Chickens coming home to roost

Martyn Sadler
Martyn Sadler

First published in League Express, Monday 14th Oct 2013

This column on 22 July this year, just less than three months ago, carried the headline “A growing chorus of dissent”.
I cited a column written by the respected Rugby League journalist Peter Smith in which he questioned the way the game is being managed, and I added my own views about the direction Rugby League seemed to be going in.
“I’ve spoken to several club Chairmen in recent weeks, and none of them are happy with the things the RFL is doing,” I wrote in that column, and I carried on in a similar vein.
“We all know that the main problem facing the game right now is its inability to generate commercial income, and the cause of that is the low media profile the game enjoys.
“Will the changes being proposed by the RFL make the slightest bit of difference to the game’s media profile?
“Not at all!”

No response

You might have thought that the RFL chief executive Nigel Wood would have wanted to find out which Chairmen were not happy with what he was doing. And perhaps he did.
But unfortunately it didn’t stop him from driving the RFL straight ahead and into the car crash that happened last week, when a group of Super League clubs, led by Wigan’s Ian Lenagan, decided that enough was enough. At the meeting last Monday they made it clear that they wouldn’t support the changes the RFL wanted to make two days later.
The RFL responded by postponing its EGM, and then last Friday posted its policy review document on its website.
Read through its proposals from paragraph 5.1.14 to 5.1.32, which set out how the two-twelves and three-eights will operate, and tell me whether most people will want to take the trouble to try to get their heads round that ungainly proposed structure.
Several people have told me that if you study the proposals carefully then you’ll eventually be able to understand and remember them.
I dare say the same is true if you want to study the scientific principles underlying the identification of the Higgs boson particle and its discovery by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern, in Switzerland.

Too complex

But can we honestly expect the vast majority of supporters to want to stretch their brains to understand what the RFL is proposing?
When you’re heavily involved in putting something together, as the RFL staff are in relation to the policy review, it’s easy to assume that what looks simple to you must look equally simple to everyone else.
Unfortunately it doesn’t, apart from the anoraks who are prepared to study it closely, and who will no doubt pronounce that it is worth taking Rugby League in that particular direction.
Inevitably a lot of flak has been aimed at Wigan Chairman Ian Lenagan for instigating the meeting last week that led to the Super League clubs putting their collective foot down.
I can fully understand the frustration of all those Championship clubs that had been led to believe that the RFL’s proposals were virtually done and dusted, and that last Wednesday’s meeting would merely be a matter of rubber-stamping those proposals.
As my colleague Gareth Walker writes in his League Express column this week, some of those clubs had been investing quite heavily in new talent for next season in order to finish high enough to ensure that they would finish in one of the leading nine positions, ensuring that they would be in the second tier of twelve clubs in 2015.

Change in the short term

What it shows to me, however, is the futility of planning for events that haven’t yet been finally decided, and the craziness of an ongoing review that is intending to change the league structure as early as next season.
If a league is to be successful, we have to be certain about its structure for several years ahead so that we can plan with confidence.
In my view, if the RFL is going to change anything about the league structure, it should be doing it for three years down the line, not just a few months.
Instead we seem to have a ridiculous need to change everything almost season by season.
No wonder Rugby League fails to generate the sort of commercial support that it should have a right to expect.
Of course Lenagan has come in for some strong criticism from Championship clubs, as might be expected.
But it is worth pointing out that his letter to the other Super League clubs and to the RFL was a private letter. Someone else seems to have leaked it to the media.

RFL backed down

And it’s also worth pointing out that it wasn’t Lenagan who postponed the EGM. Only the RFL had the power to do that, and it did so.
If the RFL chief executive Nigel Wood had been confident enough about his proposals he would surely have been able to argue for them in that particular forum, and if the proposals had gained enough support he would surely have carried the day.
The decision by the RFL board to foist the two-twelves, three-eights proposal onto the clubs now looks risky and stupid, and apparently there was never a formal vote among the Super League clubs accepting the structure, contrary to the impression that was given by the RFL.
It appears that the RFL decided to take a vote to the RFL Council where they thought they could force it through and bypass the opinions of most of the Super League clubs.
The silly thing is that the directors of Super League are the RFL Chairman Brian Barwick and Nigel Wood, and they had arranged a meeting of the Super League clubs after the EGM, by which time the decision would already have been made.

Wider problems

Unhappiness with the re-structuring proposal wasn’t the only thing that had galvanised the Super League clubs.
The fact that Messrs Barwick and Wood have dual roles in relation to the RFL and the Super League has finally made them realise that they need something quite different. As I wrote last week, they need someone who can stimulate a more productive commercial management of Super League, which is currently being left behind by other sports.
As one Super League Chairman said to me, “We believe the RFL’s commercial incompetence is driving Super League downwards.”
But at the moment the Super League clubs have no sanctions against the chief executive if he fails to deliver lucrative sponsorships for the competition. They can’t sack him. Only the RFL board of directors can do that, and as far as I’m aware they have been appointed by him, so they are naturally going to be reluctant to call the chief executive to account.
It is hardly a satisfactory way to run an organisation, which is why the clubs would like some representation on the RFL board.

Corporate governance

Again, I understand that the Super League clubs have made representations at least a year ago to the then Acting Chairman of the RFL about the RFL’s corporate governance, but that the clubs’ approach was formally rejected.
The Super League clubs will now hold another meeting on Wednesday 23 October to decide where to go from here.
They need to demonstrate that, whatever they end up proposing, it will be better than what we have now.
And in particular, they need to show that it will be better than what the RFL is proposing.
Meanwhile we have to ask where Nigel Wood goes from here.
The RFL chief executive has had the sand kicked firmly in his face by the Super League clubs.
He is a born survivor, but we have to wonder whether he has now served his time.
It may be worth quoting Dave Smith, the chief executive of the Australian NRL competition.
“We need to get the best possible boards and the best possible structures to build sustainable clubs for the future,” Smith said at the weekend.
“That is an important priority for us as the governing body and we will work with the clubs to make that happen over the coming years.
“As part of the funding arrangements that we have built into the game, there will be conditions. Across the game we will look to strengthen governance and management and then we will expect the boards to manage the clubs in an effective and sustainable way. It is an area across the whole game that we need to strengthen if we have got our eyes on the future, as we have.”
That message is even more relevant in this country, at all levels of the game.
The governance of the RFL and of the clubs themselves needs a thorough review.