Can the RFL govern Rugby League?

A week last Tuesday I attended the All Party Parliamentary Group Dinner in the House of Lords.

It was an enjoyable occasion, with speeches from various people, including RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer. It was a very pleasant evening, with the Parliamentarians handing out their own Rugby League awards, which were highlighted in last week’s League Express.

In his speech Ralph highlighted some of the positive things that are happening in Rugby League, while inevitably skirting around some of the more negative issues that currently confront the game.

It was good to see Ralph talking the game up. But we need to see him doing that to the wider public, while addressing some of the issues of governance that the RFL seems reluctant to address.

Super League has now distanced itself from the RFL and is effectively setting its own rules, as we saw recently with the revelation that it would introduce the golden point, introduce a shot-clock for drop-out from under the posts, reduce substitutions from ten to eight, and get rid of the free play.

The rule changes have apparently been approved by the RFL Rules Committee.

But will the changes apply to the Championship and League 1 competitions too? As Andrew Chalmers of Bradford Bulls has made clear, the clubs in those competitions have been left in the dark about this. The fixtures are now published, but as far as I know the RFL has not so far indicated whether these rule changes will apply in those competitions.

Rob Elstone, the chief executive of Super League, clearly wants to make his mark, although the changes, which virtually copies everything from the NRL other than having two referees, are in fact quite trivial in nature.

I’m quite sure that the golden point is not supported by a majority of Rugby League supporters, for example.

I think that a draw is often a great result for one or both sides in a Rugby League match and I’m not sure why we should want to change that.

But last year there were only four draws in the whole of Super League, so it’s unlikely to be a major issue.

I’m more concerned with the RFL’s low profile in actually governing the game and its apparent inability to make decisions whereby we can see a clear benefit in what it is doing.

Whether we are talking about reserve-grade football, the financial state of clubs like Keighley Cougars, its management of the Championship and League 1 competitions, its policies to promote participation by young people, or even its policies towards players having any representation in the game’s decision-making bodies.

The problems at Keighley are particularly dispiriting and are a poor reflection on the RFL, which allowed the new owners to buy the club apparently with few or no checks on their financial ability to pay debts that had accrued at Cougar Park.

Surely anyone seeking to acquire a controlling interest in a Rugby League club should have to deposit a bond with the RFL that could be forfeited if this sort of problem arises. The bond could then be used to pay off some of the accrued debts.

And the Keighley debacle illustrates once again that players need protection from club owners who don’t fulfil contracts.

The RFL’s directors in all of this remain virtually invisible, apart from Ralph himself.

RFL Chairman Brian Barwick is apparently paid £80,000 per year, as far as I know for six working days a month, and for all I know he may be worth every penny. His history in television and at the Football Association suggests that he must be a shrewd operator. But such is his low profile, and his reluctance to speak publicly about Rugby League issues, that I find it difficult to see what his contribution is, which makes it hard to measure its value.

Then we have two non-executive directors in Simon Johnson and Chris Brindley, who are both paid almost £30,000 per year, and again I am quite simply unsure what their contribution actually is. Maybe they give great advice to the RFL, but if so I would like to know what it is.

Rugby League supporters, in my view, like to see strong leadership at the head of the sport. When Maurice Lindsay was in charge of the game at least we had someone with high visibility in the media and a willingness to talk the game up as he saw it at every opportunity. He was certainly never afraid of the media, even if he would occasionally fall out with individual journalists, including me. But if a problem arose it would usually be sorted out by a quick phone call.

The RFL once again needs an input of energy and inspiration from someone like Maurice, so that we can all go into the new season feeling optimistic, not just about our individual clubs, but about the game as a whole.

I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t see it on the horizon.

MARTYN SADLER is the editor of League Express. This article is a modified version of part of his ‘Talking Rugby League’ column, which featured in the 26 November issue of League Express. His next column will feature in this Monday’s issue of League Express.