After 71 England rugby caps and ten years at the helm of English rugby, the appointment of Rob Andrew as the new Chief Executive at Sussex County Cricket Club raised more than a few eyebrows. The county needs a strong leader to handle the impact of a proposed Twenty 20 franchise system which could take cricket’s highest profile competition away from the counties and into the big cities. Rob Andrew has never been one to shirk a challenge and the stakes are high for Sussex. Interview by Ian Trevett & Maarten Hoffmann
Rob Andrew is regarded as the great survivor. On the face of it, this would appear to be a fine compliment, but not always. It is often been unfairly laced with: “How has he survived so long?”
As a player, he won 71 caps for England and five for the British Lions, once as captain. At fly-half, he scored an impressive 396 international points, won the Grand Slam with England three times and held the English record for the most points scored in an international – 30 against Canada in 1994. In the 1995 World Cup, he knocked out the Australians with a drop goal on the stroke of full-time to make the score 25-22. It was unerringly similar to the unforgettable World Cup winner nailed by Jonny Wilkinson eight years later.
With such a glittering career, surely he should be regarded as a legend, but many commentators and fans lobbied for his more flamboyant rival Stuart Barnes, rooting for the ‘Cavalier’ rather than the ‘Roundhead’. The Guardian’s Eddie Butler countered such a view: “As a player he was outstanding in an understated way… he was brave – as a tackling outside-half, in his day was a pioneer – and pinpoint-accurate with his kicking and much more ruthlessly determined than would ever be revealed by either his fresh countenance or his nickname of “Squeaky”.”
After taking on the role of director of rugby at Newcastle Falcons and playing a key role in the development of Jonny Wilkinson (more on this later), he accepted the challenging role of Director of Elite Rugby at the RFU, a role which later evolved to Professional Rugby Director. He produced a intricately detailed blueprint for evolving the newly professional game known as the Andrew Report, which was lauded for being wonderfully ahead of its time. He worked behind the scenes on creating a structure for clubs and county that was sustainable for the future, but he was at the RFU at time when the national team slipped from the post-2003 euphoria to the humiliation of failing to progress in their own World Cup. Fingers were pointed at the RFU establishment, including Rob, who was not even directly involved.
Brian Moore reported more accurately on Rob’s stint at the RFU: “Andrew’s main role throughout his 10 years with the RFU was the management of the agreement between the professional clubs and the RFU. He brokered and ran the 2008-2016 deal and completed the forthcoming deal. The creation and maintenance of those agreements is central to the good of the English elite game and it is not a simple task.”
Throughout Rob’s playing and off-field career, two words crop up time-and-time again: determined and steely. When Steve James, the Sunday Telegraph rugby correspondent repeated one of criticisms levelled against him, Rob replied: “I spent most of my playing career being told I wasn’t good enough to play for England. I think I became thick-skinned as a player. I am also a pretty stubborn Yorkshire farmer’s son, so I’ve seen most things and a few words aren’t going to make any difference.”
In his new role as Sussex County Cricket Club Chief Executive, this steely determination will be a huge asset for the county.
We met with Rob Andrew and Sussex Chairman Jim May on a chilly day at the County Ground.
We asked Rob to bring along a rugby ball for the photographs, which apparently wasn’t as easy as we expected, and only after some searching did he manage to find one in his garden. Jim seemed to have just as much difficulty finding a cricket ball – at a cricket club! But after the logistical difficulties, Rob and Jim were happy to field all our questions in a frank and informative manner. It was a fascinating insight into the issues of running a professional sports club.
Our first question was not to Rob, but to Jim May. Why Rob Andrew?
“We had a very, very strong field this time round,” says Jim. “We had very serious people applying from football and Rugby Union as well as cricket. So why Rob?
“First of all he’s had a very strong background in professional sport, as a player, a manager and an administrator. We thought it was really useful to have somebody coming with a fresh pair of eyes from a different sporting background.
“Also, what was really apparent was that he’d done an awful lot of homework. He had done a lot of due diligence on cricket and on Sussex. We’ve got an organisation here that encompasses the professional side but also the recreational game – we’re responsible for the governance of the 245 league clubs and a growing number of community activities where we’re using the power of cricket for social good. He came across as being very passionate about cricket and he bought into our strategy.
“We had a lot of people here from the national press at our press conference, but he got the job on merit. We weren’t seduced by the name, although obviously it was interesting and when I saw the name pop up I wondered how serious Rob was. When I got to know him, it was quite clear that he was very serious and he did see it as the next logical challenge. He’d seen a lot of changes in rugby and he thought there were lessons learnt there that we could use within the wider cricket game.”
Now Rob has his feet under the table, what next? What are the goals he would like to meet?
“Firstly, we want a pro cricket team that people want to come and watch; a successful team that players want to play for,” says Rob.
“Why would we bother turning up if we’re not trying to get promoted and trying to win cups? So I absolutely want the pro side to be doing well.
“We want to continue producing our own players. That’s our philosophy and that’s very important to the community and to the kids coming through. If you’re in the Under 10s or the Under 14s you’ve got to dream of playing for Sussex and that’s got to be available to them. They have to be able to see the guys, and girls, in front of them making progress, because that’s what encourages them.
“Then there is the recreation cricket, community cricket, disability cricket, street cricket or cage cricket in inner city areas – it’s getting people engaged in cricket. This is the Foundation’s work, getting 5-year-olds playing cricket.
“The third part of the jigsaw is the driving of revenue into the business – because this is a business, somebody has to pay for it. So you’ve got to get as many people engaged – companies, individuals, spectators, fans and the people who want to hire this ground out, because this is the commercial heart that feeds the rest of it. All the cogs have got to be lined up and working together to ensure that it works. We’ve got a pretty good commercial model here. We’re one of the few counties without any debt; we’ve invested in the ground; we’ve got a very loyal supporter base, both membership and T20 supporters; a very loyal partnership base, people passionately care about this club.
“We have a huge history. And we also have one of the most special county cricket grounds in the country. It’s not a test match ground. It’s never going to be, we don’t want it to be. It’s not a concrete jungle on the outskirts of somewhere that you can’t get to – we don’t want one of those, either. We want to stay here and have the special nature of Hove which is two minutes from the sea and place where people can enjoy sitting in deck chairs watching cricket.
“We drive half a million pounds of commercial rent through the site that we feed back into cricket which then goes to the thing and the whole thing keeps going. So those three things have to be interlinked.
“The final piece of the jigsaw is the relationship with ECB. In the region of 30-35% of our revenue comes from the ECB. We need that relationship to be strong and we need to help them drive greater revenues into the game because we will be a beneficiary.”
Rob Andrew could have made a career in rugby or cricket. His claim to fame as a cricketer was dismissing Michael Atherton for a duck in a Yorkshire-Lancashire second team game. He also earned two Cambridge Blues for cricket. So why rugby?
“I was doing both at school, running side by side. When I left school, if you’d asked my mates whether I’d concentrate on rugby or cricket, they’d have said cricket. My school cricket record was better than my school rugby record.
“Did I have more of a passion for cricket than I had for rugby at school? I don’t know. Possibly. When I got this job, by brother Richard said to me: “You’ve always actually been more passionate about cricket than rugby”.
“I think in a sense rugby pulled me there because whilst I was at university, I was selected to play for England and in my final year at university I played in the Five Nations. That was 32 years ago in February 1985. The game was amateur then but I was still playing in front of 50,000 – 60,000 people at Twickenham. So rugby took me down that road.
“I spent the whole of my career as an amateur. I worked in London and became a chartered surveyor, but I kept playing cricket for a while. I was a very dour opening batsman and bowled a bit of non-turning off spin. I genuinely love playing cricket, I love batting. I kept playing for as long as I could and then rugby became more serious and other things happened in life.”
Rob was known for his ability to kick equally well with both feet. A case of unusual natural ability?
“I wasn’t really two-footed. I was right-footed and kicking with my left foot was just down to practice. If you want to do well, it’s a bit of a cliché but whatever you put in, you get out. Jonny Wilkinson was more two-footed than I was, though he was actually left-footed and his weaker foot was his right foot.”
Rob retired from the game at 36, but not before he played a big part in shaping the career of Jonny Wilkinson, with whom he shares the high of beating the Wallabies in the World Cup with a last minute drop kick.
“In the amateur days I was playing with a scrum half called Steve Bates who was a teacher at Lord Wandsworth College in Hampshire, and he would often say, “I’ve got this kid who’s 13 or 14, who’s just phenomenal.” We were thinking that we would get him to Wasps.
“When I went to Newcastle in 1995, just after I retired from England, the first two people I took with me were Dean Ryan, the Wasps number 8, and Steve Bates. We had a little plan to divert Jonny’s career via Newcastle and managed to persuade him and his parents that at 18 it would be a good idea to leave leafy Hampshire and go to the bright lights of Newcastle. He came to Newcastle as an 18-year-old straight from school and the rest is history.
“As we were building the Newcastle club I played for a little bit and played alongside Jonny for a couple of seasons – we’d play fly-half and centre together. We had a bit of success in 1997/1998 and I was enjoying playing still, but in 1999, I did my shoulder again. It had dislocated a few times but I never had it operated on. Then I was training on a Monday morning after we’d played on a Saturday, I hit something and the shoulder went out and I couldn’t get it back in. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital in Newcastle. I just thought, “This is it”.”
After a successful stint as Director of Rugby of Newcastle Falcons, Rob took up a leading role at the RFU. With the English national side struggling, the inevitable flak was flying, but this was not Rob’s remit: “Fundamentally my role at the RFU was managing the relationship of the professional game, managing the relationships between the RFU, the professional clubs, the system, if you like, of English professional rugby. I negotiated two 8-year deals or Heads of Agreement, the second of which runs through to 2024. It’s the detail of the financial, operational and playing relationship between the RFU and the professional game.”
The long journey from amateur to professional was always going to be complicated but Rob is clear about the main issues.
“In simple terms, the big issue was money – always money. From an English rugby point of view, it is about the development of English players and the release of English players to the national team, but money comes into it.
Effectively, the clubs employ the players, so the Union (i.e. the England team) is effectively negotiating the release of players to play.
Taking the example of the Six Nations, Eddie Jones has the players for eight weeks, so he’s taking the players out of the club business. Imagine saying to Man United: “We’re going to take your best players out for eight weeks in the middle of the season.” I know what the answer would be!
“The difference is how powerful the clubs are. In football, the power and the money lies in the Premier League. In cricket it all about the national team and the ECB central contracts, which are a big deal for clubs. Rugby is somewhere in the middle. In an ideal world, if I had an RFU hat on, I’d probably want to try and get a central contract system like cricket, but that opportunity has probably gone. If I’m a club owner in rugby, I probably want it to be much more like the football model where I don’t have to release my players as often as I do. The issue is all about money and the delivery of English players. It translates into the development of English players. In football about 30% of the players in the Premiership are English qualified; rugby is about 65-70% English qualified; and cricket is probably more than that.
The Challenges for Cricket
“Cricket’s has got some really interesting challenges at the moment as a sport, not just Sussex. All sports have to be relevant in their communities and they have to pay their way. People care passionately about cricket, but it’s got a bit of a dual identity at the moment – it’s trying to work out what it is. It’s become two games – the traditional long game and the T20 (twenty overs) game.
“I am discovering the vast complexity of cricket, it’s far more complex than football and rugby. There are different formats of the game, central contracts, other competitions where your best players just go off to India or Australia and play with somebody else. Our captain’s been in Australia; we had three players playing in the Australian Big Bash – Luke Wright, Tymal Mills and Chris Jordan. And then Tymal and Chris went off to India to play in the Indian Premier League. Now all three of them are in the United Arab Emirates playing the Pakistani Super League.
“In rugby the 15-a-side game and the rugby sevens are effectively different sports with hardly any cross over. I suspect cricket is heading down the same route. At the moment the Joe Roots of this world will play all formats. It wouldn’t surprise me if in five or ten years they become totally separate.
“The T20 format is driving a level of interest, and revenue, so clearly it has to be taken seriously. Participation in adult cricket is falling but we also have enormous numbers of kids playing, and girls’ cricket is growing really quickly. There are these split identities all over the place where at one level participation is dropping off and on another level you can’t get near a cricket club on a Friday night in Surrey and Sussex because there are so many kids playing cricket. How do you keep them in the game? How do you keep enough money in the game at the top end? And how do you keep both the red ball and the white ball (or a pink bad in day/night games!) [See the accompanying interview with Jim May for more on the traditional cricket versus T20 debate]
“One of the challenges with working for a sports organisation is that you get a very wide range of people and passions, thoughts and opinions – that’s what sport does, it drives opinions. Harness all of those and get everybody working together is the aim and that starts with the board. Sussex punches above its weight and an organisation can only do that if everybody is pulling in the same direction. You can’t be a smaller organisation and punch above our weight unless people are all pulling in the same direction.”
Working with Businesses
Rob’s time at the helm at Newcastle Falcons and at the RFU has enabled him to get a good understanding of how business and sport can work together. How can companies get involved with the cricket club?
“Traditionally companies have used sport for a branding exercise, specifically if they’re growing into a new market or territory, and, of course, we offer this opportunity. But the two areas where we offer real value is actually in the business-to-business relationship building and through the Foundation. The Boundary Club (a networking lunch club) is a really good example of our match day hospitality, where businesses engage with like-minded people. We also have our Players Club and Executive Club.
“Where companies can really help and get value is by getting involved in our Foundation. We’re only scratching the surface as we’ve only been going a year but we already have significant social programmes around health, disability, employment, education and inclusion.
“We have the Santander Learning Centre in the ground here and that is an area where I think we can fulfil branding, marketing and Corporate Social Responsibility all under one roof. And people can directly see the benefits of how they are making a difference. For instance, we have a massive disability day here every summer where we have 300 kids with disabilities playing cricket, and it is events like this where companies can help and gain so much.”
The Big Question
So to the final question. Gun to your head, which sport is your passion? Rugby or cricket?
“I’m refusing to answer that question!”