Exclusive Q&A with RFL chief executive Nigel Wood

The state of the game as 2018 approaches

RFL Chief Executive NIGEL WOOD is also the Chairman of the Rugby League International Federation.
At the end of a momentous year, both domestically with a new Canadian team in the RFL’s competitions, and internationally, with a thrilling World Cup, he talks to AARON BOWER of LEAGUE EXPRESS about the current state of the game.

Aaron Bower (AB): Fresh off the back of a hugely compelling World Cup, what do you make of the health of international rugby from the RFL’s perspective?
Nigel Wood (NW): What the tournament should tell us, if nothing else, is that international rugby of any kind cuts through more than anything else. It’s what drags new people into the sport and we’ve got an obligation as administrators to create the most compelling international fixture list as possible.

AB: But what do we do between now and 2021 to keep that going?
NW: Well, in terms of ourselves, we know what England are doing in terms of inward tours from New Zealand and Australia in 2018 and 2020. We know a Lions tour will take place in 2019, too.

AB: Will you build on the success that Pacific Rugby League has had recently during that tour?
NW: Hopefully. One of the interesting things about the last few weeks has been the emergence of those nations and there are now facilities in places like Port Moresby where you could confidently take international athletes. I’m acutely aware that the other nations the RFL have some association with – Wales, Scotland and Ireland – need a proper fixture list too. We’ve got to do something for Pacific rugby, too: because the emergence of Tonga, among others, has been a real joy. That’s something the RLIF will be addressing in the next three to six months.

AB: Is the game’s biggest problem the hesitancy from the NRL?
NW: We have to understand that the sport has two very powerful leagues in Super League and the NRL. They drive the revenues into the sport and the international game will be relying on the talent that is employed by those two leagues. But we’ve created an international window mid-season and we’ve given ourselves the best possible chance to populate that. What people need to remember is that international rugby is how you get more people interested.

AB: With a restructure on the horizon for 2019, will we see more international windows, then?
NW: It’s got to be proportionate. Putting this current window in mid-season is a step forward and the window at the end of the year is comprehensive. It’s not as if it’s one weekend, and that’s it, is it? There may be possibilities for more but I wouldn’t want to make a promise we can’t keep. It boils down to the two big leagues structuring their competitions to suit their needs. That’s where the money comes in, but to grow the sport is about presenting more showpiece international events to attract people that wouldn’t be otherwise drawn in by the club game.

AB: Do Super League and NRL have a healthy relationship, then?
NW: There’s strong evidence that we’re working well with them. It was a major challenge to get the World Club Challenge on because of the length of the 2017 season. The World Cup final took place on December 2, and there’s a minimum six-week break required for elite players – so if ever there was a year the World Club Challenge would have been under stress, it would have been 2018. The fact that it has been secured, together with some more inter-league matches involving Wigan and Hull, is testimony to the collaboration that exists. But I think there’s more we can do, with more opportunities for interaction between the two competitions, but it’s great that 2018 has been secured. One way or the other, it’s a three versus three series.

AB: When you say more, do you mean more games, or more expansion into new areas?
NW: Both of those, I think. The more dialogue there is between the two leagues, the more possibility there is around that February slot when international club competition is scheduled. That’s more clubs playing each other and more destinations coming into play. You’ve got opportunities in the Far East and the United States, and we’re only scratching the surface of that. Nothing is ever easy and straightforward; you’ve got to sort these things out and they take time.

AB: Speaking of the United States, what’s the latest with a potential game against New Zealand in Denver next year?
NW: Our position is clear. The RFL and England are very supportive of that game going ahead, without a doubt. The players have been unanimous in their support for it too, and it’s beholden upon the international community to keep the momentum of the World Cup going. Events like that are a logical step in doing so. We’d love it to happen and while we recognise there are challenges in terms of player travel and making sure players are right to play in their next round of competition, we think it can reach a positive conclusion. It’s a terrific initiative, and the fact our players are behind it proves the point.

AB: Is your gut feeling it will go ahead?
NW: That’s the hope – but it’s not nailed on at the moment.

AB: What’s the latest with Wayne Bennett’s future? Has dialogue taken place?
NW: Yes, but there’s nothing significant to report on that front. There have been the usual end-of-competition debrief and things like that. Nobody is in a rush to sit down in a formal environment, I think we need to let Christmas come and go first. In the New Year, we’ll see where we are.

AB: Is it solely his decision whether he continues? If he wants to, will you let him?
NW: No, it’s a mutual decision. Clearly the RFL has to reflect on what we have and haven’t done before we have a sensible, grown-up conversation with anyone.

AB: The Pacific nations are the talk of international Rugby League now. What’s the plan for them? To play each other, or to play the bigger, Tier One nations?
NW: Well, I’d settle for them just playing at the moment. What would be great for them is having some sort of ‘trophy lift’ – rather than have just a one-off Pacific Test. It’d be great to have them playing a competition of some sort. Similar to our European Championship, perhaps. That’s something for the RLIF to look at.

AB: And on the European Championship, is there definitely an England team entering in 2018?
NW: We’re definitely working towards putting a team in that competition, yes. It’s an opportunity for the next-best players to play, because the first-team will be playing against New Zealand. I think that’s a win-win; the England programme gets more exposure to international rugby, and it’s a win for the other nations because they all want to play against England. It adds value to their calendar.

AB: Could that competition be televised with England now involved?
NW: Maybe. The control of things like that, we cede to the European Federation, so those are questions you’d probably need to direct to them. But there’s no reason why not, is there? The way broadcasting is developing, you saw with England’s game against the Affiliated States and live streaming, that the future of international rugby suggests that there’ll be a camera everywhere in some capacity. So why not!

AB: Where is the sport with the league structure for 2019, Nigel?
NW: Roger Draper is doing that work with the Super League clubs, but the Championship clubs are now engaged too. We’ve had a terrific 2017 with a lot of drama and narrative and we’re all talking.

AB: But when will it be signed off? This is taking too long, surely?
NW: The important thing is that before you kick a ball in 2018, you’ve got to know what the consequences are. Roger and the team are well aware of that. The next club meetings are in February, and I can’t imagine it will go beyond that.

AB: What was your take on Toronto’s first season as a club?
NW: The sport sometimes fails to acknowledge some of the things it gets so right. The success of Toronto has slipped into common usage a bit, I think. Three years ago, when this was first conceived, the prospect of Toronto playing in front of over 8,000 spectators was far fetched. It’s beautifully refreshing, and I know there were some teething issues, but they were ironed out pretty quickly.

AB: But that said, it must be a concern they’ve have to backload their home games and are now moving games from Canada to England?
NW: It’s unhelpful, clearly. It’s particular to their ground redevelopment at Lamport Stadium, which they don’t own and is being substantially redeveloped. They’re having a new pitch laid, but I spoke to the owner earlier this week and he said there was a 10-year plan for that stadium. I don’t think we’d want to see this happen again in the following years, and the premise on which they came into the competition was that matches were played in blocks. That has to be restored in 2019.

AB: Staying in North America, has a decision been made on whether New York will be accepted into the RFL in 2019?
NW: No, not yet.

AB: When will you decide? They will need some time to prepare, one way or the other.
NW: I think there’s a bit of work to be done in the first quarter of 2018. Subject to that, there’s then some due-diligence and investigating to be done. Everyone’s fascinated by New York though, so we’ll look at it then, report to the RFL Board in March, and then we’ll decide whether it’s credible enough to present to the clubs after that.

AB: Have you got more interest from North America, too?
NW: Yes.

AB: Can you say where?
NW: It’d be inappropriate to name names, but there are three other proposals in the United Sates, and one more in Canada.

AB: Would New York be the only new admission for 2019?
NW: There’s definitely a discussion to be had within the sport about what the end game is with North America. We’ve got to make sure it works for British Rugby League as well as world Rugby League. But there’s nothing happening now that would dissuade you from having a look at some other opportunities.

AB: Back to the structure, there’s also a TV deal to fulfil. So how big a say do Sky have?
NW: Sky are terrific partners for this sport, and what they would say is that it’s our sport to run, so we need to work out how to run it. If we want to make any significant changes, they would not unreasonably want to be consulted on that. They’re paying hundreds of millions of pounds for content and they have a right to know what’s happening. Our relationship with them is of the highest order, though.

AB: The current deal expires in 2021. Will you go back to the negotiating table before that?
NW: I would say so, yes. That’s not unusual in business – you can’t afford to let something run out before you renegotiate.

AB: Do Sky get first refusal, or will you put the rights out to tender for new broadcast partners?
NW: There’s a big piece of work to do on broadcasting. The landscape of that industry is changing; only last week there have been big changes and anyone who thinks they know what it will look like in 2019 and 2020 is kidding themselves. It’s one of those situations where you plan for a particular eventuality, but you are prepared to vary it if the market changes.

AB: What’s the latest on the legal case involving Bradford?
NW: There’s not a lot to be said. It’s private at the moment and I know that the RFL’s legal advisors are presenting the strongest possible case. That’s it.

AB: There’s an employment tribunal planned for January. Will it go that far from your perspective?
NW: Experience has taught me never to second-guess anything when litigation is involved.

AB: What about Odsal? Is there a clear idea what you want to do in terms of redeveloping it or selling the lease?
NW: Not necessarily. The purchase of the ground was, first and foremost, to protect an asset for the sport. It’s almost a national asset. At the time, the club that played there was consistently vulnerable so we want to see some stability there and a track record of that before we have a discussion. The long-term play for the RFL is not about holding the lease forever – but at the same time, we have to make sure the club is in a stable position. I don’t know when that position will change, but at the moment it gives the sport some security.

AB: So you need to see several years of stability at Bradford before anything can happen?
NW: That’s what the Board’s position will be. There needs to be some runs on the board and hopefully the club will have a more peaceful year in 2018, whatever its destiny is.

AB: There’s talk of Odsal being in the mix for this £10 million grant from the Government for a new national facility. Is that true?
NW: It’s probably important to clear up that it’s for a facility strategy, not necessarily one stadium or one building. The legacy people around the World Cup are negotiating with local authorities now, and I think there’ll be a number of beneficiaries from that.

AB: So do you have local Councils knocking your door down?
NW: Well, we’ve got to make it more than just simply building something somewhere. We spoke to a combined authority in the north of the country recently, and the idea we hammered home to them is that this is about creating a legacy in places, not just an event or a venue.

AB: How many have you had come to you?
NW: We’ve got 40 active conversations ongoing in regards to hosting the World Cup itself. There’s interest from parts of the country that you wouldn’t expect, and it’s great to see people aware of what rugby can do for them.

AB: Onto other matters. Why was Toulouse allowed to simply not take part in the Challenge Cup in 2018? That seems strange.
NW: They asked to be stood out of it. They’ve got some particular issues with their ground and things like that, so they asked for an exemption, which we were eventually persuaded to grant. It raised an issue for us, and it might not happen again, but on this occasion we decided to accept their request.

AB: So you’re telling fans that some clubs simply don’t have to take part if they don’t want to? That doesn’t seem fair.
NW: If you’re a member of the RFL, you have to play in the Challenge Cup. But Toulouse are not a member club, they are playing as an invited guest of the competition, much like Toronto and Catalans. They’re members of their own sovereign organisations. They’re in by invitation.

AB: There’s talk of a new players’ union gathering steam, is it something you would support and indeed work with at the RFL?
NW: There is one already, don’t forget. There have been other players’ unions too and we would welcome a sensible partner in matters of significance. The union in the past, when people like Abi Ekoku ran it, was effective and a force for good. There’s some scope there to do something with matters such as welfare, where the RFL and the clubs are having to perform functions the union may seem to take on. That players have a more influential voice in strategy should be applauded, and we would certainly like to help them get to a better position on it, but it has to be demand-driven.

AB: Can you clarify whether you are still a part of the Super League Board? It’s understood you were voted off in a restructure of sorts.
NW: Well, Super League Europe is a company owned by the clubs. That’s always been the case and whether they’ve been shareholders or directors is of marginal significance. Nothing of any great significance has changed really – the clubs are still the owners of the company.

AB: There’s also an upcoming vacancy as CEO of the RLIF which you’ve been linked with. Have you applied? Are you interested?
NW: That’s not a fair question to ask. David (Collier) does a terrific job.

AB: But there’s a vacancy. Are you interested? David Collier is leaving in May.
NW: Well, that’s his decision.

AB: But what’s yours? Have you applied? Are you interested?
NW: (Pauses) Look, I’m a great supporter of international rugby but I don’t really think I should be saying any more than that.