Leeds Rhinos back plan to end Super League season in January

LEEDS RHINOS chief executive Gary Hetherington believes playing this year’s Betfred Super League Grand Final in January is a way to see clubs crucially maximise income from a “catastrophe” of a season.

Leeds Rhinos celebrate their 2017 Grand Final success. Picture: Getty Images.

Clubs have drawn up plans for the possible return of top-flight action by mid-August and hope matches can be played in front of limited crowds from October 1.

Three different models for fixtures have been put forward which include a Grand Final on November 28 (with 22 games each and a Challenge Cup final on October 25), December 12 (24 games/Challenge Cup final November 8) or January 16 (28 games/Challenge Cup final November 28) and they will be put to the Rugby Football League board of directors next week.

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A story from BBC Sport – who have seen the document – says the aim of each model is to restart the season on August 16 and play six rounds of matches behind closed doors, scheduling multiple games at a single venue over a day or a weekend.

Clearly, all proposals are subject to government approval and a commitment to all medical protocols. There have been no Super League games since March 15 and furloughed players and staff have also seen pay cuts as the harsh financial realities of the pandemic strike.

Hetherington has been a member of the fixtures working group, tasked with looking at the different possibilities for reshaping the campaign.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post last night, he said: “This is all very, very speculative and based on unknown facts.

“There’s a whole range of scenarios planning for all different types of eventualities.

Gary Hetherington.

“There could have been a dozen options, to be honest, and it’s all at a very, very early stage.

“We think the number one criteria for all clubs is to provide as much opportunity as possible to generate income from what has been a catastrophe of a season so far.

“Without income, it’s hard to see many clubs surviving this year and we all know next year will be equally if not more challenging.

“Personally, looking at them, I think if you do a financial analysis, Model Three would be worth millions of pounds to the collective Super League operation.

“Other clubs may well see other challenges in it and I’ve seen quotes from some that ‘we’ll just take our medicine this year’.

“But when you work out the numbers that’s pretty significant medicine. This is where you need your accountants to give an accurate cost analysis of each scenario.”

Some players’ contracts run out at the end of November but Hetherington insisted: “Personally, I see that as a non-issue.

“You are only talking about in total not more than 30 or 40 players who are out of contract and who presumably – apart from a couple who are probably going to Australia – they are all going to be joining another Super League club. I think clubs would agree on this. Model Three simply provides for the four play-off teams to extend beyond December.

“What that option would also provide is clubs being able to benefit from having a home fixture on Boxing Day or New Year’s Day.

“Clubs can recover league fixtures over the Christmas period but it would also allow clubs to maximise weekends in December and also minimise the number of midweek games.

“It takes it down from five to a maximum of four. To be playing midweek games throughout October and November is not great practice so that latter option would enable us to minimise the number of midweek games, elongate the season so it’d be less taxing on the players themselves and it would give all clubs the month of December to maximise their income.

“Otherwise, apart from the play-off clubs, everyone is finished by the end of November,” he added.

The Yorkshire Post understands there is not much appetite for Model Three throughout the Super League clubs.

Hetherington feels there are other positives to taking the business end of the season into the new year.

“You’d have a Grand Final in the second week of January when there’s no other major sporting events,” he added.

“In terms of profile for the game, that’s quite significant. The weather could be a bit iffy but it’s before the Six Nations and would give rugby league the spotlight and increase the certainty of playing in front of crowds.

“The alternative is a Grand Final literally 10 days before Christmas which, I think, becomes very challenging.”

The 2021 campaign is currently due to start on January 28 so would need to be pushed back to early March leaving little off-season.

But Hetherington countered: “We also need to recognise our players have just had the longest off-season in history; they had an off-season, were back playing for six weeks and have just had another huge, long off-season (in lockdown).

“Given we have no liabilities and obligations for 2021, we need to recover as much as possible from this year.”

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