Danny Kazandjian: Planning an International Future – Part 1

League Express editor Martyn Sadler talks to the new man at the helm of International Rugby League.

Two weeks ago we reported that Danny Kazandjian had been appointed as the new Secretary-General of International Rugby League (IRL), formerly known as the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF).
Kazandjian took charge from 1st December, taking over the renamed position from the organisation’s former Chief Executive Nigel Wood.
Kazandjian first joined the RLIF (as it then was) as Global Operations Manager in June 2018.
He joined IRL from the Rugby League European Federation, where he had fulfilled the role of general manager since 2010 and enjoyed great success in expanding the number of nations playing Rugby League, both in Europe and in Africa and the Middle East.
Prior to that, Kazandjian had lived in Lebanon, creating the Lebanese Rugby League Federation, which is now a full member of the IRL.
Last week he spoke to League Express editor Martyn Sadler to talk about his new role and how he sees the future of the international game.
This is the first of a two-part article. The second part will conclude in our next issue, which will be in the shops on Monday 4 January.

MS: You are described as the Secretary-General of International Rugby League (IRL). Is that effectively the CEO with a new title?

DK: The term is widely in use throughout the international sporting community. It is a classical term used by multiple International Federations and omnisport organisations. For example, FEI, FIA, FIBA, FIFA, UEFA, most Olympic organisations, including ANOC and WADA.
The UN defines the role as the “chief administrative officer”, and its responsibilities are largely similar in organisations that use the term.
My position, as the head of the administration or management, will be instantly recognised by those I communicate with, which will aid clarity, as they will understand my hierarchical position. This wasn’t the case with my previous title, which is not widely in use and does not suggest a head of administration function.

MS: How would you describe the nature of the job?

DK: I am the head of the management team and responsible for both managing the work programmes and performance of the staff, while also acting as the link between management and the Board. A key part of the role is implementing Board directives and resolutions, currently under the broad framework of the 2018-25 Global Conversion strategy, which we’re intending to examine and refresh.
The role has expanded and continues to expand rapidly as the IRL transforms itself into a genuine international federation, in the classical sense. By that I mean we are now responsible for core areas that the old RLIF had not assumed, such as a clear operational framework to regulate member interaction, match officiating, anti-doping, communications, compliance, governance and judiciary.
We’re also scrutinised more heavily now by the international sporting community due to our growth and Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) observer membership.
On a daily basis, I interact more with the confederations than I do with the individual member nations, but I’m here to support all of them.

MS: How many other people are employed by IRL? Who are they and what are their roles?

DK: The only full-time employees are myself and Jeremy Edwards, who is the General Manager for the Southern Hemisphere. We also have six other staff members who have part-time roles, including Niel Wood, who is responsible for our media relations, and Stuart Cummings, who is our Match Officials Manager.
Then we have Sara Piper, who is responsible for our digital presence. She has worked with the NRL and was Head of Digital for the 2017 World Cup. She is now based in Manchester and is involved in the forthcoming World Cup in England.
We are also seeking to add a commercial manager to support our strategic imperative, which is monetising the international calendar.

MS: How much progress did the international body make under the leadership of your predecessor, Nigel Wood?

DK: You cannot get a bigger advocate of international Rugby League and its power than Nigel Wood. He was instrumental in pushing the IRL to go from a virtual organisation that was a virtual clearinghouse of sorts for international competition between a few nations to what it is today, an organisation that is assuming responsibility for many aspects of the sport globally and providing leadership in Rugby League.

MS: What is your relationship to RLWC2021? Do you have a role in the World Cup?

DK: RLWC2021 is essentially the local organising committee (LOC) for the competition, empowered by IRL to deliver the tournament according to a series of contractually agreed standards and guarantees.
You have to stand back and applaud the way the RLWC team has gone about its business since it was created.
The innovation, excitement and enthusiasm they have brought to every aspect of the tournament so far has been good to watch.
CEO Jon Dutton and Chair Chris Brindley report regularly to the IRL Board, which then interrogates them on the tournament progress.
But management of the tournament is the corporate responsibility of the Board of RLWC2021 Ltd. We have two IRL directors who sit on the RLWC2021 Ltd board to represent our interest.

MS: What do you need to do to enthuse the Australians for international Rugby League?

DK: Australians are incredibly enthusiastic about international Rugby League and always have been. Some of the most memorable moments in the sport’s history involve Australia.
Any perception of a lack of enthusiasm is perhaps gleaned through a contrast between the massive visibility of State of Origin and the NRL when compared to international Rugby League. Viewed through the lens of the ARLC as a business, this absolutely makes sense, given the responsibilities they have to their own stakeholders and the sheer disparity between the sizes of our two businesses.
We should never lose sight of the critical leadership role Australia has to play in the international game, and it’s our responsibility to align interests to ensure that the international game delivers its full potential.
We’re in unprecedented times, where there are approximately six countries that can beat one another at the very elite level, and we’re in that position largely because of the strength of the local Australian set-up, which has, over time, allowed Tongan, Fijian, Samoan and New Zealand players – not just in the defensive or ball-carrying aspects of the game but also the leadership and tactical areas – to hone their high-performance excellence and game-management expertise.
IRL and ARLC staff have recently been collaborating effectively to further our strategic imperative, the international calendar, while the two Australian-elected directors on the IRL Board, Peter Beattie and Wayne Pearce, are avowed internationalists.
Any discerning observer would accept that international sport cuts through like no other area of a sport, and while domestic competitions remain most sports’ lifeblood, the international dynamic is unique and must be cherished.
Our job is to elevate that international profile for our sport to new heights so that some of the games in the future hold the type of exalted position in the game’s history as some of those famous Australian moments of the past that I mentioned.

MS: Is the fact that the Australian Rugby League Players’ Association (RLPA) has negotiated a limit on the number of matches its members can play each year a hindrance to the development of international Rugby League?

DK: Not at all, and I can also point to the excellent relationship we have with RLPA, which collaborates with us frequently.
The RLPA is culturally internationalist in its outlook and understands, through its interaction with its members, that they want to play international Rugby League. The RLPA also understands that international Rugby League must be affordable and you’ve already seen some practical, positive steps recently, when players accepted reduced payments to ensure parity with their competitors. This is a good example of the collaboration and commonality of purpose that is palpable.
What we need to do now is transfer all that latent goodwill into concrete results in the form of an international calendar that is supported by all stakeholders, including the RLPA. By doing that we’ll build confidence into the international game and begin to unlock benefits that haven’t previously existed. We have been short-termist and desultory, but there’s a great will to change that and deliver a long-term calendar.
On the question of a capped numbers of games for each player, this is soluble through husbandry of resources, and would not be an unfamiliar problem for most coaches to deal with, as injuries and form will lead to selection churn over a 3-4 year period anyway.

Part 2 of this interview will be published on TotalRL.com at 8.30am on Thursday 7th Jan 2021.

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