O’Neill Quits as Australian Rugby Chief to Focus on Echo Role

John O’Neill stood down as chief executive officer of the Australian Rugby Union after a total of 14 years in the job in which he helped the sport’s transition to professionalism and later expansion.

O’Neill, who had planned to end his second stint as Australian rugby’s top administrator in late 2013, said he’s leaving to focus on business commitments following his appointment as chairman of Echo Entertainment Group Ltd. (EGP)

“It sort of brought me to a fork in the road a bit sooner than I might have expected,” O’Neill, 61, said today in a news conference in Sydney. “It just made sense to reach a decision by mutual agreement that I’d bring forward my departure date.”

O’Neill will leave on Oct. 31 and Matt Carroll, his deputy, will act as CEO from Nov. 1 while a global search is conducted for a long-term replacement, the ARU said.

The governing body will head to the marketplace at the same time as rival sport rugby league, which is seeking a CEO to head up the Australian Rugby League Commission after David Gallop stepped down in June.

O’Neill, a former banker, ran the Sydney-based ARU from 1995 to 2004, during which time rugby shed its amateur status and Australia won the 1999 Rugby World Cup and hosted the global championship four years later.

He left to join Football Federation Australia in March 2004. During his three-year tenure, soccer joined the sporting mainstream in a country that historically preferred three other football codes. The Socceroos qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 32 years and O’Neill helped negotiate Australia’s move to the Asian Football Confederation and revamp the domestic league.

ARU Return

O’Neill returned to the ARU in June 2007 and appointed the Wallabies first non-native coach in New Zealander Robbie Deans six months later. In 2011, Australia added a Super Rugby franchise in Melbourne, the traditional heartland of the Australian Football League.

Deans guided the Wallabies to their first southern hemisphere championship in a decade last year and the team finished third at the 2011 Rugby World Cup after losing to host New Zealand in the semifinals.

Although the Wallabies are currently second behind the All Blacks in the International Rugby Board’s world rankings, Deans’s position has been the subject of speculation in the Australian media after the team lost four of its 10 Tests in 2012, including a first home defeat to Scotland in 30 years.

O’Neill said he’s staying in rugby with roles as an ARU delegate to the International Rugby Board and a board member of Rugby World Cup Ltd., the organizing body for the four-yearly championship. The next edition is 2015 in England.

‘Other Commitments’

“John’s commitment to the game over such a long period of time has been extraordinary and we know that will continue in the future,” ARU Chairman Michael Hawker said in a statement. “We understand that he also has other commitments and we wish him well in those endeavors.”

Echo, operator of Sydney’s only casino, is facing rival stake builds from James Packer’s Crown Ltd. (CWN) and companies associated with Lim Kok Thay’s Genting Bhd. (GENT), with both groups asking gambling regulators for permission to buy up to 25 percent of the company.

Echo has faced several departures in recent months, with O’Neill’s predecessor John Story quitting in June after a campaign by Packer. Non-executive director Brett Paton resigned last month, and chief executive officer Larry Mullin announced his departure Sept. 27.

“The Echo Entertainment subject is not one that I need to go into a lot of detail on,” O’Neill said today. “My arrival there as chairman was certainly not on my bucket list. It came out of the blue and rightly or wrongly I was the person chosen to take over the chairmanship of that company at a pretty challenging time.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Dan Baynes in Sydney at dbaynes@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Elser at celser@bloomberg.net

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