Man from Down Under has game in safe hands

Super League general manager Blake Solly.
Super League general manager Blake Solly.
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AT first glance, you would not think rugby league is utterly ingrained in Blake Solly.

He is a trained lawyer for starters and suited, bespectacled and often brought forward as the spokesman on yet another firefight for the governing body, it would be easy to believe he is far removed from what really matters: the action on the pitch.

But that vision of the Super League general manager could not be further from the truth. Just ask Trent Barrett.

With his business acumen, Solly may be integral to the machinations of rugby league in the UK, first in various roles at the RFL and now tasked with making the elite division as prosperous as possible.

But, unsurprisingly perhaps on hearing his Australian accent, the 37-year-old has known the sport all his life.

Indeed, Solly was an actual college team-mate of Barrett, the legendary former Kangaroos stand-off, who is rated as one of Super League’s finest all-time imports following his two-year stay with Wigan Warriors during 2007 and 2008.

Solly tells The Yorkshire Post: “I grew up in the Central Coast, about an hour-and-a-half north of Sydney and pretty much halfway between there and Newcastle.

“Erina, a seaside town, beautiful part of the world and absolute league stronghold.

“I didn’t realise there was another winter sport until I was 12. Everyone just played league from the age of five and that was probably as good a grounding in the sport as you could ever get.

“My family are all massive fans and I didn’t really have a choice about what my favourite sport was going to be.

“I played stand-off or loose-forward – five-eighth or lock! – and went to boarding school at St Greg’s of Campbelltown which, if the Central Coast was absolute rugby league, then this place magnified it all again.

“It’s the same school that Tim Sheens, Jason Taylor and Trent Barrett all went to. It certainly was a massive rugby league nursery so if you went there you had league, league, league. And then a bit of studies maybe.

“It was a great experience. I had two years there and was in the same year as Trent while Russell Richardson was the year above me and Peter Cusack so it was a good side and a great time.

“I was in the second team, though. Trent was the first team stand-off – a fair competition!

“He was fantastic, an amazing player even then and a great bloke as well. At boarding school you’re living and playing with these guys and he was great to be around and a great leader on and off field even at that age.

“But I was probably never going to make it as a professional player and that’s probably why I put my head down in the books as much as I did.

“I finished school, went to study law at uni’ and started working at a private practice in Sydney. I then got to that stage where you head on the path to being an associate or partner.

“I thought I probably had one last chance to go look around the world. I thought I’d do some work in the UK, play a bit of amateur rugby at Leeds Acckies and have 12 to 18 months over here as a working holiday before going back to Sydney.

“That’s 10 years ago now. I met my wife six months in. She’s from Hemsworth near Barnsley and this is home now.”

Solly initially worked as a solicitor in Leeds and explained: “My first contact with the RFL was coming up here (Red Hall) representing Catalan Dragons players when being charged on a variety of on-field offences.

“Greg Mounis and Remi Casty were my first two cases.”

An opportunity arose to work as the governing body’s compliance manager in 2009 and then, three years later, he became its director of standards and licensing.

During these tenures, he quickly established himself as a respected and accomplished administrator, highlighted by the fact Super League clubs voted unanimously in May to make him their full-time general manager.

How has he found the role so far given, of course, the powerbrokers of the 14 clubs were embroiled in “civil war” just last autumn over the competition’s controversial restructure plans for 2015, ambitious plans which are now firmly in place?

“There’s always going to be some unrest between them as, at the end of the day, they are competitors,” he said.

“Like any businesses competing there will be times when it boils over but the support from the club chairmen and chief executives in the four months doing the job has been quite humbling in a lot of ways.

“Hopefully, I’ve been able to show in that period of time I’ve been delivering some value for them as well.”

It is a major departure from his previous role which often saw him having to stick his head above the parapet and discuss negative issues such as the RFL’s handling of Bradford Bulls’ financial crisis.

Indeed, when asked about current question marks hanging over the RFL – Keighley Cougars are threatening legal action following the dual-registration farce they say cost them relegation while the Zak Hardaker affair left a sour taste – Solly’s answer speaks volumes.

“One of the attractions of this job is I don’t have a great deal to do with either of those issues,” he said.

“I’ve been at arm’s length and in a purely Super League point of view it’s exactly what the position was created for.

“Twelve months ago, there was a fear among Super League clubs that the RFL executive had to pay too much attention to those sorts of issues and there was no person within the RFL who was cocooned on Super League matters and, therefore, wasn’t having to worry about that.

“But certainly this shows it’s working. I can do what I’ve been asked to do: Grow crowds, make sure events look as good can be, and talk to sponsors.”

Solly believes there is “huge potential” for growth in rugby league here.

“It’s interesting. Over the last 12 months, I’ve spent at least two days per week in London talking to people with only a passing interest in league,” he said.

“And there’s nothing but good will towards the sport and a real interest in it among casual sports fans, people in London and outside the M62 corridor.

“What people find confusing is our ability to just keep talking to ourselves. It’s one of the things I’d like to help break down.

“Rather than just being almost a cottage industry on the M62 that is quite self-opinionated and focuses on itself, actually be more confident about what it’s got to offer and try to break down those barriers.

“Then, actually get people who feel at the moment it’s a sport that talks to itself, that it’s a sport that’s talking to them.”

His peer Barrett may have had superior skills on the field but, off it, rarely can anyone have defined the sport’s conundrum quite as well.

With Solly at the helm, Super League’s future is certainly in a safe pair of hands.