by Greg Volz
Tony Mestrov is feeling busted up. It started earlier in the season with a broken hand. Split in two. His doctor at the London Broncos told him he’d be out for six to eight weeks. Tony said “strap it up”, and kept on playing. He’s had neck problems for a while now. And chicken pox, can you believe it, at 31. Last night’s sleep was a bad one. It was hot and heat always gets to him. And now he’s got the Hull front rower eyeing him up for a square up. Tony has just hit him, a good one. Now it’s his turn. Tony has the ball and runs straight and hard, as he’s always done. The guy hits him. Thwaaack. A big one. There’s a tingle down his spine. For the first time in his career, Tony puts his hand up. The trainer comes up. “I’m not right,” Tony says. Deep down, he knows he’s finished.
Eleven years later, Tony Mestrov, former Manly, Souths, Wigan and London Broncos rugby league player, is sitting in the board room at Hockey New South Wales. In a few days he will provide the board with an update on his plans as the new chief executive. So far, the story is all good. The sponsorship dollars he committed to deliver in his first 100 days. Tick. Rebuilding relationships with the clubs and associations in NSW. Tick. The longer term plans to transform the place underway. To bring the thinking of professional sport to an amateur game and get more people playing it. Coming together. When Tony talks, and he talks a lot, you get the sense things will happen.
Tony’s rise up the corporate ladder from ex-rugby league player to chief executive in another sport is rare, if not unique. It hasn’t been easy. “The transition from rugby league is so hard because you live in this bubble. The way the game is, they ask players to be normal when they’re outside of the game or they’re finished. The game isn’t normal,” says Tony.
“Every discussion I had in the dressing room before I went out was about overcoming my opponent in a physical sense. It was about hurting them, don’t hit to kill, but hit to hurt. And how do you transition from that?”
He laughs as he reflects on his early working life after league. There was the real estate job, paying thirty grand a year, a start-up promotional shirt business with a mate that went pear shaped. He applied for the Chief Executive role at Manly when he was no-where near ready. “I used to like nailing people,” he says. “Figuring out who was the bad guy in the company and nail them until the cows came home,” he says. “I’ve stopped that. There’s a time to put your foot down but it’s got to be measured.”
Up close, Tony still screams front row forward. A big man, still fit. Shoulders, arms, chest and forehead, the collision zones in league, carved from granite. If he were a machine, he’d be a bulldozer, gearstick stuck on forward. He dresses well. A legacy of the Super League era when all that money meant Hugo Boss was a second skin. He’s in corporate uniform today, dark suit, striped shirt, silver cufflinks straining to keep sleeves wrapped around a giant pair of arms. Such a big man could easily intimidate, but an impish grin and a jumbling of words that reek of passion, quickly disarm. He fires off an analysis of amateur sport and what his plans are for hockey in New South Wales.
“The big difference between a professional and an amateur organisation is the mindset,” he says. “In professional sport you become an innovator. I want to have a state championships, based on nine or even seven players like a cricket 20:20 game. Have a band here for the weekend, have invitational sides that wear funky tops, just something that hockey’s never done.” For Tony it’s about getting player numbers up, when they have been stagnant for three years.
It’s not his first plan. You see, Tony was never one of rugby league’s super stars. When he first tried out for the professional game, a young kid armed only with his HSC, he barely made the fifth junior side. So, he made a plan to make first grade, and he stuck to it. Always do your hit ups, always be involved, make sure you are noticed. And, as his parents told him, keep studying. By 21 he had a university degree in political science and was playing for the Manly Sea Eagles.
Daniel O’Loughlin is Managing Partner of Komodo Management Group, a company that specialises in supporting professional sports people who have finished playing. “Mate, honestly, he is just like a dog with a bone. He knows what he wants and he’ll stop at nothing to get there.” Daniel has watched Tony’s progression, and laments the contrast with current players.
“He got the most out of his ability. But the more money that has come into the game, the more these guys are sitting on their arses and just thinking, I’ll figure it out later.”
These days, Tony talks with pride of the things he’s got out of league. Like how to manage staff. Legendary league coach Wayne Bennett, who helped Tony relaunch his career by recommending him to the London Broncos, said to him one day, “good people deserve opportunities.”
Tony says that was important to him. “He showed me that man management was imperative, for no other reason than he wanted to see good people get a chance. He helped me out on my journey. And that’s what managing is all about, helping people.”
And what about that Board meeting coming up on Saturday. Nervous?
“I became an enforcer in rugby league in England. I had a real thing about bullies, because early on, I was soft. Early days in school I was really soft. So, I overcame a lot of fear through rugby league.” Tony laughs. “No, I’m not nervous.”