As most of the Australian public woke to the news that once again rugby was in the media landscape for all the wrong reasons yet again, one former Wallaby breathed a sigh of relief.
“Thank f—k” was the colourful reaction Greg Martin used that summed up his reaction as he arrived at work in the early hours of Monday morning, having risen to discover former World Cup-winning Wallaby Daniel Herbert was the new Rugby Australia chairman.
“There’s some hope at last,” he said.
Twenty-four hours later, Martin spoke of a topic he rarely does anymore on radio: rugby.
“I interviewed him on radio – we don’t do much rugby anymore – and I was proud to say that there’s a future for Australian rugby if he’s the man in charge,” Martin told The Roar.
“He just kept stressing, ‘Don’t expect miracles, don’t expect anything to happen overnight, we’ve got to reform things.’
“I believe him, whereas [Hamish] McLennan, businessman, I don’t believe, but I believe someone who’s steeped in the blood of rugby in really deep grassroots and everything else.
“He’s very staunch. Really proud of his upbringing. That Ashgrove community, it’s Brisbane’s most Catholic suburb, so they’re really tight.
“I don’t know, I get a good vibe. I’ve had a good vibe my whole life about him. His physical toughness on the field. He’s just a good fella.”
Even before McLennan was ousted as chair late on Sunday evening after yet another emergency board meeting, the drama reverberating across the Australian rugby landscape had been yet another ugly episode the code.
After the embarrassment of the Wallabies’ World Cup flop, Queensland Rugby Union chair Brett Clark delivered the crucial blow two days earlier on Friday – a telephone call weeks in the making after counting the numbers – by informing McLennan of the member unions’ position.
With McLennan hell-bent on fighting on, six Rugby Australia member unions stretching from Western Australia to Queensland, the Northern Territory to Tasmania, called on the under-siege chair to stand down citing their loss of confidence in his leadership mere hours after Clark’s phone call.
Only the New South Wales Rugby Union, the Melbourne Rebels and the Rugby Union Players’ Association did not sign the damning letter calling on McLennan to walk away from the game.
What followed over the next 48 hours were dozens of phone calls, messages and meetings, as the RA board discussed the chair’s future, largely without McLennan present.
It resulted in Herbert, who joined the RA board in 2020, and was someone who worked closely alongside McLennan on the rugby committee, being asked to steady the ship and take over as chairman.
Only McLennan voted against Herbert being chair, before resigning after losing the vote on Sunday night.
Herbert, who impressed many with his considered responses in his first press-conference, said he was honoured to be asked to step up as chairman but made it clear he was intent on ushering through their high-performance alignment goals sooner rather than later.
“It wasn’t something I coveted, I tell you that, I was quite happy in the background,” said Herbert, when asked what he was excited about as he began the role.
“I guess the faith the other directors put in me to do it got me over the line.
“What I’m excited about, it’s why I joined, I think I can add value in an area that I know is broken. And if I can’t add value I’m not going to be here.
“I know what’s broken, I think I know how to fix it, I think I can select some good people to get around it, and I think I’ve got good instincts around the type of people we need to fix it and run it.
“In my view, that’s what I can offer and add value to this board.
“We’ve talked a lot about the golden decade and the opportunities coming down the pipeline, my excitement is the opportunity, my fear is that we don’t move quickly enough. Because it’s not a switch that you flick, it takes a bit of time and we’ve got to start soon.”
He also spoke of needing to look past the “sugar hits” of short-term fixes from rugby league recruits to new head coaches, saying the system needed urgent attention.
But unlike his predecessor, who said the change of leadership would create more division, not less, and added that his departure was a result of a “Queensland takeover”, Herbert said he would listen to his stakeholders and take them on the journey.
Yet, in his own words, “time will tell” if he’s effective in his ability to usher through change.
“I have been around this game since I was five,” Herbert said. “There has always been a level of difficulty in the game between the different layers of the game from the Super clubs to the national game. It’s not helpful.
“We need to listen to our stakeholders and we will be doing that. The message were sent and it was heard.
“Certainly, this group of stakeholders felt that they weren’t being heard and they didn’t like the direction they were being taken in or the style. That’s all been listened to and part of my role will be getting out and listening to all of their concerns and making sure that we have plans in place to realise its potential.
“There will always be a level of friction. You can’t get away from that in a game like this. It’s got to be respectful.”
Martin said he has “no idea” whether Herbert, or anyone for the matter, will be able to cut through the politics at play in Australian rugby, but believes the new chair’s values would help his quest.
“He won’t make decisions like McLennan made because that’s not sort of person he is,” Martin said.
“He won’t be making egotistical, arrogant decisions. He’ll be making decisions on understanding rugby in Australia.
“I’m really in awe of him. He’s a great fella. I’ve seen their family values and their morals and everything. That’s just me. I know them deeply.”
Herbert’s calm, reasoned nature is a characteristic several rugby figures spoke to.
“With the upheaval, there’s a real will to pull together and he’s a good man to take advantage of that,” his first professional coach John Connolly said.
“He’s no fool. He’ll have seen the mistakes McLennan would have made. He understands the game from grassroots right the way through.
“He was a fastidious trainer, he prepared as good as anyone I’ve known.
“He was methodical and planned, not one for rash decisions, very thoughtful and his history in Queensland in footy and after footy was one of consultation before he made a decision. He would sound people out to make sure he made the right decision and would take time to contemplate it.
“He wasn’t scared of making the hard decision, but he would understand the consequences and unintended consequences of it.”
His midfield partner with the Wallabies Tim Horan agreed: “He’s a very measured person. He does his due diligence. He’ll ask a lot of questions from other people around him as well for support, it won’t be just his decision, he’ll make sure that he’s asked other people’s views but then he’ll make his own call on that.”
It’s a similar message from Rod Macqueen, with the World Cup-winning Wallabies coach backing Herbert to succeed.
“I don’t think he’s going to make too many radical decisions,” Macqueen told The Roar.
“He was a very good player and he’s very level-headed and thinks about what he does.
“There’s not too many rugby people around at the moment that don’t want to see things improve. It’s so important for the game.
“The other thing is that he was always a good team man and put the team first.
“If I had a message, it would be just how important it is now for the states to get together and just get on with it. That’s to me everything. He will understand that because he was always a great team man. If he can bring the states together for a light cause, it would be very beneficial for Australian rugby.”
World Cup-winning hooker Jeremy Paul described Herbert as a “brilliant man”.
“He’s got no skeletons in his closet. He was just you’re A-class role model and by far, the first real powerful athlete of our generation. He was an absolute wrecking ball.
“From a personal side, you can go look under Mount Everest and there is nothing.
“The good thing about Daniel Herbert, he was also a very intelligent player. He’s exactly what is needed. He’s someone who was there, has gone through the successes and understands the alignment battle that is needed.”
One of the reasons why Herbert is so deeply respected is because he had to bide his time to get his crack at the big time.
Stuck behind one of the great midfield partnerships of all time, Herbert was often in the shadows of Horan and Jason Little.
Yet, never did Herbert complain. He just worked harder.
“He should have been a superstar but he was behind Jason Little. I reckon that really formed him as a person,” Martin said.
While Herbert’s on-field pedigree is there for all to see, how he operates with the big end of town remains to be seen.
It’s one of the reasons that favoured McLennan to stay in the job, particularly with a broadcast deal to be renegotiated.
“I felt for Hamish,” Horan said. “I thought Hamish was doing a very good job, especially in the early years.
“The two big legacies for Hamish are a new broadcast deal through Covid and then being part of the team that brings the 2027 and 2029 Rugby World Cups to Australia, they’re two pretty legacies.
“I thought he was good for the game, and the game needed someone like Hamish when the game was tough and the game doesn’t get a lot of air time.”
With at least two RA board positions to be needed to be filled, RA could look to bring on someone with more expertise in the area or outsource it.
For now, Herbert said chief executive Phil Waugh had made positive strides with Nine Entertainment and Stan, but ensuring RA get a significant uplift in their next deal is essential for the game’s future.
Yet, fellow World Cup-winner Owen Finegan, who is the CEO of the Kids Cancer Project, said his former teammate’s standing in the game could help benefit him.
“You look at Hamish, what he brought was a big profile,” said Finegan, whose two children are strong rugby prospects going through the pathways.
“Looking from the outside, you’ve got Peter V’landys with the NRL and Richard Goyder the AFL chairman, they’re fairly well known. Daniel’s well-known in rugby circles, it’s probably perfect for where the game is.
“He could do it by engaging old boys in the game, a lot who are high profile people and big business people. It’s getting that mix and connection with the community game.”
One thing is for sure, Herbert won’t bulldoze his way through the crowded Australian sporting landscape, or deeply political rugby landscape, like McLennan but will instead rely on negotiation and his deep knowledge of the game.
Having found a way to make his name by dislodging one-half of Australia’s great midfield combination too, Herbert knows what it takes to be successful.
If he can be as effective behind the scenes as he was with ball-in-hand, Australian rugby could well rise again.