October 20, 2015 / 2:45 AM / 2 years ago

Rugby League-Smith quits as chief of Australia's NRL

MELBOURNE, Oct 20 (Reuters) - Dave Smith has stepped down as chief executive of Australia's National Rugby League after three polarising years at the head of the sport's richest competition.

The Wales-born former banker will finish his contract on Nov. 30 and John Grant, the Australian Rugby League Commission chairman, will take over on an interim basis, the NRL said on Tuesday.

A private recruitment firm will search for a replacement for Smith, who was a surprise choice to succeed David Gallop in 2013 and wore criticism for his handling of rights negotiations with broadcasters this year.

In August, Smith trumpeted a new five-year A$925 million ($671 million) deal with free-to-air host broadcaster Channel Nine for 2018-22 broadcasting rights, having snubbed Rupert Murdoch's pay-TV unit Fox Sports from negotiations.

The News Corp boss duly threw his weight behind rival football code Australian Rules, co-signing a six-year A$2.5 billion deal with free-to-air broadcaster Seven West Media and digital provider Telstra.

Smith walks away with the pay-TV and digital rights components unsettled, and with the NRL facing an uphill task to match the record deal struck by the AFL.

Smith, however, talked up his record in a statement, saying it was time for someone fresh to carry on his legacy.

"We have secured the biggest free-to-air broadcast deal in our history, A$1.6 billion for investment in rugby league stadiums and a financial platform that includes a sustainability fund of A$50m and a surplus of A$100m that is progressively being invested back into the game, and a 48 percent increase in non-broadcast revenue," he said.

Lacking any background in the sport, Smith took up the post as the league struggled with the biggest doping crisis in its history and was quickly derided for a number of public gaffes, including mis-naming a top player at his first season launch.

However, Smith worked hard to improve the image of a competition which had long tolerated ugly on-field violence and off-field scandal.

After a controversial brawl in the annual State of Origin series between New South Wales and Queensland in 2013, Smith instituted a 'one punch and you're off' rule, ensuring that players who let fly would be automatically sent to the sin-bin.

The policy was slammed by purists but changed the complexion of the game in one fell swoop.

$1 = 1.3782 Australian dollars Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Greg Stutchbury

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