A mess at the top of rugby league

This week has seen the unveiling of Super League’s new Chief Executive Officer Robert Elstone who, in a press conference at Warrington’s Halliwell Jones Stadium, spoke to the media for the first time. This appointment came in the months following the Super League clubs’ vote to dispel the RFL CEO from the competition’s board with representatives from the teams to replace him under a new CEO – Elstone.

All seemed well after his first press conference and, flanked by the vocal group of Ian Lenagan, Eamon McManus and Simon Moran of Wigan, St Helens and Warrington Wolves respectively, he offered an insight into some of his plans for the competition and the sport going forward. Indeed, those three characters mentioned were key players in this restructuring of the Super League board and they were sitting alongside Elstone when he announced that there would be a return to a one up, one down promotion and relegation model from 2019, over a decade after the same arrangement was scrapped in favour of franchising. The immediate feedback following the former Everton Football Club CEO’s announcement was generally positive; social media saw many a fan and journalist offering their views, the majority of which were of hope that Elstone’s plans would help the sport as a whole.

It should be noted that his maiden press conference was impressive; Elstone spoke with authority and ambition while outlining his plans as well as his clear belief why they would succeed. For a man who has been heavily involved with football for a long time, his knowledge of rugby league was both strong and welcomed.

Shortly after the announcement of the new structure for 2019, however, Leeds Rhinos’ Gary Hetherington issued a statement outlining his opposition to the plans and it has since emerged that the eight-time Super League winners were the sole dissenting voice among the Super League clubs. It is believed that the Super 8s was an idea initially floated by Hetherington in the past but it would be foolish and naive to suggest that his opposition to the new plans is one simply based on the fact that his idea has been pushed aside.

Indeed, shortly after the feel good atmosphere following the press conference, it transpired that the end of the Super 8s hadn’t actually been agreed or formalised – something of an own goal for Elstone and the likes of Lenagan, McManus, Moran and the others hoping for serious change.

After Hetherington’s statement, Saints’ McManus responded as you would expect; rubbishing the Leeds man’s views. “Gary’s comments on the Super League competition structure vote were also as inaccurate in content as they were destructive in intention. The board of Super League, by a majority of 11 to 1, voted to end to the Super Eights structure and to replace it with a more orthodox and readily understood form of promotion and relegation,” he said. Continuing to explain his – and other clubs’ – belief that the scenario of a third of Super League’s members being at risk of relegation doesn’t help the game grow or develop, Get ’em Onside must admit it agrees with that sentiment.

It emerged, however, that many a Championship club weren’t keen on Elstone’s intentions. While a third of Super League clubs being possible victims of relegation, the flip side to that is that the current Super 8s system offers the chance for four second tier clubs to win a Super League spot. Such is the frustration amongst clubs opposed to Super League’s new CEO’s plans, Batley Bulldogs and Featherstone Rovers’ chairmen released angry statements in support of Hetherington. Hours after Elstone’s announcement, Kevin Nicholas of Batley’s statement included “do not be misled by any conclusion that the format for 2019 has been decided.” No room for ambiguity there and part of the issue surrounding the Super 8s being scrapped is that the Championship teams are hugely involved in the current system and won’t want give up their position lightly.

Mark Campbell of Featherstone further released a statement supporting Hetherington and Nicholas and outlined his opposition to the current plans. Blasting the proposal put forward by Elstone and the Super League clubs, Rovers’ chairman  explained that “at a meeting between the clubs, the Rugby Football League and Super League – less than one month ago – it was agreed no future plans would be discussed publicly until a solution was found for all concerned.” If, indeed, that is the case, it is extremely poor judgement or awareness from the new CEO and, as such, has threatened a rugby league war to break out. Indeed, Campbell continued, professing that “it was one thing to unveil Robert as Super League’s new chief executive but to make such bold and sweeping statements about the sport’s future was something else.” Furthermore, he accused Elstone of being a puppet for Lenagan, believed to be the man who was at the forefront of structural and financial changes in RFL-governed rugby league. The top flight’s new CEO, obviously, denied that.

Indeed, another point was made by Campbell in that, in the context of so-called ‘radical change’ in Super League by way of one-up-one-down promotion and relegation as well as loop fixtures, the proposed alterations were actually in place before the franchise arrangement was brought into force – “how is this radical change? If it was so good before then why was it changed to begin with?” he asked.

An interesting view of Campbell’s – one which he articulated in the very same statement – is that Super League are now looking to set up a ‘closed shop’ and to shut other teams out. The Super 8s, as mentioned previously, give the possibility that four Championship teams can be promoted. When the system was first implemented, the gap was so vast that it was unlikely that one – let alone more – team would achieve promotion. Indeed, only one team has achieved promotion in each of the last two years (Hull KR in 2017 and Leigh Centurions in 2016) and nobody achieved it in 2015. The potential for big change in terms of Super League occupants in 2019, however, is huge. While Widnes Vikings, Hull KR and Salford struggle greatly in Super League, the ambitious pair of Toronto Wolfpack and Toulouse Olympique are leading the way in the second tier and look like they will be fierce competition for the Super League teams involved in The Qualifiers. Featherstone Rovers and Halifax are also currently in the top four of the competition with full-time rivals London Broncos and Leigh Centurions – aiming for an immediate return to the top flight – just a point behind. Campbell being aware of this, he explained that “there is now too much on the line, hence the desire for immediate change to protect themselves and not the sport as a whole.”

As a result of Elstone’s statement, the RFL’s chairman Brian Barwick and interim CEO Ralph Rimmer understandably released a statement. It should be noted that Elstone and Rimmer wouldn’t have been in their roles had Nigel Wood not departed at the end of last season – previously occupying both roles, it was only a structural change at boardroom level which saw the incumbent RFL chairman removed from the Super League board. Wood’s role encompassed both being a board member of the competition as well as being the RFL’s CEO – since that role was split, Elstone was appointed to Super League while Rimmer now occupies the RFL position on a temporary basis.

In response to the statement from Super League, Barwick and Rimmer confirmed that no concrete decision has been made as of yet, announcing that “we would like to make clear that these discussions are still ongoing. No binding decisions have been made across a range of issues, including competition structure, but progress is being made. Further meetings are expected to take place between all parties in due course.” Going on further to outline that the RFL is committed to both a strong Super League and a strong sport, it has become clear in the days following Elstone’s statement that the plans he announced are a long way from confirmation and implementation.

So, what promised to be a catalyst for change and a cause for optimism has shown the clear divide surrounding the future of Super League and, indeed, rugby league. If an agreement is to be reached, it will have to be as a result of compromise from both sides. Whatever people’s views are on what is best for the sport of rugby league, the arguments between both sides by way of public statements certainly don’t paint the sport in a good light. War may be imminent but, if there is to be change for 2019, it will have to be finalised soon.

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