Those who observed the former ARL chief executive during the Super League war when billionaire titans Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch fought for the pay TV rights to rugby league have never doubted this square-jawed, look-you-in-the-eye, son of an Anglican minister, nicknamed “Canon”.
For three years, he checked what little ego he had in at the door of his then Phillip Street ARL office, rolled up his sleeves and put in 16-hour days. At a time money flooded the game and super promises were made, he was the one who said “no”.
‘He is one of the greatest sporting administrators Australia has seen.’
Tony Shepherd, chair of Super Trust interim advisory board
When Quayle realised he was an obstacle to peace in 1996, he walked away from the game he had represented Australia in and grew olives at his Denman farm. Then the call came to become General Manager, Venues and Precincts for the Sydney Olympics.
The Games became the model for international sporting events and Quayle, along with his colleagues at MI and Associates, provided the knowhow for running the 2004 Athens Olympics, the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio leading to the 2016 Olympics in the Brazilian city, as well as laying out the infrastructure in Qatar necessary for the multiple World Cups the Middle Eastern desert kingdom is hosting.
When the ARL Commission was formed in 2012, we wondered why he didn’t get a gig. In the end, Quayle ruled himself out via his loyalty to the game. The ARLC constitution prohibits anyone from becoming a commissioner who has served on any rugby league-connected board within the previous three years. So, when the ARLC asked him in 2014 to resurrect the Newcastle Knights in the post-Nathan Tinkler era and find a new long-term owner, it effectively exiled him from the ARLC for six years. It took three years to find a buyer – the rich West Newcastle licensed club group – and another three for the ban to end last month.
Quayle is now eligible for one of the two vacancies on Peter V’landys’ ARLC but is equally qualified for a position on the Super Trust whose overall objective is to win major events, making a positive impact on NSW’s finances.
Melburnians like to think they are 20 years ahead of NSW in this respect but it was Quayle who convinced Victoria’s then Premier Jeff Kennett to play a State of Origin match at the MCG in 1994.
After two years of knockbacks from the beholden-to-the-AFL, conservative MCC, Quayle flew to Melbourne, met Kennett and promised a crowd of 50,000.
Kennett called the MCC and said: “I’m sending Mr Quayle over. He wants a date. You confirm it.”
The match delivered a then Australian record rugby league crowd of 87,000.
Kennett ridicules rugby league, likening it to underwater knitting, but he is very cognisant of its economic impact.
The Super Trust will manage the two Sydney stadiums – ANZ stadium at Homebush and a new one at Moore Park – centralising power Kennett-like, meaning it can match stadium and event rather than have them compete.
Quayle says of the now demolished Sydney Football Stadium: “The first we knew about it being built was when the then Minister for Sport Michael Cleary rang and told us they were pulling down the sports ground overnight and to expect some flak about cutting down a few fig trees,” he said.
”The ARL, a major hirer, had no input into the design. The hirer’s suite didn’t have a toilet. When Prime Minister Bob Hawke wanted to go to the toilet, I had to escort him to the one outside the members’ bar.
“Blokes would come in and pat him on the back while he was standing at the urinal. But he loved it and often stayed out on the concrete concourse chatting to them.”
Quayle was obviously also very familiar with Homebush, including the five days of operations where the matting used for the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics was ripped up, replaced by turf suitable for the track and field events, then further configured for the gold-medal soccer match, all ahead of the Closing Ceremony.
He was also responsible for the test events, monitoring the Modern Pentathlon at the Showground – held the same evening as the NRL grand final on August 27, meaning he missed watching his first Sydney club the Roosters play the Broncos.
John Coates, the Australian Olympic Committee president and an International Olympic Committee member, says: “John Quayle played a most significant role in the delivery of Sydney 2000, particularly in respect of the venues with his understanding of the interaction of the athletes, spectators, sponsors, media and broadcast-rights holders, across a multi-sport event”.
Quayle says of the Games: “My magic moment was the 120-plus horses used in the Opening Ceremony, a test event that involved marshalling 10,000 performers.
“The horses had been trained all over Australia, arrived by floats to the car park at the Hockey Centre with owners who had never met and marshalled into the tunnel under the stadium onto the stadium floor.
“In this incredible atmosphere, I found myself focusing on the horses, watching the steam come from their nostrils. They simply stood there, seeming to know what they had to do.
“I recall wondering: how will they interact with the kids in the ceremony?”
Everything went to plan for the Opening Ceremony, except for the only addition which hadn’t been rehearsed. “A jet flew over and the horses went crazy,” Quayle says.
“But after they performed, the horses went back through the tunnel of the stadium, into the car park, onto the floats and were gone forever … I had never witnessed anything so eerie.”
The future of Homebush stadium will inevitably be on the agenda of the Super Trust.
Tony Shepherd, who will chair the interim advisory board ahead of legislation to create the operating model for the combined body, probably prefers ANZ stadium be kept in its current circular shape given it suits the expansion plans of the AFL and his GWS club.
Ironically, the ARLC probably agrees. When the NSW government reneged on its promise to convert ANZ into a rectangular stadium, V’landys seized on the opportunity to claim the $800 million “saved” should be used to build four or five 20,000 seat broadcast-friendly suburban stadiums in Sydney.
NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro supports V’landys’ boutique stadium plan but surely this is at odds with the Premier’s aim of winning international events, such as the Rugby World Cup in 2027.
The new Moore Park stadium may be too small and, if ANZ remains circular, Sydney could miss out on major world sporting events by failing to meet the stadium criteria set by World Rugby and FIFA.
Shepherd welcomes “Canon” onto his board. “Quayle is an outstanding selection by the Minister and the Premier. He is one of the greatest sporting administrators Australia has seen,” Shepherd says.
Whether the league man in Quayle supports a number of “mini BankWest stadiums” across Sydney, or a redeveloped, rectangular ANZ stadium, it won’t be a compromised decision from a man we have never known to be a “loose Canon.”
Roy Masters is a Sports Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.