Can Elstone still deliver for Super League?

MARTYN SADLER, the editor of League Express, wonders whether Robert Elstone is the right person to lead Super League out of its current crisis.

Robert Elstone has been in post as the Chief Executive Officer of Super League for a little over two years, having been appointed from the beginning of June 2018.

His job description, as far as I know, includes administering the competition and making it as attractive as possible so that broadcasters and commercial sponsors will want to come on board.

So perhaps now is the time to take a rain check on his tenure and to judge how successful he has been.

Of course the first thing to say is that no one could possibly have expected Super League to be hit by a pandemic, with its terrible consequences for large swathes of society in both the United Kingdom and most other nations in the world.

And none of us can be sure about how the negotiations for the next TV deal are going, if they are happening at all.

Super League is quite a secretive organisation and Robert himself isn’t noted for responding to phone calls, text messages and emails. Communicating with the media is not compulsory for people who run sporting organisations, even if it is generally advisable.

So how do we judge Robert?

One way to pass judgement on someone is to analyse how they behave in a crisis. Are they able to rise to the challenge and take control of the unfolding events?

The obvious crisis I am referring to is that of the Toronto Wolfpack. It should have been obvious to anyone several months ago that the logistical and financial problems faced by the Wolfpack in the face of the Coronavirus would make the club’s continuing participation in Super League highly questionable.

Every major sporting competition in North America shut its doors for the summer, including Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL and Major League Soccer. The idea that the Wolfpack could be the one sporting club that could buck the trend always seemed ridiculous to me, and yet for several weeks we were fed that particular fiction.

Robert should surely have taken control of the situation at an early stage and declared that the Wolfpack would stand down for the rest of the season, and the other Super League clubs would help them by taking their players on board as loan players.

The latter does now seem to be happening, but much too late.

And now Robert is apparently saying that he doesn’t want to see the Wolfpack survive next year as a Super League club and he is prepared to run with eleven clubs rather than twelve.

That seems to me to be throwing in the towel far too early. When the Wolfpack won promotion to Super League last year they attracted around 12,000 people to see them beat Featherstone Rovers.

Everyone who went there was overwhelmed by the positive atmosphere in Toronto from all those local people who had discovered the wonders of Rugby League. And the Wolfpack has gone on to regularly attracted near-capacity crowds to the Lamport Stadium.

When a brand new market has been opened up, at no expense to the competition, why sit back and allow it to close down?

It reminds me of the debacle that was Paris St Germain in 1997, when that club, which had shown such early promise closed down ignominiously, because it was so badly run.

One of the people involved in it at that time was none other than Robert Elstone, who had been sent by the then RFL Chief Executive, Maurice Lindsay to try to inject some stability into the club.

I am not blaming Robert for that debacle. No doubt there were many reasons for PSG’s sad demise. By the time he got there it might have been too late to save it.

But I wonder whether his attitude to the Wolfpack has been affected by his experience in Paris all those years ago. Perhaps expansion just seems too difficult and hazardous.

The problem is that it’s difficult to see what other advantages Robert brings to his role.

Earlier in the season he made it clear that he would have liked to block Israel Folau signing for the Catalans Dragons, for example. And, given the evidence from Saturday afternoon, what a loss to the competition that would have been!

Robert also seems to be perfectly happy to see the politicisation of the matchday experience, as we have seen in the last two weeks.

I hope, although I suspect in vain, that we have seen the last of political slogans being aimed at us in Rugby League stadia and on Sky Sports.

I won’t hold my breath. But I do think that Robert has to demonstrate stronger leadership skills than he has shown recently.

This article was part of Martyn Sadler’s ‘Talking Rugby League’ column from this week’s edition of League Express.

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