Former glue-sniffer just the man to handle Waratahs minefield

Waratahs Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Rugby a lifesaver? Definitely.

A strong advocate of the value of the 15-man code in getting someone back on track is Andrew Hore, who has just taken on one of the most onerous administration positions in Australian sport.

The Waratahs chief executive officer's position has confounded many a man. There is a long list of those who have unsuccessfully tangled with the octopus that is NSW Rugby, an often dysfunctional operation that involves bickering with the usually disenchanted club ranks, trying to keep a 'men's club' otherwise known as the Waratahs in order and fighting for identity in a city with four footy codes.

Now the Waratahs have headed offshore to find a new leader, luring a New Zealander who has spent the past eight years deeply immersed in another tangled web, Welsh Rugby, while in charge of the Ospreys club in Swansea.

Hore, through experience, comprehends that rugby is not froth and bubble, and just keeping a club or province afloat relies on hard, relentless work, requiring your full focus.

But his heart is in it, not surprisingly since the game itself provided him with a future.

Hore's CV is impressive. He began as Canterbury rugby's performance manager in 1997, and was involved in the first rugby academy in New Zealand. He was then conditioning coach for Canterbury and the Crusaders, at a time when the province won the Super 12 three times.

In 2002, he became the Welsh Rugby Union's director of physical conditioning and player development. He then returned to New Zealand to become the NZRU's high performance manager, before returning to Wales and Ospreys.

But it could have been so much different.

As he explained to ESPN: "If it wasn't for rugby, I'd probably now be on a meatworks floor carving up carcases."

Hore grew up about 40 kilometres south of Dunedin in New Zealand's rich South Island rural belt. It all went awry when his parents divorced.

"It got a bit messy and when I was 11 and 12, I ended up hanging out with a crowd that weren't the best," Hore said.

"I fell into all sorts of things, and I'll be honest a bit of glue sniffing and all that sort of crap. It was pretty rough.

"My mum though kept pushing me down to the footy club. I was never going to be an All Black, or anything special. But at that time I had grown faster than some other kids, so I had a bit of size. Even though I'm a pygmy now, I was a bit of an early bloomer as a kid, and that helped."

He joined the Toko Rugby club in South Otago, where he was surrounded by more desirable town identities.

"My first experience of going to watch Otago play- was with all the kids from the club being on the bus, the parents following behind, and they would bring us sacks full of lolly mixtures. When you got back from the game the mums would put on meat patties and mashed potatoes for you. My whole introduction to rugby as a kid was so positive and that footy club left a really strong mark on me as a person.

"My mum was very keen for me to get away from that peer group I was involved with, and that came when I was 13, via a scholarship through rugby to go to Otago Boys (High School) in Dunedin.

"I went and lived with my aunty, which transformed everything. My mum and aunty knew that I was at risk if I stayed where I was. At that time, I thought that doing well was probably getting a trade. My uncle was a panel-beater and that was the type of thing I thought would want to do. So my aspirations were at that stage were relatively limited.

"Although I never really kicked on with my rugby at Otago High, I met a better peer group, which was crucial. Through playing footy, there was a structure to my life and I developed good mates. That's why I am very passionate about rugby, because I know what it has done for me."

Then to Otago University to study sports science.

"Again rugby gave me a chance there. The University rugby club's president Rex Thompson was also head of the sports science department. That club was also important in extending my friendship pool, and rugby opened those windows of opportunity."

Yet the dream remained on the other side of the Tasman. He was desperate to discover Australia.

"There was a group of us at school and Uni who kept saying to each other: 'We've got to go to Aussie'.

"That's all we talked about. Australia was always perceived as being this warm place, with great seafood, and all that kind of stuff. We finished our degree, and had made a pact that we would immediately go to Australia, as really what else were we going to do? The prime ambition was to drive trucks across the Nullarbor, because that was what I thought was so Australian.

"I was still a little hesitant, and I couldn't find my passport.

"So one of them said, pointing to a bag on the floor at where we were living, said to me: 'Mate, if your passport is in that bag, you're coming to Australia.'

"I agreed, explaining that if the passport was in that bag, I would sell my stereo to buy the ticket to Oz."

It was. The stereo was sold for $NZ700 and he was on his way to Sydney.

Then followed a magical mystery tour in an old Falcon along the East Coast, which included pruning fruit trees at Woolgoolga, before they ran out of cash after getting robbed in Noosa. They never quite got to drive a big rig across the Nullarbor.

So back to New Zealand, where he joined another rugby club.

"I played for Sydenham in Christchurch- a real man's club on the working class side of town and they embraced me like a family.

"You could run amok as a young fellow, and there were older guys in the club who kept it all together. They had had some really tough years where they had been bungling around at the bottom of the division.

"It was at Sydenham where I realised how the boardroom directly affects the whole workings of the club. They had got their board room right, began to reward and look after the playing side of things, and the club grew and grew and grew. I've never forgotten that."

After not winning a club championship for 47 years, while Hore was there as a half-back then fitness coach, Sydenham were victors four years in a row. Again the lessons of smart off-field management were rammed home to Hore, who then connected with the Canterbury team, after being approached by their then coach Steve Hansen.

"Steve has always been big on development, which saw me eventually getting involved in running their academy. At that time, I remember talking to Steve Tew, who was then CEO of the Crusaders, and he said:

"What do you want to do?"

My reply was simple.

"I want your job."

"He told me that if I wanted to achieve that I would need to get closer to the team for a while to understand how it works. He said: "Put the high performance work aside, become a fitness coach and get close to that team."

"So I did that, then went to Wales, where I had a slightly wider role, and came home again when Hansen and Tew got involved in New Zealand rugby, and became the NZRU's high performance manager."

Hore, now based in Wellington, was still unsettled.

"I like New Zealand. Don't get me wrong. But I'm not a died in the wool sort of Kiwi type of person. I'm not that nationalistic, and I didn't really enjoy Wellington. A couple more opportunities came up in Europe again, and one was with the Ospreys, where there was a pathway with a CEO type of role. So off I went again."

Ospreys, which had its fair share of dilemmas including a split in the club ranks, was perfect training for the Waratahs. It gave him some idea of what is required in surviving in a market, where there is a lot of competition and outside influences.

"At Ospreys, we were in the same stadium as a professional football side. And there were four professional club sides in a 90-mile stretch of road. Plus, you put in Cardiff City and the Welsh national rugby team playing virtually every week, because they are broke and not looking after the level below, and you actually had a competitive sports market."

Again Australia was the irresistible lure.

"I always had a passion to live in Australia, while the size and the strength of the Waratahs brand was enticing. I don't think people realise globally how big the Waratahs are. When you're in the northern hemisphere, you turn on the TV every Saturday and on comes Super Rugby, which is a far better product than what you're peddling- faster, more exciting, young energetic guys, and you have a broadcaster which isn't the BBC, so it's actually decent. And you get used to seeing the Waratahs.

"As I've always been with country clubs- such as the Crusaders who are arch-rivals with the Auckland Blues, and Ospreys who are arch rivals with Cardiff, I thought somewhere like Queensland might be a better gig for me in Australia, because chips on both shoulders, country sort of club... in a positive sense.

"But once I saw the issues here at the Waratahs, and met some of the directors, I saw that I could work with these people, and hopefully achieve something."

Hore realises it won't be easy, as some may see him as an ignorant intruder. The obvious question was if there was any self-consciousness about being a Kiwi in charge of an Australian province, especially after the failure of the Robbie Deans experiment as Wallabies coach?

"Yeah there is a bit of that. I still think too many look at the Robbie Deans experience here. They should look more broadly, such as the amount of Kiwis peppered through Australian Rugby. Dean Mumm has New Zealand ancestry. I don't see his family failing. So it comes down to the man whether they are accepted or not.

"It also revolves around sticking to an ethos. Canterbury stamped this on me hard... if your ethos is to always make the system better and leave it better, it doesn't mean anything whether you can sing their national anthem. It is about trying to make the experience for that seven-year-old kid who loves his rugby and comes to the game the best it can be.

"As a Kiwi I know I will have to work my guts out here. I will have to work twice as hard for half as much to get street cred."

He has already prompted some surprised looks when he told the Sydney Daily Telegraph recently that Australian Rugby was 'a minority sport.' Asked to elaborate, Hore said: "It has the potential if we keep bickering of tumbling. And it has tumbled. It used to be the No 2 football code in Australia, now it's No 4. You've now got a situation where we must recognise that the battle isn't internal, it's external, and that might hopefully motivate some people to change the mindset for the game they love, so that it can survive. I don't want it to become like West Indian cricket."

And then it all goes back to the clubs, who are struggling with funding, identity, and endlessly fighting with the higher authorities. One of Hore's biggest assignments is to successfully negotiate that minefield.

"I won't be drawing on that New Zealand club experience. For that one, I draw on my Welsh experience. Clubs there like Bridgend, Swansea, Neath and so forth, basically got kicked down a couple of pegs too. So they went from top of the tree, world-class entities, to going several levels lower.

"Across the bridge they have a system which has made Gloucester, Northampton, clubs they used to play against, now the richest clubs in the world. So the Welsh clubs are sitting there, basically not knowing what their role in life is anymore. They have been bounced from No 1 under the national team to below a regional team, below a regional A team, and then comes them.

"There's a lot of synergy to here. All of a sudden these clubs have been bounced from being below the Wallabies. Then state rugby grows through Super Rugby, and then there's the NRC, and they're starting to wonder: 'Where do we fit in this?"

"So defining their role is going to be very, very important, and then rewarding them for doing that well. It doesn't have to be monetary, but you must reward them. And I don't think we have defined clearly what it is we want them to do well yet.

"You have a group of people who don't feel valued, and had sand kicked in their face. I can understand their point that they developed these Wallabies, and they need to be acknowledged for that."

How remains the big NSW Rugby question.

At least the Sydney clubs now know, unlike some of his predecessors who have sat in the Waratahs big chair, that Hore, due to his personal appreciation of how crucial grassroots rugby is, will at least listen to them.

That is a big start.