Before The Star, John O’Neill rose to become Australia’s most prominent sports administrator

O’Neill is reportedly one of the contenders for the chairmanship of the 2032 Olympics organizing board, which is to be hand-picked by the Queensland Premier and the Prime Minister. Long-time deputy Matt Carroll, who worked hand-in-glove for 17 years with O’Neill at both the ARU and FFA, is now the chief executive of the Australian Olympic Committee.

“He is absolutely passionate and is always looking for the edge, to get things done and get the best outcome for the Australian Rugby Union or Football Australia, and he has achieved great success in both of those sports,” Carroll said. Herald.

“He has a strong personality for sure, and he speaks his mind, which I think is a good thing. Some people in sports don’t speak their mind and that’s why things go backwards. And he is meticulous in making sure he has all the information to make the right decisions. ”

During his time running rugby, O’Neill oversaw the arrival of professionalism in the 15-man game, restructured the game’s governance, and helped facilitate a period still remembered by forlorn fans as the Wallabies ‘golden era’ – which included winning the 1999 Rugby World Cup, multiple Bledisloe Cups, a British Lions tour in 2001 and hosting the 2003 Rugby World Cup. He was also a noted player in the vipers’ nest of world rugby politics, and sat on international rugby committees and boards as recently as 2016.

When headhunted by Frank Lowy to run the FFA, O’Neill’s time in the round-ball game saw the revolutionary introduction of the A-League and, via that John Aloisi penalty kick and the recruitment of Guus Hiddink, the Socceroos making it to the Round of 16 in the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.

John O’Neill with former Wallabies captain George Gregan in 2003, ahead of the Rugby World Cup.Credit:Getty

O’Neill’s second stint in rugby was less eventful, and after board support waned in 2012, he left the ARU to take up the full-time chairmanship of Echo Entertainment.

But survival, let alone success, in sports administration requires a comfort in earning as many enemies as admirers, and O’Neill has, according to one former contemporary who requested not to be named, “burned his share of bridges”.

O’Neill, who left the State Bank to take over the ARU in 1995, had testy relationships with players’ association representatives, an array of board rivals, coaches like Eddie Jones and star players like George Gregan. He details in his 2010 biography, It’s Only a Gamehow one meeting with former players union boss Tony Dempsey almost became physically violent when O’Neill called him a “low life”.

Rugby league people eyed O’Neill warily after he strategically poached Wendell Sailor, Lote Tuqiri and Mat Rogers, and wondered aloud in the early 2000s in several forums if the surging rugby code should spend $ 100m to “annex” rugby league, and reunite the two codes. O’Neill even with Kerry Packer to map how a hybrid game might look.

But the biggest collective who has O’Neill’s face on the dartboard is the nation of New Zealand, who were convinced the ARU backstabbed them on a deal to co-host the 2003 World Cup.

High-profile league recruit Wendell Sailor celebrating after the Wallabies won through to the 2003 Rugby World Cup final.

High-profile league recruit Wendell Sailor celebrating after the Wallabies won through to the 2003 Rugby World Cup final.Credit:Jon Reid

After New Zealand Rugby baulked at World Rugby’s requirement to provide a clean stage (without sponsors), they failed to sign a participation agreement and O’Neill swooped on an invitation to run the tournament alone. The drama saw Prime Minister John Howard ring O’Neill for a briefing, after he’d been called by his angry counterpart Helen Clark, but Australia signed on to host the whole thing and banked $ 45 million in profit.


An inquiry later found the NZRU dropped the ball, but relations with the cousins ​​have never been fully repaired and in each of the 20 years since, Australian rugby administrators report bitter New Zealand officials still bring up O’Neill and the 2003 World Cup.

“They said John O’Neill and the Australians stole it from us, well, but we didn’t do everything the right way and you guys didn’t,” Carroll said.

“And once we got it, he was committed to delivering the best ever, and we did.”

O’Neill’s time in football was short but packed with reform, chiefly the arrival of the A-League. After intervention from the federal government and the Crawford Report, the brief was for football to launch a new identity that moved away from the National Soccer League and clubs aligned with different ethnicities.

Dwight Yorke leads the celebration for Sydney FC after they won the inaugural A-League title in 2005.

Dwight Yorke leads the celebration for Sydney FC after they won the inaugural A-League title in 2005.Credit:Fairfax Media

Using his commercial and broadcast networks, O’Neill delivered the bright and shiny A-League, with one team per city. But one football official told the Herald the effects are still being felt today of the scorched earth policy, in which connections with NSL clubs and their rich cultural histories were cut off entirely.

The other major reform of O’Neill’s time in football was executing Lowy’s vision of Australia moving from the Oceania Football Confederation to the Asian Football Confederation, which aided more regular World Cup qualification.


In his biography, O’Neill addressed accusations he was a “publicity seeker, a ‘media junkie’ chief executive intent on building a personal profile and massaging his ego ahead of anything else”.

“This notion was predominantly expressed by officials who conveniently overlooked the organizations ‘success to nitpick about my management’ style,” O’Neill wrote.

“Envy was, in my opinion, the driving force of the whispering campaigns.

“I utterly reject the notion that my methods were deliberately self-serving. I have simply followed the necessary principles you need to recognize and grasp as the head of a major sporting body. ”

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