It’s difficult to know where to start as one of the most decisive days in British rugby league’s recent history looms large on the horizon.
Make no mistake, changing or keeping the league structure does not solve the wider problems in the game. Far from it.
But after months of squabbling, in-fighting and statements aplenty, it is time the game drew a line in the sand after making whatever decision is made on Friday, so the sport can move on and tackle significant issues, bubbling elsewhere.
Non-stop statement squabbles are a complete embarrassment…
Incredibly, the clubs who have kept their distance from the constant bickering that has intensified as Friday’s meeting approaches, are the ones who in this instance deserve a bit of credit.
That’s not to say there haven’t been some salient, well-reasoned points made on both sides of the divide. But at times, it’s hard not to feel like you’re suddenly back at school surrounded by the bickering you’re more used to hearing from children on a playground.
Your average rugby league fan has known for weeks, if not months, which clubs are vociferously on one side of the divide. It’s obvious 11 Super League clubs want one thing, and one – combined with some lower ranked clubs like Bradford, Featherstone and York – all want another.
What have all these conflicting statements achieved, in the run-up to Friday’s meeting? And they will be further intensified on Thursday by an impromptu press call of the Championship/League 1 advisory group.
It would be nice to say they have achieved nothing at all but the stark truth is worse, because they have dragged the image of the game through the gutter, made it look disastrously small-time, and further cheapened the sport’s appeal to the outside world.
Whole-game guarantees are needed…
There are, alas, some cold truths attached to this situation.
Sky Sports’ deal with Super League (not the RFL) is to showcase the top-flight. The tens of millions of pounds that pour into the game each year from Sky are because of Super League, the competition which draws the biggest numbers and the biggest profile.
Nevertheless, it is quintessential that Super League should continue to honour the whole-game guarantees currently in place, when it comes to finances. What cannot be allowed to happen is that the top-flight drops the lower leagues like a stone, and all the Sky money is pumped into Super League.
There is, it must be stressed, no indication that the Super League clubs are intending to do that. What they are proposing is simply that, if the next broadcast deal drops by a certain percentage, the money handed to the RFL and distributed by them to the lower leagues, should drop by the same percentage. Is that a crime?
They have also given guarantees to the RFL that they will provide guaranteed funds (to the RFL) for the lower leagues, should the value of the broadcast deal fall (by up to 25%). But should Super League really have to sacrifice its own money, from its own television deal? Part of the agreement the Super League clubs want, post-2021, involves the rights being released for the Championship and League 1 clubs to head out and secure their own TV deal. That would then, surely, bring a financial boost to the lower leagues – no?
Super League should not leave the lower leagues to wilt. But there is no indication that will happen.
If we want the game to grow we should trust Robert Elstone and the Super League clubs’ vision…
We all want British rugby league to be as strong as possible; nobody would deny that. But for many at the top of the game, the harsh reality is that the only way its profile will increase `exponentially’ in this country, is via a stronger Super League.
Whether or not the leading chairman and figures in Super League are telling us the truth (that following them is the only way for our sport to grow) is unclear; we won’t truly know until and unless the plans are approved, and a few years have passed.
But the sport’s strongest clubs, the ones who drive the money and the profile of the game, surely have a right to dictate how the game should try to achieve its dream of becoming a major player in the British sporting landscape.
Robert Elstone was brought into rugby league to make a difference. Granted, his appointment wasn’t orchestrated by all the sport’s professional clubs, but surely a man of Elstone’s background and experience should be given the chance to `put his head on the chopping block’ and be allowed to try and make a difference, so long as those earlier, whole-game financial guarantees are assured.
As mentioned earlier, simply changing the structure will not make rugby league incredibly successful overnight. Far from it.
There are so many other issues that need tackling, away from the top table. But after the dust has settled on Friday, and with a clear direction chosen (one way or the other) perhaps the game can get on with tackling them.
Because this has gone on far too long.