AS ROBERT Elstone begins his reign as Super League’s new chief executive, he admits watching Mal Reilly’s great Castleford side was an “inspiration” growing up – and he drove past their fierce rivals’ grounds to get to Wheldon Road.
The 54-year-old had his introductory meeting with the press earlier this week as he looks to grow Super League and make it bigger and better.
A lifelong Castleford fan, who sat on the Tigers board earlier in his life, he left his role as chief executive at Everton Football Club to take on what he regards as his “dream job”.
Elstone explained how he first became a supporter of Cas’ given he was actually born in Barnsley.
“My grandfather was from Altofts and then he moved to Royston,” he said. “My dad was born in Royston in 1935 and he took me (to watch Cas). I’ve got three kids and two lads have escaped but my daughter comes with me now. She had her first year at Cas last year so she’s been spoilt really.
“It’s a long-standing family tradition; I used to drive past Belle Vue and Post Office Road to get to Cas.
“Growing up in Barnsley I turned up for PE lessons in a black and amber striped shirt – the only kid who didn’t have a football shirt on – so I never played any rugby until I went to sixth-form college.
“Sixth-form college in Barnsley played a bit of rugby union and my first year was spent persuading the head of PE to convert to rugby league which he did in the second year. So I’ve always been an evangelist in that sense! In my impressionable teenage years, two teams inspired me; Malcolm Reilly’s Castleford team of the mid-late 70s and of course, the 1982 Kangaroos.
“I had the good fortune to be a student in Hull at the time and the Kangaroos were the reason, three months after qualifying as a Chartered Accountant, that I travelled to Sydney, put my career on hold, and went on a two-year tour of Australian Rugby League.
“On the way home, I cut short a round-the-world trip to get back to Cas for their game against the 1990 tourists.”
In my impressionable teenage years, two teams inspired me; Malcolm Reilly’s Castleford team of the mid-late 70s and of course, the 1982 Kangaroos.Robert Elstone
The headline ‘news’ was that Super 8s will be scrapped in 2019 for a new format that has yet to be decided but will probably include several “loop” fixtures.
However, the Rugby Football League made a statement yesterday which, while supporting Elstone, said discussions with Super League, Championship and League 1 clubs are still “ongoing”.
It added: “No binding decisions have been made across a range of issues, including competition structure, but progress is being made.”
Obviously, it is less than four years since the Super 8s were brought in amid much fanfare of a ‘bright new era’ for the sport but yet again the format is already set to be changed.
Elstone – who says a one-up, one-down method of promotion and relegation is likely to return – admitted rugby league has to get it right this time. “I look at the game I’ve watched for almost 50 years, and the change in competition format has been too frequent,” he said. “We look at the format as the panacea for the game and we have to realise the solution is within the clubs and the way in which we grow the game. The format is important – but simplicity and understanding of it is essential.”
Asked what his own views were when the Super 8s came into play, Elstone said: “I watched it as a Castleford fan and I can’t remember.
“Last year it was terrific (winning the League Leaders’ Shield) and I wasn’t too worried about the Qualifiers! The issue for me was an understanding of how they worked.
“As a fan from a semi-distance, it was like, ‘I need to work this out’ – so there was a bit of uncertainty that took a while to understand from a fan perspective. There is that point in which you go into the Super 8s and you’re not sure who you’re playing.
“Last year, in the first round of 8s Castleford drew St Helens at home and there were about 5,500 people there. I told my cousin to get down there early and get a ticket – but there was so much uncertainty about who was playing it was so difficult.
“What I hear loud and clear is that out of the 12 Super League clubs, six or seven are really worried about dropping into the Qualifiers and that level of jeopardy is just too great.
“From a fan perspective, buying into that second round of fixtures is difficult.”
St Helens owner Eamonn McManus said the game will “wither on the vine” if it does not improve every facet of Super League.
Sitting next to Elstone on Tuesday, he argued the result will be “terminal” if it does not catch up with the NRL and elite rugby union competitions around the world in terms of broadcast deals, sponsors and fan numbers. There is, then, a lot of pressure on Elstone’s shoulders as he takes on the role vacated by ex-Sport England and Lawn Tennis Association CEO Roger Draper in January.
“Of course there’s a lot of pressure,” he said.
“I know also that there isn’t a magic wand and whatever my abilities are, this isn’t turning the tap on and everything will be great. It’s a lot of hard work but everything I’ve done is about hard work.
“There isn’t a quick fix and an easy win. I always talk about how great the fanbase at Everton was and that was about building a one-to-one relationship with a fan, who you make proud of his club.
“It’s a long, patient process and each club has to do that. Broadcasters hate empty seats and if we’re going to get the best deal, we have to get bums on those seats.”