Let’s focus on the game, not the politics, says RFL boss

RFL Chairman Simon Johnson is hoping that the impending start to the new Rugby League season means that Rugby League politics can finally be put on the back burner after a tempestuous period characterised by boardroom disputes that resulted in the departure earlier this month of Robert Elstone from his post as Executive Chairman of Super League.

Johnson, who has been the Chairman of the RFL since he replaced Brian Barwick in the role in October 2019, will now spearhead attempts to reunite the RFL and Super League in some form after the turbulence of the last three years, while he will also link with government as the RFL seeks to pursue its case for more help for Rugby League clubs and their communities.

“The thing that excites me the most is that we can finally talk about Rugby League action on the pitch,” Johnson told League Express.

“Our excitement is growing as the kick-off gets nearer, and just around the corner there is the possibility to welcome spectators back from 17 May onwards.

“And I’ll add one thing; I speak to Chairmen and CEOs of clubs regularly, and what has been remarkable is that for the last few days everyone has been saying isn’t it great that the game is being played again.

“In the recent past Rugby League stories have tended to focus on the men in suits. I don’t want to talk about them, but about players, not about the politics of the game. I would like to see the focus return to who is going to win, which players are going to shine, how will the players do. What will become of the pre-season excitement?

“I, as the Chair, am pleased to get everybody focused on the impending fixtures.

“For example, it’s great that the BBC will show a couple of Challenge Cup games this coming weekend. It’s a great story, with potential giant killing and new players; it’s exciting for those who want to see how Gavin Henson does for the West Wales Raiders, for example.

“And there are so many Super League stories. How strong will St Helens and Wigan be, how will Steve Price’s last year at Warrington go? Can Leeds have a resurgence? And what about Leigh, have they got a chance to give it a go and stay up.

“There are also some great stories in the Championship, How will Newcastle do, and will the new York stadium provide a fitting setting for an upwardly mobile club. How will the lockdown impact on Toulouse’s performances?

“In League 1, I can’t wait to see Keighley play, Doncaster too, and what about a Cumbrian team.

“Then the community game is starting up at the end of this month, the Women’s Super League is starting, and then we have the World Cup at the end of the season.”

On the subject of the World Cup, Johnson is reluctant to criticise the Super League clubs for choosing to have 25 fixtures in the regular season, which many observers believe will compromise England’s chances in the tournament.

“It’s easy to sit in he background and say they should only play so many games,” said Johnson

“But the clubs have to try to make the numbers balance. If we had cut down the number of games it would have hit their economic models. I can completely understand and supported Super League to run with that number of games. We have to do what we can to make the sums add up.

“It was the original intention to have started the season this weekend (March 11), which would have allowed us to fit those matches in more easily without any doubling up.

“We thought we would have fans back in by now and we could have started the season with fans in the stadiums.

“So it’s not ideal, but given the circumstances “Shaun Wane is the best coach to prepare the England team and give us a fair chance of winning the tournament.”

Meanwhile, some of the club owners, including Adam Pearson of Hull FC, have suggested that they may not release players to play for the Exiles against England at the end of June.

Will Johnson twist their arms to persuade them to fall in line?

“We don’t do arm twisting, we do sensible discussions,” he responded.

“I have been in sport long enough to know that comments that owners make do not make policy. You look at them with raised eyebrows. I’m comfortable that there will be lots of discussions over the coming week to make that game as competitive and attractive as possible.

“I have spoken to enough Chairmen and CEOs of clubs to know that they agree with having a competitive outing. I know that Shaun has been talking to the coaches, with constructive ideas and I’m confident we’ll make it an attractive and competitive game. We anticipate making an announcement about it this week.”

Johnson admits that there has been no communication about who is likely to become the new Royal Patron of the RFL, but there have been discussions with government about Rugby League’s importance in what is a crucial year for the sport.

“There is no decision on who will replace Prince Harry,” he confirmed.

“But as far as the government is concerned, we have very good conversations with them and they are reaching a crucial point. And we have found that the government is responsive and supportive to us.

“The government recognises the real importance of the World Cup. It has already allocated funds to the World Cup, and it sees the tournament as a chance to welcome top quality competitive sport back and to put high quality events in the north of England. There will be great visibility for the places that will host the events. Who else will play events in St Helens, Warrington and Doncaster? Who else will play an opening event in Newcastle?

“At a time when the country will be crying out to attend top-quality sport the government is already invested in the success of the World Cup.

“And we will definitely be having more discussions.”

The RFL has already received loans of £28 million to help out Rugby League clubs and other organisations, but it has not published details of the distribution of those funds.

“There is a simple answer as to why we haven’t – it isn’t our money,” said Johnson.

“But the government can release that information if it wants to do so. We are in possession of a lot of confidential information about our clubs and the government hasn’t asked any other sport to reveal the financial distributions in detail. During this process it’s just not right for us to do it.”

And Johnson is equally reluctant to be drawn into a discussion about the future of Super League.

“The future of the Super League is on the field,” he insists.

“Everybody has recognised that we are focused on starting the season.

“We have spent the last few months thinking about it.”

But he admits he was a little bemused by some of Wigan Chairman Ian Lenagan’s comments earlier in the week at a media conference that was intended to launch Wigan’s season, but which saw Lenagan giving his views on a wide range of topics, including the organisation of Super League and its relationship with the RFL.

“That was a Wigan press day and all the coverage was about what the Chairman said,” says Johnson.

“The season launch got lost in the coverage of the Chairman’s views. It was a pre-season media day. The Rugby League media needs to get back to focusing on the pitch.

“It was a media day and it’s a shame that some of the great sports stories from Wigan didn’t come out.”

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