Tasman CEO Tony Lewis goes West to join Force
[By Tim O'Connell - Stuff / Nelson Mail]
After seven seasons spent lifting top of the south rugby to new heights, Tasman Rugby Union chief executive Tony Lewis is heading to Australia to take over as the new boss of the Western Force.
Lewis replaces Mark Evans as chief executive at the Perth-based Super rugby franchise.
His future employers have seen the appointment as a key part of owner Dr Andrew Forrest’s plan to build the Force into a dominant Trans-Tasman force in Super Rugby.
“Andrew Forrest has got some great vision and I’m really excited that he wants me to be a part of it,” Lewis said.
Lewis said he was “excited but also nervous” about the opportunity, but had enjoyed every minute of his time with Tasman.
“I wasn't looking for a job, but then I got a phone call ... and at this stage of life it is something I thought I should take up.”
A former Western Australian rugby representative in the 1980s prior to making a successful transition into a 30-year career sporting administration, which included general manager of Sydney’s Randwick Rugby Club, and high performance cricket manager at the NSW Blues.
In returning to Australia, Lewis said he hoped to help establish rugby as a stronghold in the state.
“We want to have a team that’s consistently winning - but also as we’ve done here in Tasman is try and build from the bottom up – establish the best academy in the Southern Hemisphere that leads into producing Force players and Wallabies.”
Lewis has been the CEO of the Tasman Rugby Union since 2013, during which time the Mako has emerged as New Zealand’s champion provincial team and become a production line for Super Rugby and international players.
“I think we’ve managed to do some amazing things but only history will judge me – I’m not going to blow my own trumpet,” Lewis said.
Lewis informed TRU chairman Wayne Young of his decision on December 23.
“It was, as Wayne will testify, the hardest decision of my life and I appreciate his support and leadership as I wrestled with the decision.”
The success of the Mako was widely credited to the strong academy system Lewis helped establish, something Forrest wants to emulate in WA to reinvigorate grass roots rugby at both school and club level.
Tasman won back-to-back New Zealand premiership titles in 2019 and 2020 and have appeared in a total of five grand finals since 2014.
Lewis acknowledged the contribution of all involved with Tasman rugby during his tenure, from board members and TRU staff who created a strong front office dynamic, to the players on the field as well as positive club and community support.
The Western Force previously played in Super Rugby from 2006 until they were axed from the competition in 2017.
They have since played in the Australian National Rugby Championship in 2018 and 2019 and Indo-Pacific competition Global Rapid Rugby from 2018 to 2020, a competition organised by Forrest.
The Force competed in the five team Super Rugby AU competition this year, losing all eight of their matches.
Lewis said aimed to be in Perth for the Force’s first game of the 2021 season on February 19.
The Force will also play New Zealand teams this year as part of the Trans-Tasman Super competition which begins in May.
Young said Lewis left Tasman with the board’s blessing and were grateful for the long tenure Lewis had given to the province.
“In true Tony fashion, he’s been very conscious of leaving everything in a tidy state – we are in a good position and there are some good systems in place.”
Young said a decision on Lewis’ replacement would be made in due course, with the union beginning the process of advertising the role within the market.
“He’s got to better himself, as is the case with all players – but I honestly think there’s every chance we could see him back in the region once he has achieved what he wants to with the Force - because if you talk to him you get a sense the top of the south is where his heart is.”
“In the meantime, he is just a phone call away if I ever need to seek his opinion or knowledge.”