League Express writer Matthew Shaw met with Leeds chairman Gary Hetherington to get his take on the current dispute between clubs.
MS: Gary, what is your big gripe with the announcement last week?
GH: Ian Lenagan stated what will happen to the League structure next year. That’s an arrogant and irresponsible thing to do and say because, as everybody knows, we, the Super League clubs, along with the Championship and League 1 clubs, entered into a contract, along with the RFL and SKY TV, which was for seven years. With three-and-a half years left, it has to have the agreement of all parties to change. The Championship and League 1 clubs made it known to Super League at a recent meeting they believe the current structure is working well and have no intentions of changing. And the RFL has confirmed the same.
For the Super League group to state what they will do without the ability to do it is arrogant and disrespectful. It certainly doesn’t have the support of Leeds Rhinos; we don’t believe anything should be done in isolation, and at a recent Super League meeting, a number of clubs raised concerns by what has been promoted by the group and a 7-5 vote was taken, which demonstrates there is uncertainty as per the direction of travel.
To make out the Super League clubs are unanimous on promotion and relegation is untrue. To make out that the league structure will change is an impossible promise to deliver without the support of Championship and League 1 clubs and the RFL.
Furthermore, Leeds Rhinos are totally against the creation of a new Super League executive to run parallel to the RFL. We believe the game should remain under one independent governance, which is the RFL, the model put in place back in 2001. We believe there should be a general manager of Super League and that’s now Robert Elstone, we have no complaints with that and we advocate the Championship and League 1 should have one too. That appointment, along with Robert and Ralph Rimmer, the RFL CEO, should be in charge of coming up with a strategic plan for all aspects of the game leading to the next television deal.
MS: Those at the top table last Tuesday were adamant that there will be a new structure next year. If that’s impossible to promise, as you say, why have they said that?
GH: All I can think is the Super League group believe they can bludgeon the Championship and Division One clubs and the RFL into submission to support what they believe suits them best.
I think that will backfire, it could create a civil war within the game, not only for the clubs, but fans and other stakeholders, who, I believe, will see this as an attempt to grab power and take control of the entire professional game.
MS: In your opinion, will we have a new structure next year?
GH: No, constitutionally, it cannot, unless the Championship and League One clubs support it. This is what the RFL is also saying. We all entered into a seven-year contract, which we’ve all signed. It’s a binding agreement and binding with SKY. It was agreed at the outset to review the League structure after three years, but to change needs agreement. That’s unlikely now and the Championship and League 1 clubs have made their position known to Super League and they are not for changing.
MS: You said in the statement, the Super League clubs voted 7-5 with regards to some key issues on promotion and relegation. Specifically, what were those issues?
GH: They were the things that were presented to Championship and League 1 clubs by the Super League group. As an example, it was one up, one down and loop fixtures, where each Super League team plays everyone twice, then six other teams randomly, which we know were deeply unpopular last time.
MS: Does the RFL now need to stand up for the clubs it represents?
GH: Absolutely, they are there to protect all clubs and govern in the best interests of the game. They entered into this contract as well. Given that they know the position of the Championship and Division 1 clubs, they should be making that point known. They should be leading the debate on a new strategic plan. Brian Barwick is the Chairman of Super League. Why on earth was he missing at the media conference?
MS: It was made clear that when Ian Lenagan spoke about it being 11-1, Leeds were the one. He also made it clear that they hope to get Leeds to follow their vision. Feasibly, is that a realistic possibility?
GH: Absolutely not. Firstly we disagree with their plan to create a separate Super League Executive. This will require a new team of executives, administrators, officers and offices.
The game already has these in place, so it will inevitably be a very costly exercise, which the majority of clubs can’t afford, but more significantly, it will become a competitor of the RFL and ultimately, reduce the ability of the governing body to operate effectively for all sectors of the game.
This is what happened in 1997, at the time all with good intentions, but it proved to be the undoing of the game. Within a few years, the RFL faced bankruptcy and in 2001 an Interim board replaced the RFL and SLE. I served on that group and we put the game back together again and created, for the first time in Rugby League history a truly independent governing body, with Richard Lewis appointed as Executive Chairman for the RFL and SLE. This model has served the game well and, whilst there is undoubtedly scope for improvement and change, it is the model our club supports.”
MS: Just to clarify, when you say Super League Executive, you don’t mean Robert Elstone?
GH: No, I have no issue with Robert and indeed, believe he can play a crucial role in shaping the game’s future. But, rather than creating a new and separate operation from the current RFL/SLE team, he should be working alongside the RFL CEO Ralph Rimmer, who I believe is doing a good job in difficult circumstances and a Championship/Division 1 one clubs General Manager and utilising all the RFL’s staff and resources.
Robert will, hopefully, become the face and voice of Super League, which is good and he should focus on Super League initiatives and assisting clubs to achieve their potential, but at the same time, have a responsibility to help the wider game grow. I would advocate he and the Championship/Division 1 club representative have a seat on the RFL board of directors too.
MS: It was said that Super League is committed to funding the Championship and League 1 until 2021?
GH: Of course. Super League is contracted to do so! They originally asked the Championship clubs and Division 1 clubs to take a reduced amount, but that was a silly request. All clubs in the RFL signed up to the seven-year agreement in good faith.
MS: Are you fearful after 2021 that the clubs outside Super League could be stung financially?
GH: Yes. Under the current articles, Super League could, from 2021 onwards, enter its own television deal without the Championship. What Nigel Wood delivered three-and-a half years ago was a £200 million TV deal that benefited the whole game and re-introduced promotion and relegation. It was a game-wide deal. The Super League do have the right from 2021 to go it alone and that’s almost certainly what they will do, and that’s why it’s important the RFL retain their governance and protect all clubs going forward.
Rugby League is not Soccer, Rugby Union or Cricket for that matter. We are different and the strength of our game is and has always been centred around the connectivity in our sport, from schools and grassroots community clubs to Super League and the International team.
It’s been a struggle since 1895 and we are now facing many new and significant challenges and our best chance of succeeding is with one unified game under the governance of a competent RFL and with all member clubs doing their bit to grow and prosper.