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NRL 2022: Manly’s new CEO Tony Mestrov can save a club that’s gone to the dogs

When Manly’s new CEO Tony Mestrov walks into the club to begin his new job on Monday he will enter a fractured club in need of a uniting presence.

Some would argue Manly have gone to the dogs over the past week. Lucky for them, Tony Mestrov is about to take ownership of his office from him on the second floor of the club’s pristine new Center of Excellence.

Mestrov is the former Sea Eagles front-rower who took over NSW Greyhounds at a time when the industry was in crisis. He waded through turbulence, politics and the occasional death threat as he turned greyhounds into a thriving business.

He saved the iconic Dapto dogs when all hope looked lost. He stood outside the racetrack and said it was going nowhere. He took out a court injunction and the dogs raced that night. Now, all these years later, they are still running.

He came into control only days after the NSW Government had reversed a decision to shut down greyhound racing. To say the sport was on the death’s door was an understatement. Mestrov dug in for a fight and he emerged bruised, battered and victorious.

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Mestrov has spent the past week casting a final eye over the empire he helped rebuild, but he has also watched events at Manly from afar. He starts as the Sea Eagles chief executive on Monday.

He does so with the club having endured a week unlike any other in their history, immersed in controversy over a jersey that threatened to tear the club apart.

The Pride jerseys were a clear winner. It is understood the first batch sold out and the jersey manufacturers have begun making more to meet the demand. While they have been a financial success, they came at a price after seven players sat out Thursday night’s loss to the Sydney Roosters due to religious grounds.

That loss may come back to haunt the club come finals time. Mestrov’s more immediate concern is to join a club that would seem to be fractured by the past week.

He will walk through the gates at 4Pines Park with his eyes wide open having taken over greyhounds when that sport was in a similar position.

I have endured criticism and controversy. He took on the establishment and revolutionized the sport in many ways, his crowning achievement was the introduction of the Million Dollar Chase.

His success came as no surprise to those who know him. As a footballer, Mestrov wasn’t the most gifted player but he extracted every bit of juice from the lemon during a peripatetic career that took him from Manly to South Sydney to London to Wigan and back to London.

Rugby league was in his blood and after he called time on his playing career, he found a home at the Gold Coast, where he worked alongside NRL head of football Graham Annesley. He went close to landing the Manly job the last time it became available but missed out and was forced to bide his time in the greyhound industry, where he has left a lasting legacy.

He has given it all up to step into the hottest seat in the NRL. Manly have a history of turning over chief executives – Mestrov is the club’s sixth in eight years. The position is the closest thing rugby league has to a poison chalice.

It’s an embarrassing record that speaks to the instability within the club’s administration. That instability no doubt contributed to the events of the past week as communication broke down and players turned their back on the club.

Manly owner Scott Penn has vowed to unite the Sea Eagles again but Mestrov will be his man on the ground – Penn spends much of his time in America and the club has been without a genuine figurehead since Mestrov’s predecessor Steve Humphreys parted ways with the club in April.

Mestrov is refreshed and rejuvenated, having spent recent weeks on a family holiday where he returned to Wigan and visited Croatia.

Those close to him suggest he has served the ideal apprenticeship for what awaits him at Manly. Events of the past week are just another day in greyhound racing according to those close to Mestrov, only on a bigger scale.

Mestrov’s first challenge will be to bring the club back together. The seven players who sat out Thursday night’s game were told to stay away from 4 Pines Park amid security concerns. They are in the eye of a storm.

For all the praise that has been showered on the club for their stance, there have been others who have called and abused staff. Emotions are running high.

It is a big task, but one that Mestrov is no doubt relishing.

* * * * *

News that Greg Norman is targeting Australia for his Saudi-backed rebel tour as early as next year is likely to prompt a mixed reaction.

Australian golf has long craved a tournament capable of drawing the world’s best to these shores and Norman has promised to do just that.

He would also bring the side-show that comes with LIV Golf. The controversy, the angst and the criticism.

No doubt, LIV’s impending arrival in Australia will only strengthen Norman’s resolve when it comes to luring Cameron Smith across the sport’s gaping divide.

Smith, the recently-crowned British Open champion and world No. 2, looks certain to play out the year on the US PGA Tour.

After that, it is game on. The same applies to Adam Scott and Marc Leishman. Norman wants all three and he has the sort of money that could make the switch irresistible.

The hot tip is that the LV tournament will be played in April in Sydney. It means Norman has eight months to convince the holy trinity of Australian golf – Smith, Scott and Leishman – to jump ship and join LIV.

Expect him to give it a red-hot crack.

BOZO WOULD BE PROUD: THREE GENERATIONS OF FULTON SEA EAGLES

-Dean Richie

This one’s for you, grandad.

Forward Zac Fulton is ready to run out onto the ground bearing his famous grandfather’s name on the northern grandstand, where the family will be seated to watch history in the making as the third generation of Fulton plays for Manly.

Manly coach Des Hasler finalized his side on Wednesday night with Fulton to make his NRL debut from the bench, after being named 18th man on Tuesday.

Fulton, 20, has been rushed into a depleted side after seven players with drawn on religious grounds because of Manly’s pride jersey.

Zac, 20, would often chat to Bob after football, especially around training and preparation.

Bob Fulton is regarded as Manly’s greatest player, an Immortal of rugby league who died in May last year.

His sons Scott (1993-99) and Brett (1994-95) played first grade at Manly with Zac, Scott’s son, to now continue this remarkable family legacy.

Zac’s uncle is former Manly premiership-winning center Terry Hill. It is the first time three generations of one family have played first grade for the same club.

“We are all proud but certainly his grandad would be as proud as punch, given Zac is another one of the family to go through and play for the club where Dad is the number one player in their history,” said Brett, who coached Zac throughout the Manly juniors, from under 16s through to under 21s. “And I can’t see that ever being bettered.

“Dad was a big supporter of all his grandkids, particularly Zac in relation to how he was progressing with his footy.

“Zac was always asking his granddad for advice and he took it, especially about how to train, how to prepare. He took advice from the best. We are all incredibly proud.”

Fulton’s great mate and former teammate, Peter Peters, was excited.

“Bob Fulton’s eight grandchildren are well versed in the deeds of their famous grandfather,” he said. “The four boys and four girls all love rugby league and love nothing more than playing.

“The boys are all part of the Manly development squads with the eldest Zac getting his chance in tonight’s NRL clash with the Roosters at 4 Pines Park in front of his grandmother Anne and a host of family members high in the Bob Fulton Stand.

“I’m honored to be sharing the moment with them along with Koby (18), Jake (17) and Ethan (14) who are all destined to wear the famous maroon and white in the NRL. My old mate Bozo would be bursting with pride.”

Zac has come through the Manly junior system and blossomed into a rising backrower.

Club officials believe he has a bright future at Brookvale.

“Zac will go very well. He is hard working, solid footy player with a fair bit of skill too. He has good footwork in the middle and more recently played at 13,” Brett said.

“He came through the grades as a backrower so he has versatility as well. Zac is a tough kid. He has been training (in the NRL squad) since November last year. From all reports, he has taken that (Fulton) work ethic into his training. He has put himself in a good position.

“He has been in the Manly system since he was 15. He is a good kid, he should do well.”

FIJIAN FLYER’S TEARS OF JOY AMID SEA EAGLES DRAMA

—Michael Carayannis

Meet the Fijian journeyman who earns $500 for a win and $300 for a loss and has been tasked with shutting down three-time premiership winner Daniel Tupou.

Pio Seci broke down with tears when Manly coach Des Hasler told him of his NRL debut on Tuesday. While the build-up to Thursday’s game has been marred by seven players boycotting the clash, it has allowed a player such as Seci to fulfill a dream he never thought would happen.

Just a month ago, he was in his native Fiji believing his rugby league career was all but over. He had just completed the French domestic season for Avignon before returning home.

He was then plucked from his homeland to represent Fiji in the mid-year Test.

“He didn’t even come into the country with boots,” Seci’s manager John Taulaga said.

“The Fijian coach told him if he wanted to be a chance of making the World Cup squad he had to play out the season in Australia.”

Wanting to push for a spot at the end-of-year tournament, Seci was set to play out the year in regional NSW. Until Blacktown Workers Sea Eagles stepped in.

Taulaga sent highlights of Seci to Blacktown’s football manager Todd Darvall.

Darvall said he knew he had something special.

“Within a week of watching the video he played his first game,” Darvall said. “He is big and strong, very much like Maika Sivo.”

Seci, who is the cousin of Storm star Tui Kamikamica, has played just four matches for Manly’s feeder-club before getting the surprise call-up. He has scored three tries in the past three matches playing at centre.

“I rang him about 9pm on Monday and told him he needed to get to Manly training on Tuesday morning and that there was a good chance he would be playing NRL,” Darvall said. “He was silent. He had no idea what was going on. I think he thought he was in trouble and being summoned to Manly.

“I spoke to him after he found out he was in the team on Tuesday and he was very emotional.”

The time-frame has made it impossible for Seci’s wife and young child to make the trip from Fiji to watch the game.

It has been a long road for the 28-year-old, who was scouted and was signed to the Bulldogs as part of their under-20s squad almost a decade ago.

He bounced around various Queensland Cup sides always hoping he would get his crack.

Visa issues and Covid-19 halted his momentum after playing Ron Massey Cup for the Silktails last year.

Taulaga said there were tears of joy when the pair spoke after finding out Seci would play his first game. He is expected to line up against Tupou on the flank.

“No one understands the journey he has been on,” Taulaga said. “On his way back from France last month he was stranded in Thailand and was sleeping at the airport because they wouldn’t let him into Australia because of visa concerns.”

Now he gets his chance to since on the bright lights at 4 Pines Park alongside million-dollar players, including Daly Cherry-Evans and James Tedesco.

Originally published as NRL 2022: Manly’s new CEO Tony Mestrov can save a club that’s gone to the dogs

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