RFL Chief Executive Nigel Wood last week held a media conference to discuss the current state of Rugby League.
League Express was there, and here we present some of the key issues he discussed.
Where are you up to with Wayne Bennett’s proposal about having a training camp before the World Cup?
I think we’re in a good place. It’s fair to say that the clubs have always been extremely supportive of the needs of the national team. I have never heard a Chairman or owner ever say anything other than they want England to do well and they will do whatever it takes to make England do well. There is some detail to work on but I think we are in a very good place. We will be having a mid-year international next year, which is one of the things on the wish list. We have to decide what kind of opposition we will have and where it will take place. The other bits and pieces of how we keep England together in a World Cup year are all being worked on very positively and collectively.
Will it be played on the NRL representative weekend in May?
That is the most likely, although we are not there yet and I wouldn’t want to over-state it. A match will be played on or around that weekend, 7th May. I suspect it will be played either in England or Australia.
All our endeavours over the next twelve months are about getting the England team ready for the World Cup in 2017.
Was there any thought of shortening the 2017 season?
It’s difficult to cut across existing competitions. There are significant contracts with broadcasters in particular. It’s a big disturbance to change a well understood domestic competition. The clubs rely on a minimum of 14 or 15 home fixtures. There are bits and pieces that can be done on the margins, but not radical surgery.
Any thoughts about limiting the number of games a player can play during a season?
This issue needs a sensible discussion between the clubs and the RFL. But it would be wrong at this stage to say that there should be some kind of a random figure. It opens up the whole issue of who pays for the talent. In other sports like rugby union and cricket there is a different balance and international competition isn’t as developed in Rugby League as it is in other sports, and that means our relationship with the players is probably more remote than it is in other sports. So we need to work collaboratively with the clubs, which is why it’s so good that clubs are inherently supportive and understand the benefit the domestic game gets if we have a winning international side.
There has been some criticism of the disciplinary process. Does it need an overhaul?
Has there? I understand there have been one or two topical adjudications and it would be wrong if I said that we are not open to reviewing the situation at any time, because we are. Rugby League has always been positively regarded for its disciplinary and judiciary functions by other sports. But if there are improvements to be made, then we are all ears to that.
If you look at the three elements of that – the infield refereeing, the match review panel and the judiciary and disciplinary, we have made good progress on the number and qualify of referees coming through, and most fair observers would say that the match review and disciplinary panels have been refreshed over the last couple of years. We just need to ensure we have the right people and the right skill set.
The bigger challenge for us is how we communicate some of this. I think it’s a much better story than sometimes we give our selves credit for. That may sound complacent but it isn’t. These are independent High Court judges who sit with competent side members.
Have you noticed more criticism recently?
Yes, with a couple of high-profile cases recently. I would hate it if it were presented as a system in crisis, because it isn’t. But at the same time I shouldn’t suggest that we are not open to tweaks that can simplify it. At the end of the year we will review its operation and consult with stakeholders to find out what they think can improve the process further. But I don’t think it’s as broken as some people think. I just think we need to sharpen how we communicate it to show that it’s probably more sophisticated than a lot of people might think from seeing that he got three and he got one. It’s more sophisticated than that, and sometimes we just need to work on that ourselves.
Could we have media access to the high profile cases?
That has been discussed and it will be discussed again. If methods of communicating determinations and their underlying rationale can be made easier then we will, but we have to protect the integrity of the process and ensure it is not disturbed by external factors.
What is your view of the Super 8s concept?
I think it has started really strongly. I know the litmus test for everyone is whether someone gets promoted, and until someone does get promoted some people will continue to say it isn’t quite right. But the drama that it has delivered, and the chase in the Championship to get into the top four is compelling.
Many people thought that last season was the best season ever in terms of the closeness of finishes. We were blessed by having the League Leaders settled in overtime, effectively, and if you’d wanted to write it, you would have been writing a Hollywood script. The other thing we have to be mindful of is that there isn’t a league competition anywhere in the globe that can guarantee that you won’t have some matches of less significance than others. When the game made the decision to do this it with eyes wide open. We knew that we were facing opportunities and challenge to move between full-time and part-time. It has re-galvanised the top of the Championship. We have 16 full-time clubs, more than we have ever had, and more full-time athletes we have ever had. We have to ensure we don’t judge something by just one measure when it’s the totality we need to look at. So I am perfectly happy with it.
Can the Championship clubs go to the same salary cap as the Super League clubs?
There is one salary cap system for the league. So if you have an entrepreneurial owner who wants to invest in getting his club up through the divisions, he won’t have to worry about different regulations in different leagues.
Everyone is playing to the same rules. So it’s just as applicable to Newcastle, for example, or if London were able to do it. Where there is an owner who wants to have a go he can do what he wants as long as he conforms to the 50 per cent rule. There is little point in putting expansion franchises in if you say that you can’t spend on players. That would be a conflict of strategies. Going forward there will be one salary cap that is applicable across the top 40 clubs.
You can spend up to £1.85m or 50 per cent of your turnover, whichever is the lower, and that counts for everyone.
The Championship salary cap changed on the back of Leigh saying it was not appropriate to ask them to play against Super League teams. So we changed that for this season, but there is commonality across all divisions is for next season.
Do you want to see a Reserves competition?
The RFL leads by consent of the clubs. The position on reserves is that there is a dichotomy of views. Some people believe that reserves are essential and that there should be a competition. The other view is that the best way to develop those fringe players aged between 18 and 23 is to put them in the best standard of competition, which is the Championship or League 1. The coaches also have different views, and this is about putting the players at the centre of the decision.
The RFL says it will run a reserves competition, but it is an opt-in, not a direction. If you want to use dual-registration, which is just another variation of loans, which has been ever-present in the game for 100 years, then you can do it that way. But we haven’t yet reached a point where there is an enforcement. What we would actually be saying is that we are going to manage your business for you and spend your money for you. If we were going to compel you to run reserves, we are putting a bill onto your profit and loss account.
If I were one of those clubs I would then be asking for the money to do it.
I would prefer there was a unanimous decision on it.
Will there be a move on the quota with the introduction of Toronto?
No. There is no dispensation for Toronto. They will operate under the same rules as everyone else. The only peculiarity regarding Toronto is that home-grown players include those from Canada, USA and Jamaica. There is no dispensation to allow more Australian players to represent Toronto. They are clearly a unique proposition compared to every other club.
Why did the annual report show a doubling of spending on match officials from 2014 to 2015 from £700,000 to £1.4 million?
There is a little bit of reclassification. The actual inflation is only £200,000 not £700,000. We do have more full-time officials but we also have more fixtures. But the bulk of that is a reclassification of the 2014 numbers. The real comparison should be £1.4 million to £1.2 million. The other £500,000 is reclassified from referee development expenditure.
Is there any push to get more Championship matches broadcast?
The Championship rights are with Sky. They use them for the Summer Bash and once the Middle Eights have been determined I have no reason to believe there won’t be the same amount of coverage on Sky this year as there was last. Once the fixtures are devised Sky will look at the strength of the story, whoever the teams are. Those rights are combined with the Super League rights.
Are the League 1 rights included with Sky’s broadcast rights?
No. They could be acquired by another broadcaster. For example, the backers of Toronto have ideas of their own about magazine programmes promoting League 1.