Exclusive: RFL boss Wood in league battle to unite game

Nigel Wood
Nigel Wood
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RFL chief executive Nigel Wood insists he is “at peace” with himself with how he has handled Super League’s civil war and remains confident the World Cup’s feelgood factor will carry through into a successful domestic season.

Wood has overseen the best World Cup in history with a record-breaking tournament, set to a backdrop of sold-out venues, huge broadcast audiences and brilliant football, expected to post profits of around £4m.

However, now he has to return to the simmering issue of Super League and help build bridges after officials from six of the 14 clubs controversially walked out of a meeting in October designed to discuss the competition’s proposed restructure.

The others had already indicated their support to the RFL’s proposals to reduce the number of Super League teams to 12 in 2015.

But the remainder, led by Wigan Warriors chairman Ian Lenagan, unexpectedly baulked arguing any debate on change should only take place alongside a review of the competition’s commercial management and governance, heaping pressure on Wood.

Everyone agreed to put hostilities on hold until after the World Cup but those important issues do now have to be addressed.

The Policy Review had recommended two divisions of 12 and the return of automatic promotion and relegation in place of the current licensing system.

But the hard-line stance of champions Wigan, Warrington Wolves, Catalan Dragons, Huddersfield Giants, Hull FC and Hull KR has left the sport in limbo.

It is thought Catalan have now relaxed and will align with the rest of Super League plus the Championship clubs who are in complete agreement for the proposal.

Wood, who has been in charge at headquarters since 2007, is confident of a resolution.

“The World Cup has proved a wonderful project to work on but the fundamental purpose of the RFL is to run the domestic competitions in this country,” he said.

“There are still some discussions going on with various sections of the sport but the principles in that Policy Review are sound in terms of producing what we hope will be a very healthy series of domestic competitions from 2015 onwards.

“There’s more work to do between now and Christmas and in the early part of the New Year but I’m hopeful we’ll find a way forward that everyone can support.

“It is important we do. No matter what position people hold on the various issues in play, no one should under-estimate the desire of all the principles to see the game flourish.

“There may be some disagreement about how that is best achieved but people are coming to the table trying to produce a better outcome for the sport. So long as that is sincere that’s fine.

“The Policy Review, which has been a catalyst for this discussion, has been a very faithful and sincere piece of work that is intended to be in the best interests of the wider game and deliver from the non-vested interest point of view.

“It’s an independent piece of work that says this is what we think the right structure for the sport is, the reasons why and what we think would happen to revenue if we undertook that.

“It’s a piece of work that is capable of being challenged and it’s right that it should be because the game has to be at peace with itself that the thought-process it’s gone through is legitimate.

“But I think we have had a terrific World Cup and we can have a really compelling 2014 and then an even better 2015. I think that is what will happen.”

Those disgruntled argued the restructure would weaken the financial position of Super League with more central funds going to Championship clubs.

Lenagan also said he did not feel the RFL had done enough to market the game and expressed concern that Super League had received no money from a title sponsor for the last two years.

That sounded like a vote of no confidence in the RFL’s chief executive but – with clubs mulling over a new sponsorship deal earlier this week – Wood has defended his own position.

“The leadership of the sport is not a popularity contest,” he said.

“I think what you have to be able to do is look yourself in the mirror and say are you making recommendations for the right reasons in the best interests of the wider sport and, if you are, then your conscience should be clear.

“And if you are treating people as the way you expect to be treated yourself then that’s the right value set. I’m at peace with all of those things both from a personal and corporate perspective.”

Wood continued: “Change by its very nature is uncomfortable for some people.

“The Executive was asked to consider the merits or otherwise of licensing as, to put this in context, licensing had been widely criticised for how it’d frustrate the meritocracy of clubs moving up and down the competition.

“This work wasn’t done casually or flippantly. It was done under a degree of significant consultation.

“It’s a legitimate attempt to galvanise our sport and make sense of issues such as talent production and the relationship between Super League and Championship because we all know that other efforts moving between the full-time and part-time game have been proved to be questionable.

“As for our commercial portfolio, it will be pretty good in 2014 and a considerable advancement on where it is in 2013,” added Wood, confident troubled London Broncos will also avoid administration to start next season.