New Man at The Top

In this week’s League Express, Martyn Sadler speaks to newly-appointed Chair of the Rugby Football League, Simon Johnson, who will be taking up his role in December along with two new non-executive directors. Here’s what he had to say on some of the key issues facing the sport and the challenges he expects to face.

“I will serve a three-year term assuming that I gain approval from the RFL Council in December.
“We now have seven directors, with two executive directors in chief executive Ralph Rimmer and our chief regulatory officer Karen Moorhouse, and five non-executives, which includes me, Chris Brindley and Chris Hurst, as well as our new appointees Dr Rimla Akhtar MBE and Sandy Lindsay MBE, who will join the board in December.
“The expansion broadens the skills and the workload of the board at a very important time for the game, while giving us a good balance of continuity and experience with a fresh and different approach.

“We have some really interesting challenges ahead and we want to be more open and transparent.
“I hope to bring some freshness and energy to my role and a transparent style of leadership.
“The board will be fit for the future and it will promote a value narrative that will be able to drive us forward.
“We are in a crucial period with many changes happening both in the game and the wider world, with the World Cup here in two years’ time. We are in the shop window right now.
“I am very clear that we have to come together as a game and be proud and forward thinking about what we do.
“After we have got through the business end of this season, we have the Nines and the Lions tour and next year we will have 125th anniversary of Rugby League when the whole game can come together.
“The Kangaroos come in November next year and in 2021 we are hosting the Rugby League World Cup. I want to promote that for the whole country. That will enable us to promote our narrative for Rugby League’s role in the economy of the north.
“I don’t see many other international tournaments that are taking place in 2021, so it’s a great opportunity for us.

“You may say that there isn’t much Rugby League experience on the RFL Board, but I think that isn’t a fair characterisation. The executive directors have a strong background in the game.
“But we are an independent board. Once you create an independent board you make a decision that the skills available to us will be used for the benefit of as wide a part of the game as possible.
“Immediately below the main board, I have set up and established the professional game board, which will advise the board on whole game issues. That board is where the Rugby League experience lies, with three representatives each from the RFL, Super League, the Championship and League 1 and the Community Game. That board’s role is to produce strategic thinking for the whole of the game.
“Separate from that we have a laws committee that considers whether the laws of the game are achieving their objective or need tweaking from time to time.
“I have also been chairing the Championship and League 1 Forum for three years as well as the facility standards committee.
“I think we have the right combination there and I think we will benefit from the freshness and different perspective the new members of the Board will bring to us.

“Some of our clubs are located in some of the most diverse parts of our country and it’s important that we reflect that in the governance of the game.
“The recruitment process for new directors was conducted by an independent research company and they had a very wide selection of strong candidates who were interviewed by representatives from all sections of the game.
“All the directors will be nominated for three years.
“We get a lot of regulatory matters to deal with involving existing clubs like Bradford and potential new clubs like Ottawa and New York. We need good quality advice and we are responsible for making key decisions to take the game forward.
“We particularly want to see a growing participation in the game. The growth in wheelchair, women, PDRL and LDRL versions of the game has been quite remarkable recently and has been noticed by government and others.
“But then we also seek to grow interest in the game with more spectators.

“But I think it’s fair to say that we are seeing a growing acceptance of the game in places that may not have recognised us before. We are getting government to accept that Rugby League is a force for good in society.
“Of course, the international game is a major part of our growth strategy, as is Super League.
“We have a good relationship with Super League after some tough negotiations in relation to its own role. We have worked well together on issues like promotion and the establishment of the professional game board continues to build collegiality and trust by being more open and transparent. Members of the Council can hold us to account, for example.
“At the moment it’s fair to say that one of our bigger issues is Bradford Bulls. A lot of our decision making in that context is commercial and confidential. But we will have a board meeting at the end of October, and Bradford will be on the agenda. We will get a report on that at the end of October.
“The RFL team is working closely with the owners of Bradford. Similarly, the long-term future of Odsal is coming to the board in October. We want to make sure there is a viable future for the Bulls and the Odsal situation can be resolved.

“More generally our plan at the moment is to make the clubs as sustainable as we can. We make funding available on return on investment, to drive value, growth and sustainability.
“We can then start to look at what further expansion we could organise, although it’s fair to say that expansion at the moment isn’t as big a priority as making our existing clubs sustainable.
“Expansion for the sake of expansion is risky if you don’t have a sustainable core.
“And of course growth outside of England is the responsibility of others, not just us.
“I’m very confident in the team running the World Cup. I want the clubs all to get behind the World Cup.
“We need to recognise that the World Cup should be a major event for everyone in our country.
“We are trying to give the coaching staff the best chance to win that tournament.
“The calendar is important; the other is giving international players the chance to test themselves at the highest level.
“I am confident that we are putting the right support at the RFL behind it.
“My ultimate aim is that at the end of my period in office the game will be thriving, sustainable, well supported commercially and it will be a force for good.
“I think we can be very confident about who we are and who we appeal to. We have some good people and good partners. We can be really confident that we can go on the front foot and make real progress in all aspects of the game.”