Saturday interview: Collier keen to make league a global sport

David Collier has a wealth of experience as a sports administrator and is hoping to bring that knowledge to help expand rugby league as a worldwide sport.
David Collier has a wealth of experience as a sports administrator and is hoping to bring that knowledge to help expand rugby league as a worldwide sport.
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THERE can be few people who have sat at the top table of three different international sports.

David Collier, however, is one of those individuals.

Most famously known for his role as chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) during some, at times, halcyon days for the national side, including the 2005 Ashes success, he is also an associate director of the International Cricket Council (ICC).

Collier has held positions with the International Hockey Federation, too, and, for the last three months – and perhaps most intriguingly – the 60-year-old has been employed as the first chief executive of the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF).

To some it seemed a strange appointment but there is no doubting his expertise as a sports administrator. And, similarly, there is no doubting that the world of rugby league needed someone to administer it some urgent attention.

With only three nations – Australia, New Zealand and England – truly considered to be major players in the national game, it has long had problems drumming up business.

That is especially so given Australia, the world champions, have until recently often considered its club game, or more pertinently, the State of Origin series annually contested by Queensland and New South Wales, as king.

The RLIF itself has often been viewed as a token gesture. However, on the back of a profitable 2013 World Cup, it decided to give someone the full-time job of leading the sport at this level into a more vibrant future.

Collier’s remit was to “ grow the game globally” but also work through securing an eight-year calendar of international events – something previously alien to the sport – that gave it some actual structure rather than its traditional ad hoc planning.

Three months in, what does the cricket connoisseur – Collier worked at Essex, Gloucestershire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire before his ascension to the ECB – make of it all?

“I had a reasonable knowledge before, much more as a fan and follower, but obviously anybody who goes to a university like Loughborough as I did is clearly going to have a huge interest in a range of sports,” he explained.

“I knew quite a few rugby people and, with my role in cricket, had quite a lot to do with officials at the RFL such as Richard Lewis before Nigel Wood so I had a reasonably good background knowledge of what the challenges and opportunities were before I even started.

“But I went to see the Tests between Australia and New Zealand in Brisbane – and the Pacific Test – which were really fantastically supported and I think the game has gone from strength to strength recently.

“We’ve seen the NRL in Australia getting stronger, Super League getting a lot stronger over here and it’s grown to some 57 countries now playing the sport which is just massive expansion.

“It’s been exciting to see that. And translating it into the growth of the International Federation itself as well.”

Collier boldly envisages USA potentially being a challenger to the current status quo.

“The game is growing particularly there,” he said, with America having surprised everyone by reaching the 2013 World Cup quarter-finals.

“It’s not a difficult game for a North American to understand as it has a similar concept to American Football in terms of the way the game is set up, defence lines etcetera, and it’s proven very attractive over in the US.

“Europe has now grown into 28 member countries quite rapidly so a lot of task now is more consolidating those countries already playing – increasing the numbers there and the quality of the game – rather than going to others.

“One of the big challenges for me and the RLIF is to make sure nations ranked from four to 16 close the gap to those ranked one, two and three.

“When you see the Samoas and Tongas of this world and how much they have progressed since the last World Cup, they will be very, very competitive in the next cycles. But seeing countries like Russia playing more and Canada – some big population countries that are expanding the sport quite rapidly – then obviously they have a greater chance of becoming one of the top nations very quickly.”

It may seem absurd to rugby league followers that that will happen but the game needs visionaries if it is ever going to garner the widespread support it deserves.

Collier’s next main meeting with the RLIF is in Singapore next month when they hope to finalise the details of that eight-year calender.

“We need to give priority periods for player rest and recuperation, international matches and global events plus priority time for the domestic leagues,” he added.

“I think it’s become clear what our priorities are now – one of them is, rather than trying to be all things to all men, to narrow the focus in terms of where we go to develop the game.

“We need to see a real clear pathway and establish two world events in a four-year cycle that could transform the finances of the game.

“One, obviously, will be the World Cup but the other could be something like a Four Nations but almost certainly bigger than that with more countries involved.

“There is an appetite for the Lions to return, too, and, with regards the Australians, even before New Zealand took over as world No 1 last month, they are very much on the same page as us when it comes to international football.

“They are very open about looking for international expansion, recognising the international game actually adds value to the domestic leagues.”

This autumn’s three Test visit from New Zealand – the Four Nations champions and newly-ranked world No 1 – will show just “how much progress” England have made as they seek to end their 40-plus year wait for World Cup success.

But, finally, it would be remiss not to ask about Collier’s highlights during his cricket odyssey.

“It is somewhat a bit strange,” he said.“The three Ashes series wins here (2005, ‘09, ‘13) were obviously very special, as was the (2011) victory in Australia and the T20 World Cup in Barbados was fantastic.

“But in all honesty, one of the most emotional things was actually presenting caps to our disabilities side. We had learning difficulties and physically disabled sides and when you go the night before to present them with their England cap, the look on their faces and pleasure it brought to me, that gave me more pleasure than anything,”