a deep shade of pink, betraying the fact he's had too much sun over the holiday period.

A wealthy man after finding business success with GPS company Navman - which he helped grow into a global force in the late 1990s and early 2000s - Doyle could have retired to his luxurious holiday home here in the Coromandel, a mere shanked seven-iron away from the first green.

His cart's little number plate, which reads "paradise", pretty much says it all.

But Doyle has never been the sort to retreat. He's the type of guy who would find life away from the big smoke a little too boring.

And it's for that reason that, when the NRL came calling last year not long after he'd stood down from his successful three-and-a-half year stint as the head of the New Zealand Rugby League, he decided to up sticks and move to Sydney.

At the time, he'd been considering at least semi-retiring. Now, he's the chief operating officer of the NRL and, perhaps equally importantly, the head of the organisation's Integrity Unit.

His golf game can wait.

One of Doyle's many tasks at the NRL is to try to stop wayward league players from misbehaving and "tarnishing the brand of rugby league". It's the sort of job where, he admits, the phone doesn't stop ringing.

This week alone, he's been pursued for comment by just about everyone after former Warriors forward Russell Packer was imprisoned across the ditch for two years after pleading guilty to assaulting a member of the public during a boozy night out.

It wasn't, of course, an isolated incident.

In Doyle's first year at the NRL, he's had to deal with a range of incidents, from former Raiders player Blake Ferguson being found guilty of indecent assault to Kangaroos prop James Tamou's arrest for driving allegedly four times over the legal limit.

"It's very frustrating. But at the end of the day, it is a minority we are talking about and that's a good thing," Doyle says. "Whether it be the Russell Packers, the Blake Fergusons, they are the minority.

"With my role at the NZRL and now at the NRL, I've met a lot of people in the game and a lot of players, and a lot of them are really, really good for the game and the communities that they play in.

"But it's a shame that there is a minority who aren't.

"In the past, sometimes there probably haven't been enough consequences. Now, when they do the wrong thing, there needs to be significant consequences."

That last line should have league's bad boys and repeat offenders on notice.

Doyle doesn't suffer fools and if he says there will be "significant consequences", he actually means it.

Before Packer went to trial, Doyle, as the head of the Integrity Unit, met with the police, talked to his old club, the Warriors, and decided right then and there not to register his four-year contract with the Knights.

To some, it seemed a harsh decision given Packer, in his six seasons with the Warriors, never faced criminal charges.

But Doyle doesn't buy that and simply says he "wasn't a fit and proper person to be registered".

"The battle (to stop players from acting up) can be won. It's only ever the minority and if it's, say, three or four per cent, we would like to get it down to one per cent or half a per cent," he says.

"You can always improve things.

"If you look at the 16 NRL clubs - and I've talked to all the CEOs and the chairmen - their biggest challenge is continuously being financially stable.

"So what I keep saying to them is that what will bring them more corporate sponsors and more membership and things like that is their own individual club brand.

"And if the brand of your club is bad and negative because you've got a few idiots that play for your team and you're not willing to penalise them in any way, that has a reflection on your own brand and therefore certain corporates aren't going to want to get involved with you.

"It would be better for us all to eliminate that from the game so that we can bring more families to matches, bring more corporate sponsors to rugby league and get more membership.

"That, right there, is a big part of what I do."

Of course, it's one thing to say that player behaviour is an important issue and another to act on it.

Time and again, clubs have sacked wayward but talented players for contract breaches, only to turn around and see them sign with a rival.

In essence, the win-at-all costs mentality still permeates rugby league and, when your job is on the line as a coach, you're not exactly going to be too worried about the sport's "brand".

"It's a difficult area and it always will be because whether you're a CEO or a coach, you have to think relatively short-term," Doyle admits.

"You can't be thinking three, four or even five years away because if you lose all the time, then you won't be there in the future. You will have lost your job.

"You can get caught up in the mentality that you want to pick a certain player because he might be the best player going around, even though he perhaps shouldn't be playing.

"That's an area where we have got to take responsibility for the game - that's the NRL's job.

"We need to be saying - ‘Sorry, for what that person has done, we are not going to allow him to play for the next whatever period or so'."

Some of the ideas Doyle would like to implement in the coming years could go some way to helping improve the image that rugby league is full of bad boys with cavalier attitudes.

One suggestion, he says, is to make players with a history of off-field misbehaviour put up a "sizeable bond", perhaps up to half a million dollars, before they have their contracts registered. Then, if they get in trouble, they will forfeit the amount.

That really would be a case of getting them to put their money where their mouth is.

"The players themselves, at the end of the day, are the ones who choose their actions," Doyle says.

"If they go out and beat someone up or they get drunk and do something they shouldn't be doing, well, they chose that action. That's not us.

"We aren't stopping them from having a career - they themselves are.

"But at the same time, people make mistakes.

"Hopefully, people learn from their mistakes.

"So, if you've got a player who has got himself in trouble, first and foremost, what we want to do is use our player welfare and education department and put them through some sort of programme.

"And if they come out of the programme and everything is fine, we'd certainly consider re-registering them.

"But as part of that re-registration, we might say that given they've tarnished the brand of rugby league in the past, ‘Yes, it's great you are rehabilitated and we are going to give you a second chance'.

"But, of course, we can't afford to have them tarnish the brand again so we might ask for them to put up a significant amount of money as a bond that may sit there for the next year or two and if they again go back off the rails and get into trouble again, there will be a significant penalty to pay.

"That's an idea rather than having them just say ‘sorry' again for the second time."

So, why, when he could be relaxing in the sun, playing golf and travelling the world is Doyle returning to work in Sydney tomorrow?

Why, when he could be retired, does he want to help restore credibility to rugby league's image?

"For me, it's about making a difference," Doyle says.

"I was lucky with Navman and my few years after that in business.

"After that, I thought about retiring or at least semi-retiring. But I've been a mad sportsperson all my life.

"The opportunity to get involved in sport and particularly rugby league - which I love - to get involved in that was about trying to make a difference.

"After three-and-a-half years at the NZRL, I felt we had taken the game to whole different level and that it was time to hand over to someone else.

"I anticipated working with Sport New Zealand on a few other sports but also getting back to some semi-retirement.

"But when the NRL made me an offer - and they'd asked me a few times to come over to Sydney - eventually my wife and I decided to have no regrets and that we should go over there and give it a go."

Paradise can wait for now.

Sunday Star Times