PHIL WAUGH is one of Rugby Union’s most preeminent figures. A former Wallaby, Waugh played in the 2003 and 2007 Rugby World Cups, and has 136 matches for the New South Wales Waratahs under his belt. In 2003, he was also crowned the Wallabies Best and Fairest player. After his playing career, Waugh took an unconventional route; he went back to university and studied finance, working as a banker for a number of years. But in 2023, he returned to the place he made his name, becoming the CEO of Rugby Australia on the eve of the Wallabies 2023 World Cup campaign.
That campaign mightn’t have gone to plan, but if there’s anyone who knows how to dust themselves off after a loss, it’s Waugh. Recently, he sat down as part of Esquire’s long-running interview series What I’ve Learned, to chat about leaving a legacy, being a father and why “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.
I was a pretty active young boy. My brother played soccer; I was four and he was six and I wanted to go off and play contact sports. In high school, I captained cricket and also played in the First XV. It was active weekends playing and training and, of course, it was before mobile phones. If your parents weren’t there to pick you up, you had to wait.
I loved rugby and from 10, or 11, set my sights on playing for Australia. My timing was fortuitous because I became a professional in 1999. But I would’ve still been on the same path and had the same aspiration and ambition if it was still an amateur game.
Joining the Wallabies was quite intimidating. You dream to be part of it and then you’re in there with all these big names: John Eales, Tim Horan, George Gregan. I always had the philosophy that you’ve got to earn the right to talk. So, you learn, you respect everything that’s going on in the environment and prove you belong through your performance.
George Smith and I played with and against each other from the time we were 14 years old. We had this really healthy but fierce rivalry where we pushed each other to play better in every game we played together. George is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, so he was a difficult guy to dislike but that rivalry actually drove us to perform better.
The 2003 World Cup final was a game that could’ve gone either way and there were just some critical moments that changed the momentum. Rugby is like chess, it’s all based around strategy, manipulating the defence, and then isolating defenders. We couldn’t have gone any harder. That’s all you can do.
Becuase I was only 23, you go, It’s okay, because we’ll win in 2007. Then you get to 2007, you lose the quarter-final in Marseilles and then you reflect and you go, Well actually in that moment it could change the legacy that you leave.
I think I maximised my potential as a player. I absolutely gave everything. I see athletes go, Geez, I wish I was that tall or that fast or that strong and they aren’t mentally tough enough. I see that as a waste.
I didn’t want to be known as just a former rugby player from the age of 32. I needed to succeed doing something different, which is why I went into banking and did a couple of degrees. I was patient. Similar to my rugby career, you’ve got to earn your stripes.
The biggest mistake you can make is questioning whether you belong. One of the big things when athletes transition from sport is that sense of inferiority, because someone’s been in an environment longer than you have. You don’t actually appreciate the values and experiences that you bring into that environment. That’s something that comes with belief and comes with age.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Any family, household, team room or business you go into, as soon as you walk in, you get a very distinct feeling of what the culture’s like. Life’s short, so how do you create a culture that everyone wants to be a part of?
If you genuinely believe in something you can capture the people you’re talking to through that belief. On or off the field, when you’re leading, you’ve got to have conviction to get results.
As an international game, we’ve got the biggest events. Having the British and Irish Lions coming out here in 2025, a home World Cup in 2027 for the men and a home World Cup in 2029 for the women,
we have a runway. But you’ve got to have successful teams at those events. We’ve just seen that through the Matildas. In Rugby Union, we have national teams that the whole country can get behind.
I have four boys, two marriages. Often people say, you’ve got to be around for your kids and it is really important. But I also think it’s important to lead with the example of working hard too. If you’re out the door early and you’re working hard, it’s actually a good example in terms of principles for your children.