Leeds Rhinos chief wants no complaints if players face three games a week

Gary Hetherington: Forthright views.Gary Hetherington: Forthright views.
Gary Hetherington: Forthright views. | Johnston Press Resell
LEEDS RHINOS chief executive Gary Hetherington hopes there will be no ‘whingeing’ about ‘misguided’ player-welfare issues when rugby league inevitably plays three games per week.

As the sport continues in its battle to map out plans amid the unprecedented coronavirus crisis, he also believes the next Super League champions could principally be underpinned by pure character rather than skill.

In essence, the toughest rather than the best side will prevail.

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Hetherington – one of rugby league’s longest-serving and most successful administrators – conceded the nearest comparison to the ongoing global pandemic is World War II.

TOUGH ASK: Leeds Rhinos' players could be playing three times a week when the Super League season eventually resumes.
 Picture: Bruce RollinsonTOUGH ASK: Leeds Rhinos' players could be playing three times a week when the Super League season eventually resumes.
 Picture: Bruce Rollinson
TOUGH ASK: Leeds Rhinos' players could be playing three times a week when the Super League season eventually resumes. Picture: Bruce Rollinson | JPIMedia

He said: “That’s when society was completely disrupted and the enemy brought mayhem to the country. Today, we’ve got a similar challenge; we don’t have air-raid shelters but our freedoms have been curtailed, players have stopped playing and businesses have been shut down.

“The income has dried up but our responsibilities to players and staff are still there. That’s the challenge, and I believe it’s rugby league’s biggest challenge.”

With the sport suspended indefinitely and facing its third week without games, chief executives and owners have been discussing together contingency plans for when they do resume.

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Play was halted just seven rounds into a 29-round Super League campaign – Catalans Dragons had only played four games – and, with a collective “determination” to complete the season come what may, midweek games are almost certainly going to occur at some point.

OUT OF ACTION: Emerald Headingley will not see any Super League action for some time due to the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: George Wood/Getty ImagesOUT OF ACTION: Emerald Headingley will not see any Super League action for some time due to the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: George Wood/Getty Images
OUT OF ACTION: Emerald Headingley will not see any Super League action for some time due to the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: George Wood/Getty Images | 2020 Getty Images

That brings into question player-welfare, but Hetherington – whose entire Rhinos squad are furloughed – contested: “The term player-welfare is often misguided and misunderstood.

“We have a rule where we can’t play five days after the last game, and that’s going to have to go out of the window as we will have to be playing three times a week.

“But that’s not a player-welfare issue. It will certainly impact on performance and the skill levels, but it demands real character, durability and resilience. I’d be disappointed if I started hearing people whingeing, using player-welfare as an issue for playing too many games, when it’s not.

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“Player-welfare is very serious but that’s not about playing more games than one would hope to play. I think that will have an impact on the competitions, because normally, the team who wins the Super League is the most talented.

“But I think the winners this year could well be the team that’s not the most talented, and instead the team that displays the best character, can-do attitude and will to win.”

Asked what he felt ‘player-welfare’ is, Hetherington replied: “Player-welfare is stress, anxiety and mental health... it’s a whole range of issues.

“But we’re talking about playing sport, and rugby league is a tough sport. If we turn the clock back, everyone used to play four times at Christmas. These are characteristics our players are proud to have; that they can play with adversity.

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“But that’s not player welfare. That’s a performance issue. Those are the sorts of qualities that will have to come to the fore and we’ll have to rely on.

“Let’s not be misguided and talk about player-welfare – it will sort out the tough and not-so-tough ones, that’s for sure.”

When the current lockdown is lifted, social distancing may still stop sports grounds opening their gates.

No club wants to play in empty stadiums due to the obvious financial hit but Hetherington concedes it may have to happen and one area that could be explored is the Coral Challenge Cup.

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This weekend was due to be the sixth round and, on the prospect of fan-free Cup ties when the sport restarts, he explained: “It doesn’t affect season-ticket holders or corporate membership typically and it’s less problematic.

“We are talking hypothetically, because there is so much uncertainty out there. But we’ve got eight sixth-round ties to be played and those all could be played behind closed doors and, if needs be, at one venue.

“It could deliver a match on a Thursday night, a Friday, three matches on a Saturday and three on a Sunday. They could all be made available for television.

“It could provide an opportunity for the game. We need to be mindful to search for opportunities. If we were to be a sport that provided live sport when no-one else is, well that’s an opportunity to showcase our game at its best.”

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Hetherington, who says it is “inevitable” the campaign will be extended and the July 18 Wembley Challenge Cup final date may not be “appropriate”, admitted the whole sport is uniting.

He expects Rhinos to lose £1.5m over the next three months but said: “The aim is the survival of all clubs and by working closely together with the GMB players union, we believe we can deliver an effective outcome.

“Amidst the gloom, there will be opportunities just like in the war. We need to show the traits that’s defined the character of rugby league over the last 125 years. We’re fortunate rugby league, more than any other sport, has a committed group of stakeholders.”

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