Stepping down: Ralph Rimmer on his time in rugby league

RALPH RIMMER departed his position as the Chief Executive of the Rugby Football League on New Year’s Eve.

Earlier this month, in an article in League Express, he wrote about his five-year term in the hot seat.


Happy New Year to the readers of League Express.

For the first time for several decades, I wish you that from the periphery of the sport.

It’s a strange feeling, as the various roles I’ve filled, whether with clubs or more recently at the RFL, have tended to involve a fair amount of crisis management through the Christmas period.

But after a truly momentous twelve months for Rugby League, I view the sport’s prospects for 2023 with huge optimism.


Underlying Passion

I’ve been aware throughout my five-year tenure as CEO of the RFL of the responsibility that goes with the role. Having been brought up in the sport, I have always understood its place and importance within so many communities. It generates passion, which is important, but means that you mess with it at your peril.

Having said that, I had no intention of trying to coast through my period in charge. It was an opportunity that I grasped with both hands – I was determined to make a difference to the sport that I love.

Straight away in 2018, when I moved up from my previous Chief Operating Officer role, I was confronted with how to deal with the “divorce” of Super League and the RFL.

I was never in favour, but I understood the level of internal frustration – something had to change to defuse the situation and protect the sport from itself. It was a complex disentanglement where sensitivities were running high on all sides. There were plenty of bumps and bruises involved, but eventually we steered through and created an acceptable working model.


Dealing with Covid

I remained unconvinced by the new structure – tensions, conflict and inefficiency were an inevitable by-product. Nevertheless, the game settled for a short while – before in the winter of 2019-20, the world was engulfed by the global pandemic.

From an RL perspective the threat was significant. Covid amplified the stresses on many of our clubs and communities. But it also proved that it’s much more than a cliché – in times of trouble, the Rugby League family pulls together.

The threat was existential and we had to rally. For me, as CEO, and not for the first or last time, that meant getting angry on behalf of this sport. My length of service with the RFL had allowed me to work hard, with colleagues, on our relationship with Government and Sport England. The value of those relationships was now seen – Government knew we were on the front line and it was persuaded to value our unique perspective.

It’s a matter of record that after an aggressive and relentless campaign, we blazed the trail for sport by securing the support we needed. We didn’t push it too far – this was loan support, and we did not want to expose our clubs excessively. I think subsequent events in other sports have shown the wisdom of our approach.


Working Together

The officials at DCMS and Sport England were outstanding. So was Rugby League – whether the RFL, Super League Europe, clubs, all forms of the community game, broadcasters or commercial partners. Crucially, given the events of the previous couple of years, everyone was working together, despite huge stress, on behalf of the sport. There were obvious lessons. And I do want to put on record the way Rugby League Cares contributed, virtually unnoticed, providing so much essential support.

It was a tough, draining, sometimes bruising, always relentless period – but it was a privilege to be a part of this chapter.

From the privileged leadership position, I knew we had to do more than weather the storm. Covid gave us a platform to drive change that Rugby League needed – to use all these stresses to reset the sport. The internal acceptance that we needed to realign created the opportunity to look externally to a strategic partner who could enable further change and growth.

We put some ideas to various organisations. The people at IMG were receptive. The possibilities are so exciting. When people look back on the events of 2020-21 and how they applied to Rugby League, I think the way that relationship was built will be viewed as both remarkable and significant.


Protecting the World Cup

Meanwhile, as Covid raged through 2020 and continued to disrupt the following year, we had a Rugby League World Cup to protect. It was way back in 2014 that the RFL had put together a ground-breaking bid, again using the sport’s unique strengths to secure unprecedented support from Government, with a focus on inclusivity. Jon Dutton built a team to prepare for three tournaments, and all worked tirelessly to allow them to go ahead as scheduled in 2021, as Government required. But the Australasian teams were not prepared to travel, creating mayhem for RLWC and also the RFL.

To bounce back from that devastating disappointment to the incredible spectacle of the autumn of 2022, was a truly remarkable achievement.

I was inspired by the Physical Disability RL World Cup – and England’s memorable win at the Halliwell Jones. I was deflated by the defeat for our England Men against Samoa at the Emirates, after so many highs and tries on the previous four Saturdays, including the royal occasion of the quarter-final against PNG.


Outstanding Women

Our England Women were also deflated by their semi-final defeat against the Kiwi Ferns in York, but what a ride they had given us. There was the Women of Steel documentary, the Tuesday afternoon opener against Brazil at Headingley in front of a record crowd. And we also capitalised on the opportunity of the World Cup to celebrate the progress of the Women’s game, with three inductees to the RL Hall of Fame, and four additions to our Roll of Honour. That became another focus of my last few months as CEO.

I should pause here also to note the support provided by Clare Balding specifically to Women’s Rugby League, but also to the World Cup more generally. It is another of the privileges of the CEO to use our RFL Presidency to advocate the sport. Like her predecessors Andy Burnham and Tony Adams, Clare has been outstanding – and I know her successor, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, will maintain that standard.

Clare and Sir Lindsay were both there that extraordinary night, at Manchester Central, where Wheelchair Rugby League hit a level that would previously have been the stuff of dreams. Again, the future opportunities are so exciting – and as with Women’s and Girls’ Rugby League, the impact in terms of new players, teams and clubs is already being seen.


International Potential

So now it’s on to France in 2025. That took a great deal of work, believe me. But it can be such an important piece of the jigsaw and has the potential to be an absolute game-changer for not just the French game, but the entire sport. There remain considerable international frustrations, and I would make a last plea to the powerbrokers in Australia, in particular, to see the bigger picture. But International Rugby League is lucky to have Troy Grant at the helm.

Less spectacular maybe, but in the last 18 months we’ve also launched Our League Active, building on the success of the Our League brand – as required by Sport England, who have been and remain such significant supporters for Rugby League, and therefore making Community Rugby League more sustainable. We’re more diverse and accessible than ever – the partnership with Community Integrated Care, and the development of the Learning Disability Super League, is yet another example of that.

Finally, in this maelstrom of activity, the RFL moved house! The relocation to our new home at the Etihad in Manchester from our previous twin sites in Salford and Leeds was actually very significant in the restructuring of the governance. For the RFL to be under the same roof as RL Commercial is crucial to those organisations working closely together.

I know it won’t be a universally popular point with supporters or even the media, but it’s taken an exceptional team effort to achieve all this. The RFL has an outstanding team of people who work ferociously on behalf of the sport and I am so grateful to my colleagues, on the staff and the Board. At club level also, do not underestimate the commitment, in terms of time and resource, whether from directors at the top or volunteers through the fabric – it’s never been more valuable than during these last few years.


Time To Go

In early 2022 I discussed with my RFL Chair Simon Johnson that if we could realign the sport, seal our deal with a strategic partner and remodel the organisations as intended, this would be the right time to stand down. I’d always thought five years was about the right time, to make an impact but not to overstay my welcome.

It’s five decades since I was bitten by the Rugby League bug – watching Barrow, and playing in the junior ranks of Ulverston ARLFC. The journey to the top of the RFL and the International Board has been an extraordinary privilege, which has been full of experiences and people that I will never forget.

I remain passionate about every tier of Rugby League and all those who contribute it to its success. It is truly a force for good and therefore worth fighting for with conviction at every opportunity. Wherever I go now, I will always continue to be angry on its behalf because the sport is absolutely in my blood.

I have never been short of critics of my abilities and actions.

I have always accepted that because ultimately the sport has to engender strong passions to motivate people to pay to watch and come through turnstiles. As I said, mess with it at your peril.

Thanks to League Express, and your readers, for your continued support of our special sport.